Panel: New U.S. South China Sea Report Designed to Push Back Against Beijing’s Expansive Claims

January 25, 2022 2:29 PM - Updated: January 25, 2022 3:21 PM
March 27, 2020 image of a Chinese Installation on Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea. Maxar Image

The State Department’s “Limits in the Seas” is the legal underpinning for Washington to debunk China’s extensive maritime claims in the South China Sea, department officials said.

Speaking Monday at an online briefing, Constance Arvis, State Department’s deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Oceans, Environment and Scientific Affairs, said, the report issued this month “can provide information our allies and partners can use” against an increasingly aggressive China and demonstrate that nations who are abiding by the rules of law will not accept Beijing’s bullying behavior and militarization of artificial islands as a fait accompli.

The study, which took two years to complete, “carefully and precisely” examined China claims and found they had “no basis in law.” The claims were inconsistent with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, she said.

Although the United States is not a signatory to the convention, Arvis said it abides by its provisions.

Jung Pak, deputy assistant secretary for Multilateral Affairs, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, added with $3 trillion worth of commerce passing through the South China Sea it is in the United States’ strategic interest to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific for trade.

“Countries have sailed in the South China Sea for centuries,” said Robert Harris, a State Department legal counsel involved in the project. “There’s nothing provocative about doing this.”

China’s use of its naval militia and coast guard to “harass and intimidate” other nations transiting or working those waters “gravely undermines the rule of law,” Pak said.

She added this report is an important update of a 2014 State Department report on Beijing’s maritime claims. Over the ensuing seven years, Pak described China’s activities as “more aggressive” toward other nations marked by its refusal to accept the findings of an international tribunal in a territorial dispute with the Philippines in 2016.

Harris said, “this was an independent analysis” of China’s maritime claims of much of the South China Sea. A key point in the report is China’s claims over reefs and other subsurface features. He added China’s claims over those “features that are not islands” are without basis in law, although Beijing has built up a number of these and has positioned forces on them.

He also noted the report rejected China’s claims of “historic rights” to the South China Sea, “straight baselines” of territorial control over “entire island groups” and using those baselines to extend its exclusive maritime zones.

In effect, China claims vast parts of the South China Sea as internal waters.

The report states:

“These claims gravely undermine the rule of law in the oceans and numerous universally-recognized provisions of international law reflected in the Convention. For this reason, the United States and numerous other States have rejected these claims in favor of the rules-based international maritime order within the South China Sea and worldwide.”

Pak said, Washington is “committed to freedom of navigation” and overflight in the South China Sea and is working with other nations to assure those practices continue without hindrance.
The report’s footnotes in the executive summary that it is not assessing the merits of China’s or any other nation’s sovereignty claims in the South China Sea but is limited to Beijing’s maritime claims.

John Grady

John Grady

John Grady, a former managing editor of Navy Times, retired as director of communications for the Association of the United States Army. His reporting on national defense and national security has appeared on Breaking Defense,,,, Government Executive and USNI News.

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