Senators Counter China Expansion In South and East China Seas With New Bill

The Senate Committee on Foreign Relations has approved new legislation that will counter China's expansive maritime claims in its surrounding waters by sanctioning Chinese officials and entities that contribute to island-building or threaten the stability of the South and East China seas.

China's ruling Communist Party openly contests the entirety of the South China Sea under the country's sweeping "nine-dash line." In August, Beijing described its sovereignty over every island and their adjacent waters as "indisputable," shortly after Vice President Kamala Harris called the claims "unlawful."

In the East China Sea, Chinese coast guard vessels have patrolled the waters around the Japan-controlled Senkaku Islands at an alarming rate this year. Beijing calls the uninhabited islets Diaoyu and considers them part of its territory. Taiwan also holds a historic claim to the island chain, but Taipei and Tokyo maintain a resource-sharing and cooperation agreement.

Introduced by Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) in May, the South China Sea and East China Sea Sanctions Act of 2021 could become the first piece of American law that provides the U.S. government concrete measures with which to push back against Chinese expansionism.

In the particular case of the energy-rich South China Sea—contested by half a dozen littoral nations—any Chinese government actor or Beijing-approved proxy could face financial and diplomatic penalties for taking part in China's land reclamation efforts and its building of military and civilian facilities on the islands and reefs.

Chinese officials or entities engaged in actions that threaten the peace, security or stability of the two seas—including through the use of vessels and aircraft to impose Chinese sovereignty—are also liable under the 2021 act, which will offer the U.S.'s strongest response since Beijing's aggressive territorial expansion began in earnest in the past decade.

Passed by the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on Tuesday, the bill now advances toward a vote on the Senate floor.

"There's no greater threat to a free and open Indo-Pacific than the Chinese Communist Party and its armed wing, the People's Liberation Army," Senator Rubio said in a statement online. "The risk to America's economic and national security interests in the region are real. 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 urged the Senate to "swiftly pass" the bipartisan legislation.

The act's cosponsor, Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD), said: "Aggressive behavior from China in both the South and East China Seas cannot go unchecked. Our bill sends a strong bipartisan message that the United States will defend the free-flow of commerce and freedom of navigation, safeguard the sovereignty of our allies, and promote the peaceful diplomatic resolution of disputes consistent with international law."

According to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), which is run out of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, China currently occupies 20 outposts in the Paracel Islands and seven in the Spratly Islands. China has engaged in "unprecedented dredging and artificial island-building" in the Spratlys since 2013, along with a "substantial expansion of its presence in the Paracels."

Vietnam holds the second-most natural outposts with the occupation of 21 rocks and reefs in the Spratlys, according to AMTI figures.

Research estimates show that passage through the South China Sea accounts for about one third of global maritime trade, while 80 percent of the world's total trade is carried by sea. It means parties with an interest in maintaining open sea lines in the contested waters extend far beyond regional claimant states and include major economies in the West.

"For years, governments and corporations around the world pretended that the Chinese Communist Party would be a responsible power," Rubio told Newsweek in a written statement.

He added: "Much of the world is now waking up to the economic and national security threats posed by the regime, and there is growing bipartisan support in Congress to take real action against the genocidal regime."

In September, China introduced a new maritime law that requires all foreign vessels to report their name, call sign, position, destination and cargo before sailing through the country's "territorial sea," a term it applies to the waters around every claimed feature in the South and East China seas.

A Pentagon spokesperson said of the new law: "The United States remains firm that any coastal state law or regulation must not infringe upon navigation and overflight rights enjoyed by all nations under international law.

"Unlawful and sweeping maritime claims, including in the South China Sea, pose a serious threat to the freedom of the seas, including the freedoms of navigation and overflight, free trade and unimpeded lawful commerce, and the rights and interests of South China Sea and other littoral nations."

This article has been updated with comments by Senator Marco Rubio.

Law Offers Countermeasures Against China's Maritime Expansion
File: This picture taken on April 21, 2017, shows an aerial view of a reef in the disputed Spratly islands. TED ALJIBE/AFP via Getty Images

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