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Calls for Stronger US Position on China in South China Sea

China claims the highlighted portion of the South China Sea. Many other governments also claim all or part of the South China Sea.
China claims the highlighted portion of the South China Sea. Many other governments also claim all or part of the South China Sea.

A senior US lawmaker has joined scholars and researchers in calls for the United States to strengthen its approach on the South China Sea dispute between China and other Asian countries.

Tensions have increased in the sea, a major international shipping lane, where China has begun oil and gas exploration, despite overlapping claims to sections of the sea by Vietnam and others.

House Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Michigan), says China is employing a strategy of “death by a thousand cuts” against its neighbors, and the US should take a firmer position by empowering its allies in the region.

“I don’t believe that direct conflict with China is inevitable, as I have heard many, many times over on this particular issue,” he said, speaking at a forum on the issue at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“I believe through this dialogue, through this partnership, through finally having a direct conversation with China that may hurt their feelings, but save lives at the end of the day, is the right direction for the United States,” he said.

The forum, “Recent Trends in the South China Sea and US Policy,” brought together scholars and analysts, as conflict over the sea continues.

Tran Truong Thuy, director of Foundation for East Sea Studies at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam, sees more engagement from the US as a key to counter China’s “expansionism.”

Bilateral and multilateral approaches are needed to curb that, he said.

“We need concerted effort to impose more costs on China,” he said. “China’s calculation is based on cost and benefit in the short term and long term, and in that aspect, the US and Asean should take a lead on that issue.”

Paul Pham, chairman of the Federation of Vietnamese-American Community of the USA, said regional cooperation is needed to curb conflict in the sea. Regional cooperation could spur the US to action, he said.

“Right now we can see that the United States is not very active in the South China Sea or East China Sea [against] the activity of China,” he said. “For example, China deploys illegally oil rigs on the South China Sea. But hopefully with the cooperation between United States and Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan and Indonesia and, in general, Asian countries, then the policy will change swiftly and the United States will respond decisively on any kind of violation of international laws.”

The growing tensions in the South China Sea, which include disputes between China and Vietnam and the Philippines, have led to small clashes between Chinese and Vietnamese fishing vessels in recent weeks.

“I think we need some muscle in our diplomacy to show that others are entitled to protect their interests as well,” said Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. “Not because we want them to go to war with China, but simply because we want to make sure that there are deterrents from assertiveness and that people are trying diplomatic ways and legal ways to deal with their differences.”

This includes expanding engagement with Vietnam and lifting a lethal arms ban, he said.

The US is developing new methods to deal with China’s steady territorial advances in the South China Sea, including more aggressive use of surveillance aircraft and naval operations near contested areas.

Meanwhile, a Japanese specialist said that even though China does not pose much threat right now, one should question its ambition in coming decades.

“If I take all elements into consideration, perhaps Chinese adventurism in terms of using military power to take those islands or expand its territory in the short term is not likely,” retired Japanese Vice Admiral Yoji Koda told VOA Khmer. “But mid- to longer term we should be prepared.”

China defends its position, saying its claims in the seas against neighboring countries are within its rights.

Zhang Lihua, director of European Studies Center at the Institute of International Studies at Tsinghua University, said there is a misunderstanding of China’s policy for claiming its sovereignty over the South China Sea.

“The idea that China will threaten neighboring countries, China will challenge America, China wants to push out America in East Asia, I think this idea is a misunderstanding of China’s foreign policy,” Zhang said. “China just wants to take back what belongs to China at sea, and [has] no other ambition.”

The US has so far used diplomatic channels with China, including expressing its concern over the conflict, working with regional partners to help put in place mechanisms to lower tension, and enhance its presence. However, the US said recent incidents highlight the need for claimants to be transparent about their activities in these areas.

“As such, we are urging China and Asean to have a real and substantive discussion to flesh out elements of the Declaration on Conduct that calls for self-restraint,” US State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary Michael Fuchs said at the conference.

Asean is now discussing a Code of Conduct that will better define operations by all relevant stakeholders. Cambodia chaired Asean in 2012, but was not able to facilitate a productive discussion on the Code of Conduct.

“We still maintain a venue for discussion and avoid any activity that can eventually lead to violence,” government spokesman Phay Siphan told VOA Khmer. “We always appeal to all parties directly engaging in the issue of South China Sea to try their utmost to avoid confrontation. Secondly, we still want them to resolve their conflict through using the Code of Conduct, which is endorsed by all Asean member states. We still maintain that third parties should not get involved in this dispute.”