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Pompeo Calls China Out Over South China Sea Claims


Now the story of an ongoing battle over the South China Sea and the oil and gas beneath it. Last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo forcefully called out Beijing over what he called its campaign of bullying in the area. China claims most of this body of water, a claim Pompeo called completely unlawful. The secretary added the U.S. would stand by Southeast Asian nations that have competing claims with China. But as NPR's Michael Sullivan reports, those Southeast Asian nations might not be on board.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Has Secretary of State Mike Pompeo signaled a sea change in U.S. policy in the region?

GREGORY POLING: It's a big deal.

SULLIVAN: Gregory Poling directs the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

POLING: I mean, it's not the earth-shattering development that some have claimed. It's basically making explicit a position that I think most people assumed was already U.S. policy but previous government had never come out and said it.

SULLIVAN: But to regional actors, it means a little more.

POLING: It's a sigh of relief. It's a sigh of relief.

SULLIVAN: Shariman Lockman is a fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Malaysia.

SHARIMAN LOCKMAN: Before this announcement, you could make the argument that America was open to the possibility that China could claim a large amount of area in the South China Sea. This sort of like closes the possibility entirely. This says, no way.

SULLIVAN: But despite that lack of ambiguity, the response to Pompeo's announcement from Southeast Asian nations, ones with competing claims that China rejects, has been muted in public at least.

COLLIN KOH: Nobody wants to take sides.

SULLIVAN: Collin Koh is a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. Geography, he says, is one reason.

KOH: Malaysia, Indonesia, even Vietnam to a good extent - to them, the U.S. is not the resident power in Southeast Asia, but China is. So you have to live with China for good or bad anyway. So I think that is how we explain the ambivalence towards Pompeo's statement by and large from Southeast Asia.

SULLIVAN: And even if they wanted to pick a side, analysts say, there's the economic power China wields in Southeast Asia as well, especially given the economic damage caused by the coronavirus. Carl Thayer is a member test professor at the Australian Defence Forces Academy in Canberra.

CARL THAYER: All the economies are hurting. Who are their major trading partner? That's China. Some of them are involved in belt and road. Malaysia refinanced some of the earlier ones. And who would count on an American administration to pick up the pieces? Because America is not being that proactive

SULLIVAN: And, says Shariman Lockman, it's tough to convince Southeast Asian actors that the U.S. will stay for the long haul, especially given its history in the region and elsewhere.

LOCKMAN: America never stays, and a Vietnamese perfect example of that. Remember Saigon 1975? For all its Middle East adventures, it does not stay long enough to finish the job.

SULLIVAN: Gregory Poling says one way to convince Southeast Asian Nations the U.S. is serious is to make the South China Sea an issue at every international forum possible to keep it on the world's radar. Secretary Pompeo's tough talk was a start, he says, but it and freedom of navigation missions - or FONOPs, where the U.S. sails warships through international waters claimed by China - aren't enough to constitute a policy.

POLING: If it's not followed by a number of other steps, then it will just become a footnote in the history of the South China Sea disputes. We're going to have to see a whole lot more steps before we say that the U.S. has a real strategy for the South China Sea. I'm a big supporter of FONOPs, but if that's all we got, we might as well pack up and go home.

SULLIVAN: For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.