Senate Considering South China Sea Sanctions on China as Massive Trade War Rattles Relations

South China Sea China Sanctions Senate
This aerial photo taken on January 2, 2017 shows a Chinese navy formation, including the aircraft carrier Liaoning, during military drills in the South China Sea. STR/AFP/Getty Images

A bipartisan group of U.S. senators will reintroduce legislation Thursday that would allow the government to sanction Chinese individuals and groups involved in Beijing's activity in the South and East China Seas.

The South China Sea and East China Sea Sanctions Act—sponsored by Republican Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, and Democratic Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland—was designed to pressure China to cease its enforcement of territorial claims in the waters off the country's coast, The South China Morning Post reported.

If it is signed into law, the legislation would force the government to seize U.S.-based financial assets and revoke or deny U.S. visas of any individual involved in "actions or policies that threaten the peace, security or stability" in areas claimed by one or more members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

China's claims in the South China Sea—which the country has enforced by building a network of military bases on shoals and reefs—overlap with those of Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia, all members of ASEAN. The waters contain rich fishing grounds, vital shipping routes and potentially lucrative natural resources.

Beijing has dismissed its neighbors' claims. Its network of well-armed bases means that, according to the head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command Admiral Philip S. Davidson, China has control of the sea "in all scenarios short of war with the United States."

U.S. warships and aircraft have conducted many "freedom of navigation" and overflight operations in the disputed region, designed to keep pressure on Beijing and assert Washington's belief that the area constitutes international waters. China has called such operations inflammatory and a threat to regional peace, but the proposed legislation calls for such missions to be expanded.

Rubio told The South China Morning Post that the bill "strengthens efforts by the U.S. and our allies to counter Beijing's illegal and dangerous militarization of disputed territory that it has seized in the South China Sea.

"This legislation reiterates America's commitment to keeping the region free and open for all countries, and to holding the Chinese government accountable for bullying and coercing other nations in the region," he added.

The proposal would commit the American secretary of state to send a report to Congress every six months listing any Chinese people or companies helping to create the island bases used to enforce Beijing's claims.

The bill was first brought forward in 2017 but got stuck in the Foreign Relations Committee and never made it to a vote in the Senate. Current strained relations with China and two more years of Chinese militarization in the South China Sea, however, may give the proposal a shot in the arm. The chairmanship of the committee has also since passed to Senator James Risch, who has made oversight of China a key element of his tenure.

A spokesperson for Rubio said the senator was "very optimistic" about the legislation's chances, and that there would be little deviation in language from the 2017 bill.

Its passage would further undermine relations between Washington and Beijing. President Donald Trump's tough stance on China became one of the hallmarks of his presidency, and shows no sign of diminishing.

Last week, U.S. tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports took hold, increasing duties from 10 percent to 25 percent. Trump also ordered U.S.Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to begin the process of raising tariffs on essentially all remaining imports from China, valued at around $300 billion.

Simultaneously, an industrial dispute has broken out over Chinese tech giant Huawei. U.S. leaders are concerned that the company's prominence in 5G research could give Beijing a backdoor into future vital communications networks in western nations. Last week, Trump declared a national economic emergency over the issue and blacklisted Huawei, seeking to force all American firms to sever business ties with the company.