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Congress Seeks to Arm U.S. Allies in the Pacific to Counter China

Lawmakers are hoping to arm and train U.S. allies in the Pacific as a way to counter China’s increasingly assertive behavior in the region.

As part of a markup of the 2016 defense bill, lawmakers from the Senate Armed Services Committee, or SASC, have added a “China Sea Initiative” designed to challenge China’s activities by supporting U.S. allies in the region.

The legislation is designed, in part, to address China’s ongoing effort to build artificial islands in the South China Sea to bolster territorial claims in the region.

The new language, inserted by SASC Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., seeks to provide funds to train and equip allied countries in the region such as Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.

The new directive is designed “to provide assistance to national military or other security forces of such countries that have among their functional responsibilities maritime security missions,” the proposed language states.

If adopted in the final conferenced version of the Bill later this summer, this provision will provide up to $425 million for this mission over the next five years, including $50 million in 2016.

Over just the past year, China has added more than 1,500 acres of new artificial territory to its island areas in the South China Sea, Pentagon officials said.

While U.S. defense officials decline to speculate as to why this is occurring and say they’d like to see more “transparency” from China regarding these actions, the moves appear to be a clear effort to bolster territorial claims in the Spratly Island region and South China Sea.

The Spratly Islands includes an area of more than 750 reefs, small islands and atolls in the South China Sea off the coasts of the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam. Highly disputed for centuries, the area is rich in oil and natural gas. Countries claiming rights to territory in the Spratly Islands include China, Malaysia, Vietnam, Philippines, Taiwan, and Brunei.

The South China Sea includes strategically vital waterways, important to international trade.  In a recent speech in Hawaii, as part of a trip through the Asia Pacific region, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter criticized China’s artificial island-building and said the U.S. would not be deterred by China’s moves.

“The United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, as we do all around the world. With its actions in the South China Sea, China is out of step with both international norms that underscore the Asia-Pacific's security architecture and the regional consensus in favor of a non-coercive approach to this and other long-standing disputes,” he said.

“We will remain the principal security power in the Asia-Pacific for decades to come,” he said.

Alongside the new provision, McCain and SASC ranking democrat Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., sent a letter to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter outlining their concerns regarding China’s behavior in the region and asking Carter to strengthen the U.S. military response to the issue.

Among other things, the letter argues that China should not be invited to participate in the upcoming 2016 Rim of the Pacific multi-national military exercise slated to take place in Hawaii.

“Given China’s behavior in the past year alone, including its disregard for the interests of our allies, international law and established norms, we do not believe Beijing should have been invited to this prestigious U.S.-led military exercise in 2016,” the letter states.

China participated in the most recent Rim of the Pacific exercise in 2014 and drew criticism for bringing an intelligence gathering ship to the event, an occurrence the letter makes reference to.

While the lawmakers do cite the importance of sustaining a military-to-military relationship with China, they caution that more should be done to challenge China’s coercive and “bullying” behavior throughout the region.

Carter added that China’s actions are inspiring countries in the area to come together and said the situation calls for greater U.S. involvement.

“The reason that the United States and everyone else in the region has a stake in this, is because it gets to the question of freedom of navigation, freedom of the seas, freedom from coercion, abiding by peaceful and lawful processes, and that is, again, a longstanding U.S. position, as it freedom of flying, freedom to sail,” Carter told reporters while traveling through the area.

These comments from Carter after China formally protested the flight of a U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon surveillance plane over areas where China was reclaiming land to build an island.

China’s assertive behavior in the region appears, at least to some extent, to be based upon its territorial claims in the South China Sea referred to as the nine-dash-line.

China appears to claim most, if not all of the South China Sea through its so-called nine-dash line, which vaguely asserts control, access and sovereignty over 1.4 million square miles of islands, Pentagon officials said.

Although U.S. officials say China has not clearly articulated what it means, the nine-dash line can be traced back to China’s ruling party from 1928 to 1949 – the Koumintang. The Koumintang retreated to Taiwan in 1949 when the Communist Party of China took over following civil war in the country, however the concept of the nine-dash line has endured.

The U.S. has officially gone on record saying that the People’s Republic of China’s nine-dash line is not in accordance with existing international law. In fact, McCain and Reed’s letter specifically says the U.S. government should do more to challenge the legality of China’s nine-dash-line claim.

-- Kris Osborn can be reached at Kris.Osborn@military.com

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