McCain Rebukes ‘Bully’ Beijing for ‘Militarizing’ South China Sea

Leading senator urges administration to boost military to defend Pacific allies

John McCain
John McCain / AP

Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) condemned China’s "militarization" of the South China Sea Friday afternoon, characterizing Beijing as a "bully" that has used its power to disrupt the international order in the Asia-Pacific.

McCain, a U.S. Navy veteran and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Beijing is "choosing to use its growing power and position to disrupt" the rules-based international order and is pursuing a policy of "intimidation and coercion" to silence its neighbors.

Delivering remarks on U.S. policy in the Asia-Pacific region at the Heritage Foundation, McCain accused Beijing of weaponizing trade and using cyber capabilities to attack its adversaries and denounced China for conducting armed incursions around the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea as well as for its island-building campaign in the South China Sea.

"In the South China Sea, China has shattered the commitments that it made to its neighbors in the 2002 declaration of conduct as well as more recent commitments to the U.S. government by conducting reclamation on disputed features and militarizing the South China Sea at a startling and destabilizing rate," McCain stated.

The high-ranking lawmaker also said China’s aggressive behavior has "dramatically accelerated" under the current leadership of President Xi Jinping.

McCain made his comments as President Obama returned from a multi-day trip to Asia, the last one of his presidency, during which strained relations between the United States and China were on display. Obama participated in the G-20 Summit in Hangzhou, China, at the start of the week and later appeared at the U.S.-ASEAN and East Asia summit in Laos.

The White House has characterized the trip as a success, emphasizing the president’s efforts to combat climate change. Ahead of the G-20 Summit, Obama and Xi formally adopted the stipulations of the climate accord brokered in Paris last year.

But the trip also exposed tensions between the United States and China, particularly with regard to Beijing’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea.

China has soured relations with other Asian-Pacific nations with its territorial claims over virtually the entire South China Sea and accompanying island-building campaign. Beijing has refused to accept the July ruling of an international tribunal that found China’s claims there to have no legal or historical basis.

"China operated as a bully," McCain said, referring to Beijing’s refusal to accept the international court’s ruling. "It commanded the silence of regional and global states and it threatened consequences to those that supported the international ruling. That ruling was decisive."

McCain later said that China’s behavior, including its rejection of the tribunal’s ruling, is "scaring the hell" out of other regional nations.

The Obama administration has sought to dissuade China from pursuing an aggressive course in the South China Sea largely through diplomatic means. However, China has continued construction on artificial islands, building airstrips and deploying fighter jets and missiles to some disputed territories.

Beijing’s behavior has also continued despite warnings from the Pentagon against pursuing "militarization" in the region. The U.S. Navy has sailed naval craft close to artificial islands in the South China Sea in limited exercises of freedom of navigation there, drawing rebukes from Chinese officials.

Obama underlined his commitment to solving disputes in the South China Sea peacefully and diplomatically during his trip to Asia.

"We will continue to work to ensure that disputes are resolved peacefully, including in the South China Sea," Obama said at a meeting with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on Thursday, after regional leaders sidestepped mentions of the July ruling by a tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, Netherlands. Obama said the ruling "helped to clarify maritime rights in the region."

McCain said on Friday that the United States needs to "maintain a favorable military balance in the Asia-Pacific" in order to secure its national interests and protect allies.

"This begins with an effort to continue to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows," McCain said. "More broadly, the U.S. must invest in robust naval, air, and ground presence to provide a forward defense in the Western Pacific."

Obama’s trip this week was marred by a series of controversies, including a bungled arrival in Hangzhou that saw the president disembarking Air Force One from a back exit as White House officials clashed with their Chinese counterparts over the handling of media.

A significant number of Chinese vessels were also spotted near the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea during the G-20, leading the Philippines to demand an explanation for the increased naval presence.

McCain he worries Beijing "is intent on seizing and reclaiming the Scarborough Shoal as the third military position in the South China Sea triangle of influence," referring to China’s previous reclamation of features on the Spratly and Paracel Islands.

"Such an outcome would present a serious threat to our treaty allies, the Philippines," McCain said. "This administration and the next must make preventing the seizure of the Scarborough Shoal a central objective of its own strategy to defend freedom of the seas."

Obama has been criticized by Republicans for his "pivot to Asia," which critics have said has not been backed up by sufficient resources and resolve. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R., Wisc.) said on Friday that the most recent nuclear test by North Korea resulted from the Obama administration’s "failed policy of strategic patience and its hollow pivot to Asia." North Korea claimed to have successfully tested a nuclear warhead on Friday, which would constitute Pyongyang’s fifth and most powerful nuclear test.

"This destabilizing activity is also a consequence of the administration’s failed policy of strategic patience and its hollow pivot to Asia," Ryan said of the nuclear test in a statement. "The president should immediately make full use of the sanctions authorities Congress gave him earlier this year, and he should join me in urging China, as Pyongyang’s chief sponsor, to fully enforce the international sanctions on the Kim regime."