In the US, politicians from both sides of the political divide have called for the White House to take a tougher approach on the South China Sea issue.

Four senators have introduced new legislation that would boost US maritime capacity in the region and increase support to its allies in the Asia-Pacific.

Senator Ben Cardin said China’s “provocative actions,” including “its aggressive island-building campaign,” threaten regional stability and the free-flow of commerce, freedom of navigation, and the peaceful resolution of disputes consistent with international law.

Senator Robert Menendez said the new legislation would signal the US will “no longer tolerate China’s efforts to militarize its foreign policy.”

“For too long as China continues its aggressive and expansive policies, the United States has played the role of observer, or perhaps protestor, but not yet actor,” said Menendez.

According to Foreign Policy, China’s tactics in recent years have included “coercion of other states, such as Vietnam and the Philippines, as well as the installation of advanced military hardware on disputed reefs and atolls hundreds of miles from the Chinese coast.”

China blocks US ship in HK, drafts new cooperation plan

A US carrier was denied a port visit in Hong Kong last week, prompting calls from Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz for the ship to go Taiwan instead.

Bloomberg reported on Friday that the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs had notified the US on Thursday of its decision to deny the USS John C. Stennis and its escort ships access into Hong Kong.

Cruz tweeted, “Proof that PRC isnt US partner. We should send carrier to Taiwan instead.”

USNI noted that American ships were also denied entry to Hong Kong in 2007 and 2014 after “political disagreements between Washington and Beijing.” It suggested that the latest issue was China’s response to US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s recent visit to the ship.

Meanwhile, China is drafting a new plan for international cooperation in the South China Sea, state-owned Xinhua reported late last week. The proposal, which would cover the next five years, will focus on partnerships between China and the “ASEAN and in East Asia” (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), said Xinhua, quoting sources within the China’s State Oceanic Administration (SOA). The news of the draft plan comes just days after China reached a consensus with ASEAN members Vietnam, Brunei, Cambodia and Laos agreeing that disputes over some islands, rocks and shoals in the South China Sea are not an issue between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The deal was seen by some as forcing a split between ASEAN members.

Tensions increase

Philippine’s Inquirer reported on April 23, in the disputed waters of the West Philippine Sea, the Chinese Coast Guard had increased its presence “by deploying five ships to patrol the Scarborough Shoal.”

On Saturday, Reuters reported China is providing military training and other support to fishing vessels operating in the South China Sea.

“The training and support includes exercises at sea and requests to fishermen to gather information on foreign vessels, provincial government officials, regional diplomats and fishing company executives said in recent interviews,” the agency reported.

On Sunday, Taiwan sent two Coast Guard ships to the tiny Okinotori Atol, after being ordered by President Ma Ying-jeou to look after Taiwanese fishing vessels. This followed Japan’s seizure of a Taiwanese fishing boat in the area last week – Japan claims the area as part of its exclusive economic zone.

The international community awaits a decision from the Permanent Court of Arbitration in Hague on territorial disputes in the South China Sea. The case, brought by the Philippines in 2013, relates to the dispute with China over the maritime jurisdiction in the West Philippine Sea. A decision is expected later this month, and China has already rejected the arbitration process.

Looking further ahead, one academic sees new military technology only inflaming tensions in the region.

Mark Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China. In a recent comment in the South China Morning Post, he suggests that the deployment of underwater drones will further complicate the US-China relationship in the area.

“Amid tightening tensions in the South China Sea, this technological ‘threat’ raises controversial legal and political questions surrounding their use. Indeed, the proliferation of drones and their roles create conflicts with the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea,” writes Valencia.

Foreign Policy
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