US sanctions bill puts pressure on China's 'bad' maritime behavior: analysts

By Thanh Tam   November 17, 2021 | 11:30 pm PT
A U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations sanction bill is expected to pressurize China into curbing "bad behaviors" in the region, analysts said.

The bipartisan South China Sea and East China Sea Sanctions Act (S.1657), passed by the committee last month, seeks to impose sanctions against "Chinese individuals and entities that participate in Beijing's attempts to aggressively assert its expansive maritime and territorial claims" over the two seas, according to, the website of Senator Marco Rubio.

"The bill represents a clear indication of America’s increasing concern with Chinese actions in the South China Sea and beyond," Charles R Hankla, an associate professor of political science at Georgia State University in Atlanta, the U.S., said.

"By targeting individuals and entities for sanctions, it is meant to apply pressure to those most specifically involved with China's assertive foreign policy, rather than trying to hit back on the Chinese regime more generally."

The bill was passed in the context of China unilaterally drawing a "nine-dash line" and illegally claiming sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea, known in Vietnam as the East Sea, despite the Permanent Court of Arbitration's ruling in 2016.

Beijing has illegally built seven illegal artificial islands in Vietnam's Truong Sa (Spratly) Islands and dramatically militarized them into outposts.

In August China passed a new maritime law that allows its coast guard to fire on foreign vessels, among other things.

It also requires foreign vessels to provide detailed information when entering "Chinese territorial waters."

Observers said that these moves have the potential to escalate tensions, even leading to conflict due to miscalculation.

"The United States needs additional tools to confront Beijing as it continues its effort to unlawfully assert control over maritime territory in the South and East China Seas," Rubio claimed.

Chinese vessels at Whitsun Reef, Spratly Islands, March 7, 2021. Photo by Reuters

Chinese vessels at Whitsun Reef, Spratly Islands, March 7, 2021. Photo by Reuters

Gregory B. Poling, director of the Southeast Asia Program and Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, described the coordinated international effort to publicize and impose a cost on China's "bad behavior" as a weapon for stopping Beijing's ambitions in the South China Sea.

AMTI last month published a satellite image taken in mid-October, showing at least 150 Chinese vessels returning to Vietnam's Union Banks atoll in the Spratly Islands, several months after dispersing to surrounding entities.

Since late 2017 some 300 vessels, believed to be part of China’s maritime militia, have gathered at a handful of locations in the Spratly Islands, including Union Banks atoll, according to Poling.

In March this year a large part of the Chinese fleet anchored in the Whitsun Reef of Union Banks atoll, but did not engage in any fishing activities despite good weather.

Poling said they simply dispersed after protests by Southeast Asian states, but never left the Spratly Islands.

"China intends to control all peacetime activity within the waters of the South China Sea in order to assert its illegal claims to sovereignty and history rights. The maritime militia is a major part of that peacetime coercion, what is often called 'grey zone' activity.

"If this situation continues, along with China's coast guard harassment of oil and gas activity, it will soon realize its goal of controlling all the waters in peacetime."

The U.S. is becoming increasingly wary of aggressive behaviors by China in the South China Sea. In 2020 it penalized 24 Chinese companies, citing their role in "helping the Chinese military construct artificial islands in the South China Sea, which was internationally condemned."

The list included a subsidiary of the China Communications Construction Company, telecom companies and a unit of the China Shipbuilding Group.

"The proposed legislation goes beyond the earlier sanctions against Chinese entities behind the building of Beijing's massive artificial island bases in the South China Sea," Lucio Blanco Pitlo III, a research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation in the Philippines, said.

The bill will move to the U.S. Senate and House for voting in the coming time. If the Congress passes it, the bill will be submitted to President Joe Biden to sign into law.

Many experts said the bill is likely to get bipartisan support since China has become a common concern in Washington.

"If there is anything that (mostly) unites American leaders in this fractious time in our politics, it is fear of the growing influence of China," Prof Hankla said.

"The fact that the sponsors of this bill come from both parties is an indicator that it stands a good chance of passage by Congress in some form."

Pitlo III also expected the bill to be approved by Congress because it would enhance Washington's appeal to its Northeast and Southeast Asian allies and partners.

Indeed, the U.S. can project its role as a keeper of established maritime rules of the road increasingly challenged by a rising China, he said.

"Given the increasing importance attached by the U.S. to the Indo-Pacific and to its great power competition with China, the bill may likely get bipartisan support."

Chine vessels were seen at Whitsun Reef, Spratly Islands, October 17, 2021. Photo by CSIS/AMTI

Chine vessels seen at Whitsun Reef, Spratly Islands, October 17, 2021. Photo by CSIS/AMTI

Aristyo Rizka Darmawan, a lecturer and senior researcher at the Center for Sustainable Ocean Policy at the Faculty of Law, University of Indonesia, said the bill could increase pressure, forcing China to behave in the South China Sea without a huge risk of military confrontation in the disputed area.

But he had his reservations about the bill.

"It carries a risk of retaliation from China, which will of course create more intense rivalry between the U.S. and China."

The U.S. - China relationship has become tense over many issues in recent years like trade, Hong Kong security law, Taiwan, Covid-19, and the South China Sea, he said.

"This might be seen as a good short-term strategy. However, if one sees a broader South China Sea policy, this will not be a sustained and effective policy."

Darmawan said an internal mechanism is a more important and long-term solution to assure peace and security in the area.

"And one of the logical steps to [achieve] that is through the ongoing Code of Conduct, which is hoped to force China to comply voluntarily with the rules of international law."

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