Last week, four U.S. Senators sent a letter to the U.S. secretaries of defense and state highlighting China’s alleged “aggressive” behavior in pushing its sovereignty claims in the South China Sea. The senators also bemoaned the lack of a comprehensive U.S. strategy for the maritime commons of the Indo-Pacific region.
The letter, written by the chairmen and ranking members of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees, John McCain, Bob Corker, Bob Menendez, and Jack Reed, emphatically tries to refute Chinese claims that Beijing’s reclamation program in the South China Sea “does not target or affect anyone.”
“We disagree”, the letter tersely notes, pointing out that the People’s Republic “at a minimum” violates the 2002 joint Sino-ASEAN “Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea,” which stipulates that the signing parties should “exercise self-constraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes.”
“China’s land-reclamation and construction activities on multiple islands across the Spratly chain, and the potential command and control, surveillance, and military capabilities it could bring to bear from these new land features, are a direct challenge not only to the interests of the United States and the region, but to the entire international community,” the letter notes.
“It is our understanding that the majority of this work has been completed in the past twelve months alone, and if current build-rates proceed, China could complete the extent of its planned reclamation in the coming year. Gaven Reef has 114,000 square meters of new land since March 2014. Johnson Reef, which was previously a submerged feature, now stands as a 100,000 square meter ‘island.’ Construction and reclamation has increased Fiery Cross in size more than 11-fold since August of last year.”
This assertion is underpinned by a study conducted by Mira Rapp-Hooper, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center of Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Rapp-Hooper states that other claimant countries such as Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam have also expanded their presence on various islands across the Spratly chain.
However, the difference, she notes, is “that Beijing has been dramatically changing the size and structure of physical land features, while other claimants have built upon or modified existing land masses.”
This also appears to be the conclusion of the four senators:
“Reclamation by any state to enhance their sovereignty rights in the South China Sea complicates these disputes and runs contrary to calls from the United States and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for parties to exercise self-restraint. However, while other states have built on existing land masses, China is changing the size, structure and physical attributes of land features themselves. This is a qualitative change that appears designed to alter the status quo in the South China Sea.”
As a consequence the letter calls for a bolder and more proactive U.S. foreign policy in the region and a sterner response to China’s status-quo altering behavior in the South China Sea.
“(…) China’s deliberate effort to employ non-military methods of coercion to alter the status quo, both in the South China Sea and East China Sea, demands a comprehensive response from the United States and our partners… we believe that a formal policy and clearly articulated strategy to address these forms of Chinese coercion are essential. That is why the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015 includes a requirement for a report on maritime security strategy with an emphasis on the South China Sea and East China Sea.”
In response, Chinese state media called the Unites States “the Kibitzer on South China Sea.” The Xinhua piece argued that “the urge for presumptuous commenting escalated to a call for naked intervention (…) in a letter to State Secretary John Kerry and Defense Secretary Ash Carter, wrongfully pointed an accusing finger at China and clamored for a U.S. strategy to stop what is actually China’s legitimate activity in South China Sea.” The piece continued, “Such outside kibitzing, not to mention outright meddling, is way out of line for a party that has publicly committed itself not to taking sides on the South China Sea disputes, which are between China and some Southeast Asian nations.”
Meanwhile, according to media reports, Indonesian President Joko Widodo argued over the weekend that China’s extensive claims in the South China Sea have “no legal foundation in international law.”