Senators from both sides of the aisle wrote to President Donald Trump on Wednesday urging him to take a tougher line with Beijing in the South China Sea, calling for more U.S. naval patrols to uphold navigation rights in the disputed waterway.
The appeal, backed by three Republicans and four Democrats, reflects growing concern in Congress that the Trump administration could be ceding strategic ground to China as it seeks assistance from Beijing to pressure North Korea over its nuclear weapons program.
The letter obtained by Foreign Policy expresses concern that the United States had not carried out patrols upholding “freedom of navigation” in the strategic South China Sea since October 2016. Last year, Pentagon officials privately complained that the Obama administration limited its ability to patrol the disputed waters; Secretary of State Rex Tillerson initially promised a much tougher line against Chinese antics in the South China Sea, but none has yet materialized.
“We therefore urge your administration to take necessary steps to routinely exercise freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, which is critical to U.S. national security interests and to peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region,” the letter said.
The administration has so far rebuffed requests from U.S. Pacific Command to conduct freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, congressional staffers and Pentagon officials say, despite earlier vows by Trump and his aides to assert American interests against China.
The U.S. Navy routinely sails through international waters to assert the principle of freedom of navigation, even pushing back against excessive claims by allies, if needed. But the patrols have taken on added political weight in the contested South China Sea, where tensions are running high because of Beijing’s vast island-building campaign and its expansionist territorial claims.
Given mixed signals from an often erratic White House, the lawmakers wanted to send a message that there was a “bipartisan center of gravity” on the issue, a Democratic congressional aide told FP.
The senators were trying “to provide ballast for the administration as it engages in the region,” the aide said, adding: “We thought it was important to weigh in and also to try to help shake things loose in the administration on this.”
The letter cites a series of “aggressive” and “troubling” actions by China in the waterway, including building artificial islands on disputed reefs, ramming commercial fishing boats, and issuing warnings to aircraft and ships in international airspace and waters.
“All of these measures raise serious questions about China’s commitment to regional security, the free flow of commerce, and freedom of navigation and overflight,” it said.
In an elaborate dredging operation, China has built up a network of artificial islands on disputed reefs and atolls in recent years, constructing runways and deep harbors that can accommodate military aircraft, naval warships and missile launchers.
Commercial satellite images published this week showed China is likely preparing new land-based missile sites at a naval base at the tip of Hainan Island in the South China Sea. The Chinese military reportedly has deployed multiple anti-ship missile launchers on the western side of the base, and the satellite photos indicated it was making preparations for missile sites on the eastern side of the base. The work at the forward base would help China project its military power at a much greater distance into the western Pacific.
The letter was signed by Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL); Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.); Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.), the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee; Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.); Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.); and Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii).
A bipartisan group of senators sent a similar letter to the previous administration last year, urging — unsuccessfully — then-President Barack Obama to expand naval patrols in the South China Sea. But Obama’s deputies were reluctant to jeopardize cooperation with China on climate change and other issues.
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