WASHINGTON -- The United States must not tolerate China's use of military coercion in pursuit of its territorial claims in the seas of East Asia, lawmakers said at a hearing Tuesday. Experts warned that Beijing's assertiveness is unnerving its neighbors and challenges American security interests.
Separately, the Philippine envoy to Washington complained about China's "aggression" and urged Vietnam, another claimant state in the South China Sea, to follow the Philippines in mounting an international legal challenge to Beijing's expansive claims.
China's recent declaration of an air defense zone over disputed islands controlled by Japan in the East China Sea, and its new rules to regulate fishing in a huge tranche of the South China Sea, have deepened concerns that its rise as a regional power could spark a confrontation.
House lawmakers overseeing U.S. policy toward Asia and America's use of sea power held a joint hearing to consider Washington's response, amid worries that U.S. may be drawn into a crisis or conflict over a territorial dispute involving China because the U.S. has bilateral defense treaties with Japan and the Philippines.
Republican Rep. Steve Chabot of Ohio called China "dangerously aggressive" and said it was attempting to take disputed territories by gradual force with the "misguided hope that Japan, Southeast Asian nations and the U.S. will just grudgingly accept it."
Calling for a strong, bipartisan message from Congress, Democratic Rep. Ami Bera of California said that China's "threatening and provocative moves to assert their maritime territorial claims are unacceptable."
Republican Rep. Randy Forbes of Virginia said the U.S. must be "100 percent intolerant of China's territorial claims and its continued resort to forms of military coercion to alter the status quo in the region."
Lawmakers typically take a more uncompromising stance on foreign policy than the administration. But their opinions reflect widespread concern in Washington about China's intentions as it challenges decades of American military pre-eminence in Asia, and its adherence to international law.
China unilaterally declared its air defense zone over parts of the East China Sea in late November, requiring foreign aircraft to submit flight plans to Chinese authorities and accept instructions from the Chinese military. The U.S. responded by flying B-52 bombers through the zone, to show it didn't recognize it. The State Department last week also criticized the new Chinese regulations on fishing in the South China Sea as "provocative and potentially dangerous."
China maintains that it has peaceful intentions and it wants the U.S. to stay out of territorial disputes in which it has no claim.
The U.S., however, says it has an interest in freedom of navigation and commerce through the Asia-Pacific. Despite America's huge national debt, the Obama administration wants to boost the U.S. military presence in the region and recently announced tens of millions of dollars in new security assistance to Vietnam and the Philippines.
Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, said the U.S. response to China's coercion will be a key measure of the effectiveness of the Obama administration's policy shift toward Asia and how countries there assess its staying power in the region, she said.
Philippine Ambassador Jose Cuisia Jr. told reporters in Washington late Monday that the Manila wants good relations with Beijing, but called it "unacceptable" that China is preventing Philippine fishermen from operating inside parts of its own exclusive economic zone, or EEZ. That is the 200-nautical-mile offshore area where a nation has sovereign rights for exploring and exploiting resources.
Cuisia said to avoid a potential confrontation, the Philippines has told fishermen to avoid seas covered by China's new fishing regulations, pending clarification from Beijing on what they entail.
The Philippines has antagonized Beijing by bringing a case challenging China's claim to virtually all of the South China Sea to a U.N. arbitration tribunal. Cuisia called it a "legitimate and friendly" way to resolve a dispute, and when asked, supported the idea of Vietnam taking the same approach.
China is refusing to participate in the arbitration.
While most lawmakers at Tuesday's hearing were strongly supportive of the U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific, Democratic Rep. Brad Sherman of California was skeptical. He complained that the U.S. was plowing huge resources into confronting China and helping defend the territorial claims of nations like Japan that allot a far smaller proportion of their own budgets to defense.