US senators slam China for South China Sea 'coercion'

By Minh Nga   August 1, 2019 | 08:23 pm PT
US senators slam China for South China Sea 'coercion'
A Chinese navy formation, including the aircraft carrier Liaonin, takes part in military drills in the South China Sea on January, 2017. Photo by AFP/Stringer.
The U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations has called out China’s "unlawful activities" in the South China Sea.

It was the epithet it used while releasing a joint statement made on Thursday by Senators Jim Risch, Bob Menendez, chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Cory Gardner, and Edward Markey, chairman and ranking member of the subcommittee on East Asia and the Pacific, which labels China’s actions "coercion."

The statement quotes Risch as saying, "Surveying operations by a state-owned Chinese vessel inside Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone and the deployments of China’s Coast Guard ships are only the latest evidence of China’s willingness to use coercion to assert unlawful claims in the South China Sea."

Identifying specific ways to push back China’s aggressive activities in the sea -- known in Vietnam as the East Sea -- should be treated as a priority at the U.S.’s meetings with ASEAN in Thailand this week, he said.

He was referring to the 52nd ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, Post Ministerial Conferences and Related Meetings from July 29 to August 3, which is being attended by representatives of more than 30 countries, including U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

"And in addition to U.S. leadership, it is crucial that our partners in the region, particularly ASEAN countries, stand together and stand firm against China’s coercion.

"Without a stronger rebuke of its behavior, China will continue to act with impunity in the South China Sea."

Since early July Chinese oil survey ship Haiyang Dizhi 8 and its escorts have operated in the southern area of Vietnam’s waters near the Vanguard Bank.

Vietnam's Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh denounced Chinese activities near Vanguard Bank at the ASEAN meeting on Wednesday.

On the sidelines of the event on Thursday he told his Chinese counterpart that Vietnam and China need to maintain peace, stability and control conflicts well.

The U.S.'s Pompeo on Thursday also criticized China for its "coercion" of Southeast Asian neighbors in disputes over the waters, while urging regional allies to also speak out against such actions from China.

Menendez said in the Senate Committee's statement: "It is critical that China be held to account for its behavior in the South China Sea."

Gardner said China’s militarization of the South China Sea and hostile actions toward other claimant states are "illegal, destabilizing, and contrary to international law."

"I expect that Secretary Pompeo will use this opportunity to emphasize that the U.S. will always stand by our ASEAN partners, and also call for a coordinated policy response to Beijing’s belligerence with our allies in the region."

Markey said China’s actions in the South China Sea, one of the most important bodies of water on the planet, "are deeply troubling."

"I strongly support diplomatic efforts to maintain peace there, and support our Southeast Asian allies and partners in their efforts, including at this week’s ASEAN Regional Forum.

"The Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration made it clear years ago that China’s artificial island building violated international law, and all must respect freedom of navigation.

"The U.S should ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), but until we do, we will act in accordance with it, and expect all other countries to do so as well."

The U.S. has been vocal about the recent issues in the South China Sea. Before the ASEAN meeting, Menendez, Markey and two other U.S. senators Patrick Leahy and Brian Schatz had sent a letter to Pompeo asking him to accord high priority to China’s maritime aggression in the South China Sea at the ASEAN Regional Forum to be held Friday in Bangkok.

In a joint communique issued on Wednesday ASEAN foreign ministers reaffirmed the need to avoid actions that may further complicate the situation in the South China Sea.

Experts have said China is trying to turn Vietnamese territory into a disputed area to advance its superpower plans, but the actions could erode bilateral and regional trust and affect domestic opinion.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea, including waters close to Taiwan and Southeast Asian countries Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

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