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South China Sea: Why is U.S. Policy Ambiguous? Carlyle A. Thayer

C3S Paper No. 0044/ 2015

We request your assessment why the U.S. position on the South China Sea remains somewhat ambiguous, especially concerning the Philippines? Why wouldn’t the US just come out and say flatly that it’s absurd to pretend that China’s territorial claims make any legal sense? Our first impression is that the Chinese know which side the U.S. favors anyway, additionally, the Philippines is a long-standing U.S. treaty ally. We are also confused on a related policy issue: what should the U.S., Philippines, Vietnam, et al. do about the Chinese construction activities? Like Putin’s being willing to use force in Georgia, Crimea, and eastern Ukraine — or Israel’s settlements in Palestine — it looks like the power that has the nerve to create facts on the ground, stands a good chance of prevailing in the long run. What is your assessment?

ANSWER: As for U.S. South China Sea policy – in addition to the boilerplate statement that the US takes no side and urges resolution of disputes through peaceful means in accord with international law including UNCLOS, etc. – the U.S., since Secretary of State Hilary Clinton was in office, has argued that claims must be based on land features. Last year the U.S. called for a freeze on activities that were destabilizing (Chinese land reclamation) and endorsed the right of countries to seek legal redress (the Philippines claim to the Arbitral Tribunal). The U.S. has also characterized Chinese actions as destabilizing. Last December, in an important development, the U.S. Department of State issued a study, Limits to the Sea, that was a direct refutation of China’s historic claims and its nine-dash line map. Chinese commentators have been quick to argue that the U.S. is not neutral and has taken the side of the Philippines. One consideration worth bearing in mind is that the 1951 U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty was drawn up before the Philippines began claiming and occupying islands in the South China Sea that are now subject to dispute. The Philippine marines on the beached ship BRP Sierra Madre, for example, were inserted in 1999.

(Article reprinted with the permission of the author Carlyle A. Thayer, Emeritus Professor,The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra email:

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