Experts in Asia studies and maritime law on Wednesday criticized the Obama administration’s approach to Chinese land reclamation on disputed features in the South China Sea and said more needs to be done militarily and diplomatically to deter Beijing.
The administration’s policy toward Beijing has failed to discourage the country from unlawfully asserting sovereignty over islands in the region and has in some ways allowed for China’s actions, experts said in testimony before the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces on Capitol Hill.
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Dr. James Kraska, an international law professor at the U.S. Naval War College, said during the hearing that the U.S. government has not called out China for its "unlawful" claims in the South China Sea, which has worked in China’s favor.
"We have to talk plainly about the issues," Kraska said. "It begins even with the nomenclature that we use for China’s claims, which in the U.S. government we call them ‘excessive’ claims. I would suggest that they’re not excessive claims, they’re unlawful claims. We ought to just speak plainly."
"We should get rid of these euphemisms, which I think raise doubt and ambiguity and play into China’s hands," Kraska added.
China has been dredging and building structures that can be used for military purposes on artificial islands in the South China Sea to enforce its territorial claims. China says that its so-called "nine-dash line" outlines its vast territory in the international waters of the South China Sea, but an international tribunal ruled on July 12 that Beijing’s claims have no legal or historical basis.
The decision was rejected by Beijing, despite the United States and other powers urging it to accept the ruling.
Bonnie Glaser, an Asia studies expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Wednesday that it is "essential" to stop further reclamation in the South China Sea but that the United States has thus far been unwilling to put itself on the line and "incur some risk" so that China will take America "more seriously."
Glaser went on to say that the Obama administration has prioritized cooperation with China on climate change and the Iran nuclear deal over admonishing Beijing for its actions in the South China Sea.
"Because the United States has prioritized cooperation with China on a vast number of issues, some of which are very important—climate change, the agreement with Iran to prevent Iran from going nuclear—there has been, I think, a belief in the administration that we can’t have those and then at the same time put pressure on China to stop taking destabilizing actions in the South China Sea," Glaser said.
"But I think we can do both and we have to be willing to very clearly tell the Chinese that their behavior is unacceptable."
While experts and lawmakers credited the administration with taking notice of the challenges in the South China Sea and bolstering military presence in the Indo-Asia-Pacific, they agreed that a stronger U.S. military presence is needed to thwart China’s island building campaign.
The U.S. Navy has conducted freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea, sailing warships under the rules of "innocent passage" within 12 nautical miles of features claimed by China. The exercises have been criticized by Beijing, though experts said Wednesday that the U.S. military needs to do more to deter Chinese provocations.
"I would not have selected innocent passage, which is the most restrictive navigational regime in the [U.N. Convention on the] Law of the Sea, in order to challenge unlawful claims," said Kraska, who explained that there are no lawful territorial seas around the features or artificial islands over which China claims sovereignty.
Kraska recommended the United States fly aircraft over features that Beijing has built up, such as the Mischief Reef, and conduct more freedom of navigation operations, some combined with other countries, including Japan. Tomomi Inada, Japan’s defense minister, said last week that the country wants to conduct joint training patrols with the U.S. Navy in the South China Sea.
Glaser encouraged more "regular" freedom of navigation exercises in the region. She said that China’s activities in the South China Sea suggest Beijing wants to exercise control over the waters and airspace in the region and lock out the U.S. military.
"Acquiring greater control over the South China Sea may well be a key step in a long-term Chinese strategy to constrain or even block the U.S. Navy’s access to the region and to maneuverability within the waters of the first island chain," Glaser said.
China says it has conducted reclamation on the Spratly and Paracel Islands for non-military purposes. However, satellite images show that China has constructed airstrips on the Fiery Cross, Subi, and Mischief Reefs in the Spratly Islands and is building reinforced hangars on the features that will be able to accommodate two dozen fighter jets and larger air craft, as well as other air support infrastructure.
China has landed civilian planes on all three airstrips and also landed a military jet on the Fiery Cross Reef in April, drawing protests from the U.S. government. Beijing has also deployed surface-to-air and anti-ship missiles as well as fighter jets to Woody Island in the Paracel chain.
There is also evidence that Beijing is preparing to dredge around the Scarborough Shoal over which the Philippines also claims sovereignty, which Glaser described as alarming.
"A military outpost on that feature would enable China to deploy radar aircraft or cruise missiles within range not only of Manila but also several Philippine bases to which the United States has recently gained access," she said.
Chinese ships have also increasingly made trouble in the region. Chinese maritime law enforcement ships were involved in more than 70 percent of major incidents in the South China Sea since 2010, according to analysis from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.
Chinese vessels have also made more incursions in waters around the disputed Senkaku Islands, which are claimed by Japan, in the East China Sea.
Dr. Andrew Erickson, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute, criticized U.S. officials during congressional testimony Wednesday for not publicly acknowledging China’s third "maritime militia" sea force operating in the South China Sea along with its Navy and Coast Guard ships. He called for a more comprehensive military strategy addressing the situation in the region.
The hearing took place two weeks following President Obama’s final trip to Asia, during which he participated in the G-20 and ASEAN summits and formally adopted the stipulations of the Paris climate deal alongside Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Some worried Wednesday that Beijing could take advantage of Obama’s final months in office—or the transition to the next administration—to redouble its efforts in the South China Sea.
"With the end of the Obama administration approaching, I believe we are entering a time of vulnerability and opportunity," Rep. Randy Forbes (R., Va.), who chairs the subcommittee, said during opening remarks.
"I am concerned that China’s president and the Chinese government may see President Obama’s last few months as a window of opportunity for establishing an air defense identification zone, expanding reclamation activities to Scarborough Shoal, accelerating the militarization of the artificial features or some move that will test our resolve," Forbes said.
"At the same time, I also see an opportunity for a new administration to take a new and stronger stance on the South China Sea and redouble our efforts to maintain peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region," the congressman added.