The administration of Barack Obama has significantly sharpened its rhetoric about China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea in the last week amid growing pressure from allies in the region for the US to take a firmer line.
In public statements in recent days, senior US officials placed the blame for tensions in the region solely on China and warned that the US could move more forces to the western Pacific if Beijing were to declare a new air defence zone in the South China Sea.
Although Mr Obama is due to visit the region in April, several Asia governments have complained privately that the administration has become distracted in the Middle East and has left the way open for China to pursue its claims with greater confidence.
“They [the administration] are definitely trying to turn up the volume about China,” said Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “This is as close as the Obama administration has come to saying that the nine-dash line is illegal. It is quite significant because they previously danced around the issue.” The nine-dash line is a map produced by China that appears to claim that the bulk of the South China Sea is under Chinese control.
China is involved in a series of tense territorial disputes in the East China Sea with Japan and in the South China Sea with Vietnam and the Philippines. The US, along with several governments in the region, believes that China is pushing these claims as part of a broader strategy to exert greater control over large areas of the western Pacific.
“There are growing concerns that this pattern of behaviour in the South China Sea reflects incremental efforts by China to assert control over the area,” Danny Russel, assistant secretary of state for East Asia, said last week. China had “created uncertainty, insecurity and instability in the region”. Mr Russel urged China to “clarify or adjust its nine-dash line claim to bring it in accordance with the international law of the sea”.
Separately, Evan Medeiros, the Asia director at the White House national security council, warned China against declaring an air defence identification zone for the South China Sea, following its announcement in December of new rules for East China Sea airspace.
“We have been very clear with the Chinese that we would see that [the establishment of a new air zone] as a provocative and destabilising development that would result in changes in our presence and military posture in the region.”
Speaking at a congressional hearing, Mr Russel made a series of statements that represent a hardening of the US position over the various territorial disputes. While the US claims to be neutral on the territorial disputes, he said China was responsible for increased tension in the region.
Mr Russel said any claims to the seas must be based on genuine land features, rather than just rocks that can be covered at high tide. Under the UN convention on the law of the sea, a country can claim a 200km economic zone around islands.
One of the difficulties for the Obama administration is that while it bases some of its arguments on the UN convention on the law of the sea, the US Senate has refused to ratify the same treaty.
“他们（指奥巴马政府）肯定在试图调高有关中国的音量，”华盛顿国际战略研究中心(Center for Strategic and International Studies)中国问题专家葛莱仪(Bonnie Glaser)表示。“这是奥巴马政府在尽可能明确地说，‘九段线’是非法的。这个表态意义重大，因为以往他们在这个问题上闪烁其词。”中国出版的地图上的“九段线”似乎把南中国海大部分区域划入了中国版图。
罗素表示，对海上领土的任何主权主张，都必须建立在真正陆地的基础上，而不包括在涨潮时可能被覆盖的岛礁。根据《联合国海洋法公约》(UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, UNCLOS)，一个国家可以在海岛周围主张200海里的专属经济区。