US told to ignore China claims in S. China Sea
WASHINGTON—Republican senators pressed the Pentagon on Thursday to flex US military muscle by sailing Navy ships within 22 kilometers of artificial islands Beijing is building to assert its territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, chair of the Senate armed services committee, said the United States needs to go within the 22-km limit to make it clear that the United States does not recognize China’s claim that the islands are its territory.
“This is a dangerous mistake that grants de facto recognition of China’s man-made sovereignty claims,” McCain said at a committee hearing held ahead of the Chinese president’s visit to the United States on Sept. 25.
While not violating international law, McCain said China sent its own naval vessels within 22 km of the Aleutian Islands as US President Barack Obama concluded his recent visit to Alaska.
The United States should assert its right of navigation “just as forcefully,” McCain said.
US ships haven’t sailed within the 22-km boundary since 2012, said David Shear, assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs.
Adm. Harry Harris Jr., commander of the US Pacific Command, said the United States also has not conducted a direct flyover of any of the lands and territories that China recently has reclaimed.
“I agree that the South China Sea is no more China’s than the Gulf of Mexico is Mexico’s,” Harris said.
Senators peppered Harris and Shear with questions about whether the Pentagon has asked the White House for permission to sail within 22 km of the manufactured islands and what the answer has been.
Asked for his military advice, Harris finally acknowledged that “I believe that we should be allowed to exercise freedom of navigation and maritime flight in the South China Sea against those islands.”
Harris said he was awaiting directions from his superiors.
Under further questioning, Shear refused to talk about the ongoing deliberations between the Pentagon and the White House, but he said that exercising freedom of navigation around the islands is just one option.
“Freedom of navigation alone won’t stop” the Chinese activities, he said.
China has reclaimed about 1,200 hectares in the South China Sea, triggering repeated objections from the United States and allies.
PH active opposition
Of the allies of the United States in the region, the Philippines is most active in its opposition to China’s land reclamation in the South China Sea, challenging Beijing’s claim over nearly all of the sea in a United Nations arbitration court in The Hague.
The Philippines has also denounced China’s reclamation of land around seven reefs in the West Philippine Sea, part of the South China Sea within Manila’s 370-km exclusive economic zone.
China’s activities in the area includes construction of an airstrip on Philippine-claimed Kagitingan Reef (Fiery Cross Reef), which can be used for landing military aircraft.
There have been reports based on latest satellite images that China is building airstrips on two other reefs in the area.
Besides the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan also have overlapping claims in the South China Sea.
Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska pointed to Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s public statement on Wednesday that the United States will not be deterred in ensuring freedom of navigation in the region.
“There should be no mistake: The United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, as US forces do all over the world,” Carter said. “After all, turning an underwater rock into an airfield simply does not afford the rights of sovereignty or permit restrictions on international air or maritime transit.”
Sullivan also said that he thought China was trying to provoke the United States when it moved five Chinese warships into the Bering Sea near Alaska at a time when Obama was visiting the state near the Arctic Circle.
“My opinion is that they went into the Bering Sea to demonstrate their capability to operate that far north,” Harris said.
“They were having an exercise with the Russians and I think the exercise was long-planned and then they decided to go into the Bering Sea. They were near there anyway and then they turned south and headed home. I think it was coincidental, but I don’t know that for a fact.”
Sullivan said he was convinced it was more of a provocation, saying “I’m not sure this administration would recognize provocation if it were slapped in the face.” AP
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