U.S. Says Most of China’s Claims in South China Sea Are Illegal

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“Will it also sanction companies that do business with China in what are now, in the U.S.’s eyes, illegally occupied waters?” said Julian G. Ku, a professor of constitutional and international law at Hofstra University. “I think it probably should, but it hasn’t done so yet.”

In June, Kelly Craft, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, sent a letter to the U.N. secretary general that laid out Washington’s position on China’s “excessive maritime claims.” That was a precursor to Mr. Pompeo’s announcement, and it built on a legal opinion that the State Department had reached at the end of the Obama administration, after the ruling in The Hague.

“The State Department, I think, was just looking for ways that we can more forcefully act and speak out in support of the smaller claimants who are getting bullied by China,” said Bonnie S. Glaser, a senior director for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “And I think that comes across loud and clear in the statements. It’s all about supporting the actions of countries to fish and explore energy in maritime spaces that China has claimed.”

Daniel Russel, the assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific in the second Obama term, said that the Obama administration had accepted the tribunal’s 2016 ruling as “final and binding,” and that Mr. Pompeo’s statement was more “chest-pounding and angry invective about China” than a change in policy.

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