U.S. warship ‘sent away with a warning’ by China as Biden backs Trump policy on South China Sea

Foreign Affairs

The Biden administration marked the fifth anniversary of a landmark maritime dispute arbitration case by affirming the Trump administration’s policy to actively support the maritime claims of five Southeast Asian states over China.

The U.S. destroyer USS Benfold
The U.S. destroyer USS Benfold, which sailed near the Paracel Islands yesterday. Sarah Myers/U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTERS

Today is the fifth anniversary of the Philippines v. China international arbitral tribunal case, in which a panel of five judges unanimously agreed that nearly all of China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea are invalid. The arbitral award, however, had no enforcement mechanism, and China immediately dismissed the ruling as a “waste of paper” and has ignored it since.

The Biden administration marked the anniversary by affirming the Trump administration’s policy, announced last year by the State Department under Mike Pompeo, that shed any pretense of U.S. neutrality on particular disputes in the South China Sea in favor of active support for the Philippines and four other states’ claims.

  • “Nowhere is the rules-based maritime order under greater threat than in the South China Sea,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken wrote, echoing language used by his predecessor.
  • Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhào Lìjiān 赵立坚 today (in English, Chinese) called Blinken’s statement “extremely irresponsible,” and claimed, without elaborating, that the 2016 arbitration had “major fallacies in fact-finding and application of law.”

Chinese and Philippine maritime activity has been high in disputed waters near the Philippines in recent months:

The U.S. sent a warship past the Paracel Islands yesterday on what it described as a routine freedom of navigation operation (FONOP), leading to the strong objection of China.

  • Tián Jūnlǐ 田军里, a spokesperson for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Southern Theater Command, said (in Chinese) that China had “organized naval and air forces to track and monitor the incident and sent them away with a warning.”
  • “Sent away with a warning” (予以警告驱离 yǔyǐ jǐnggào qūlí) has an ambiguous meaning. The phrase was shortened in a translated headline by Reuters as “drove away,” and by the hawkish Chinese tabloid the Global Times as “expelled.”
  • In May, the U.S. Navy responded to a report of the more extreme translation of a Chinese statement with the same phrase about a Taiwan Strait incident, directly denying that its ship was “‘expelled’ from any nation’s territory.”
  • The latest incident was “routine as was the Chinese reaction — and not something that was causing concern in the Pentagon,” two officials told Reuters.

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