Those strong words were a culmination of months of deteriorating U.S.-China ties on everything from trade and the future of Hong Kong, to the Earth-shaking spread of the COVID-19 virus. But more significantly, it marked an important shift in decades of U.S. policy on the South China Sea.
Washington had always been careful to avoid entanglement in the region’s thorny territorial disputes, using ambiguity to keep other nations guessing about U.S. intentions. And even after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s headline-grabbing pronouncement, Washington remained agnostic about who owns what islet and rock and reef in the strategic waterway. But it also made clear that the U.S. and China were now on a more confrontational footing over an issue that many fear could spark conflict.