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Photo: Artyom Ivanov\TASS via Getty Images

The State Department announced Monday that it rejects most of China's territorial claims in the South China Sea, a first from the U.S. as the Trump administration toughens its approach toward Beijing.

Why it matters, via Axios' Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian: This is a significant, if symbolic, step toward a tougher U.S. approach to China's attempted annexation of the open seas.

  • The Obama administration was heavily criticized for its light-handed approach in the South China Sea as China openly disregarded the status quo and flouted international law.
  • But despite its tough rhetoric on China, the Trump administration had previously made little substantive change to the Obama-era strategy of occasional freedom-of-navigation operations there.

The big picture: In 2016, an international court in the Hague ruled that the bulk of China's claims in the South China Sea did not have a basis in international law. China has ignored that ruling.

  • The tribunal rejected China's argument that it enjoys historic rights over the South China Sea, according to the New York Times.
  • The U.S. is essentially adopting the court's position with its rejection of China's territorial claims.

Between the lines: The U.S. will remain neutral in territorial disputes, but the announcement effectively means the Trump administration will be siding with Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam — all of which oppose China's claims to areas surrounding contested islands, reefs and shoals, per AP.

The state of play: The State Department said China has "no lawful territorial or maritime claim to (or derived from) James Shoal, an entirely submerged feature only 50 nautical miles from Malaysia and some 1,000 nautical miles from China's coast."

  • The U.S. also said it rejects any of China's claims to waters beyond a 12 nautical mile territorial sea derived from islands China claims in the Spratly Islands.
  • The State Department also rejects China's claim to Mischief Reef or Second Thomas Shoal, asserting that both fall under the Philippines's sovereign rights and jurisdiction.

Yes, but: The U.S. isn't legally part of the UN Law of the Sea treaty, so it's not yet clear what the implications of this announcement will be, per AP.

What they're saying: "The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire. 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," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.

  • "We stand with the international community in defense 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.”

Context: China has been slowly expanding its power in the South China Sea while the world has been preoccupied with the coronavirus pandemic.

  • Beijing announced in April that it created two new municipal districts to administer disputed regions in the South China Sea that are also claimed by other countries in the region. Chinese ships also trailed a Malaysian vessel operating in waters near Malaysia.
  • Nearly $5 trillion worth of goods are shipped through the South China Sea annually.

Go deeper: Amid pandemic, China expands control over contested waters

Go deeper

Oct 20, 2020 - World

China embraces hostage diplomacy

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Chinese government is threatening to detain foreign citizens unless their home governments do what Beijing demands. In some cases, China has already made good on those threats.

The big picture: This marks a potential evolution of China's "wolf warrior diplomacy" to outright rogue state behavior, putting it in the company of countries like North Korea and Iran, which have also engaged in hostage diplomacy.

Oct 20, 2020 - World

Right-wing media falsely ties Black Lives Matter movement to Beijing

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Right-wing outlets and commentators have recently spread a false claim linking the Chinese Communist Party to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Why it matters: Such claims raise concerns that a real issue — that of Chinese government interference in U.S. politics — could be wrongly invoked along partisan lines to attack Americans engaging in legitimate activities.

Ben Geman, author of Generate
Oct 20, 2020 - Energy & Environment

Sizing up China's 2060 plan

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

China's vow to reach carbon neutrality by 2060 is starting to produce some helpful analyses of how the world's largest greenhouse gas emitter might actually get there.

Why it matters: The plan seems to be achievable, in theory, but the numbers around the needed expansion of carbon-free power, industrial fuels and vehicles are pretty wild.