A bipartisan group of United States senators wrote to U.S. President Donald J. Trump earlier this week asking for increased attention to China’s behavior in the South China Sea. The senators specifically asked the administration to make good on its promises to stand up for freedom of navigation and overflight in the region, where China and five other claimants wrangle over disputed rocks and islets.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL); Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO); Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI); Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA); and Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) all signed the letter.
The letter, which was obtained and first described by Foreign Policy, highlights the urgency of Chinese action in the South China Sea. Beijing has built seven artificial islands in the Spratly group and militarized its Paracel group holdings in the meantime.
Moreover, last year, an international tribunal ruled that China’s claims in the South China Sea under the ambit of its ambiguous nine-dash line claim were illegitimate under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The tribunal ruled in a case filed by the Philippines in 2013, shortly after a highly publicized standoff between Beijing and Manila over Scarborough Shoal.
The senators urged the Trump administration “to take necessary steps to routinely exercise freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, which is critical to U.S. national security interests and to peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region” in the letter.
The bipartisan letter comes in the aftermath of reports that the administration has actively rejected U.S. Pacific Command requests to carry out further freedom of navigation operation operations in the South China Sea. Specifically, the New York Times reported last week that a PACOM request to sail within 12 nautical miles of Scarborough Shoal was turned down by the administration.
Though Trump criticized Chinese actions in the South China Sea during the presidential transition, he has not made the issue a priority in U.S.-China relations since coming into office. At his first face-to-face meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in April, he emphasized bilateral cooperation on North Korea.
China has rejected a role for the United States in the South China Sea and, under the Obama administration, regularly accused Washington of militarizing the region through its patrols.