Move comes amid heightened tensions between two superpowers over trade, coronavirus pandemic, human rights, and Chinese policy in Hong Kong and Tibet

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday that the United States would treat Beijing’s pursuit of resources in the dispute-rife South China Sea to be illegal, ramping up pressure.

“We are making clear: Beijing’s claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful, as is its campaign of bullying to control them,” Pompeo said in a statement.

Officials say the administration will present the decision as an attempt to curb China’s increasing assertiveness in the region with a commitment to recognising international law. But it will almost certainly have the more immediate effect of further infuriating the Chinese, who are already retaliating against numerous US sanctions and other penalties on other matters.

The officials were not authorised to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The move also comes as US President Donald Trump has come under growing fire for his response to the Covid-19 pandemic, stepped up criticism of China ahead of the 2020 election and sought to paint his expected Democratic challenger, former vice-president Joe Biden, as weak on China.

Previously, US policy had been to insist that maritime disputes between China and its smaller neighbours be resolved peacefully through UN-backed arbitration.

But in its statement on Monday, the administration said the US now regards virtually all Chinese maritime claims outside its internationally recognised waters to be illegitimate. The shift does not involve disputes over land features that are above sea level, which are considered to be “territorial” in nature.

“The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire,” a draft of the statement says. “America stands with our Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources, consistent with their rights and obligations under international law.

“We stand with the international community in defence of freedom of the seas and respect for sovereignty and reject any push to impose ‘might makes right’ in the South China Sea or the wider region.”

Although the US will continue to remain neutral in territorial disputes, the announcement will mean the administration is in effect siding with Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, all of which oppose Chinese assertions of sovereignty over maritime areas surrounding contested islands, reefs and shoals.

“There are clear cases where [China] is claiming sovereignty over areas that no country can lawfully claim,” the State Department said in a fact sheet prepared to accompany the statement.

The announcement was made a day after the fourth anniversary of a binding decision by an arbitration panel in favour of the Philippines that rejected China’s maritime claims around the Spratly Islands and neighbouring reefs and shoals.

China has refused to recognise that decision, which it has dismissed as a “sham”, and refused to participate in the arbitration proceedings. It has continued to defy the decision with aggressive actions that have brought it into territorial spats with Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia in recent years.

However, as a result, the administration says China has no valid maritime claims to the fish- and potentially energy-rich Scarborough Reef, Mischief Reef or Second Thomas Shoal. The US has repeatedly said that areas regarded to be part of the Philippines are covered by a US-Philippines mutual defence treaty in the event of an attack on them.

In addition to reiterating support for that decision, the statement says China cannot legally claim the James Shoal near Malaysia, waters surrounding the Vanguard Bank off Vietnam, the Luconia Shoals near Brunei and Natuna Besar off Indonesia.

As such, it says the US will regard any Chinese harassment of fishing vessels or oil exploration in those areas as unlawful.

The announcement comes amid heightened tensions between the US and China over numerous issues, including the coronavirus pandemic, human rights, Chinese policy in Hong Kong and Tibet and trade, that have sent relations plummeting in recent months.

But the practical impact of the announcement is not immediately clear. The US is not a party of the UN Law of the Sea treaty that sets out a mechanism for the resolution of disputes. Despite that, the State Department noted that China and its neighbours, including the Philippines, are parties to the treaty and should respect the decision.

The United States has no claims to the waters but has deployed warships and aircraft for decades to patrol and promote freedom of navigation and overflight in the busy waterway.

Last week, China angrily complained about the US flexing its military muscle in the South China Sea by conducting joint exercises with two US aircraft carrier groups in the strategic waterway.

The Navy said the USS Nimitz and the USS Ronald Reagan, along with their accompanying vessels and aircraft, conducted exercises “designed to maximise air defence capabilities, and extend the reach of long-range precision maritime strikes from carrier-based aircraft in a rapidly evolving area of operations”.

China claims almost all of the South China Sea and routinely objects to any action by the US military in the region. Five other governments claim all or part of the sea, through which around US$5 trillion in goods are shipped every year.

China has sought to shore up its claim to the sea by building military bases on coral atolls, leading the US to sail warships through the region in what it calls freedom of operation missions.

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