US Congress Takes Hard-Line Stance on China's Maritime Disputes
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

US Congress Takes Hard-Line Stance on China's Maritime Disputes


On Tuesday, the United States House Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee and the House Foreign Affairs Asia and the Pacific Subcommittee held a hearing on China’s maritime disputes in the South and East China Sea. The hearing, according to a description posted on Rep. Randy Forbes’ website, was an “opportunity to assess how recent developments impact U.S. interests in the region.”

Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH), Chairman of the Asia and the Pacific Subcommittee, said in his opening statement that current tensions were a “result of unilateral actions taken by China to exert its control over disputed maritime territories.” Chabot said he was “disappointed” but “not terribly surprised” by China’s actions, which he believes are driven by a dangerous sort of nationalism. He argued that there is no greater threat to the region than “China’s efforts to coercively change and destabilize the regional status quo.” Chabot expressed his support for Japan’s decision to revamp its national security, and praised the efforts to rotate additional U.S. troops in the Philippines.

As quoted by an Associated Press article, Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA), Chairman of the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, insisted that the U.S. must be “100 percent intolerant of China’s territorial claims and its continued resort to forms of military coercion to alter the status quo in the region.”

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Bonnie Glaser, a senior advisor for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, made it clear that the stakes for both China and the U.S. are high. “How Beijing manages these disputes is widely seen as a litmus test of China’s broader strategic intentions. How the U.S. responds …  is increasingly viewed as the key measure of success of the U.S. rebalance to Asia,” she said in her statement. Glaser described China’s strategy as one of “salami-slicing,” whereby China takes small steps in an attempt to gradually gain control of the disputed territories.

Meanwhile, Jeff Smith, Director of South Asia Programs at the American Foreign Policy Council, noted that the maritime disputes are only one facet of the issue. Of more immediate concern to the U.S., he argued, is “the type of sovereignty China is claiming over its 200-nautical-miles Exclusive Economic Zone.” According to China’s interpretations, the U.S. would not be allowed to conduct surveillance operations within this zone, which run contrary to U.S. interpretations of the EEZ. Of all the disagreements between the U.S. and China, Smith said, “our disagreement in the realm of maritime security presents arguably the greatest potential for miscalculation, escalation, and conflict.”

Congress’ power to actually make U.S. foreign policy is limited. Partially because Congress does not actually act on its own recommendations, its foreign policy recommendations tend to be cut-and-dried. Still, though we should take congressional hearings on foreign policy issues with a grain of salt, it’s worth noting that (on this issue at least) the legislative branch isn’t that far removed from the executive branch. The U.S. State Department has also denounced China’s new fishing regulations as “provocative and dangerous” and its ADIZ as a “unilateral action [which] constitutes an attempt to change the status quo.”

A previous version of this article mistakenly listed Steve Chabot as a Representative from Oklahoma.

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