The United States needs to step up its naval presence in the South China Sea, train and equip allies in the Pacific and better define its strategic approach to China, according to Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va.
Forbes emphasized that the U.S. needs to define and articulate a winning strategy for addressing Chinese assertiveness in the Pacific, speaking at the Fifth Annual South China Sea Conference at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington D.C.-based think tank.
Forbes, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee’s Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee, referred to the pace of Chinese military modernization and China’s recent moves to increase territorial claims by constructing and claiming as much as 2,000 acres of artificial land in the South China Sea.
“We have to have a strong presence there. That means we have to increase our naval presence there because I think that is a calming thing not an escalating thing,” Forbes said.
Pentagon officials recently acknowledged that China has been placing weapons such as artillery on the artificially constructed land-masses in a portion of the South China Sea known as the Spratly Islands.
Forbes added that the Chinese Coast Guard ships look and function a lot like U.S. amphibious assault ships.
“They now have enough Coast Guard ship that they are 68 short of our entire Navy,” Forbes said.
Furthermore, Forbes stressed that most Americans and U.S. allies do not know what the U.S.-China strategy is.
While praising the current administrations’ rebalance to the Pacific, U.S. innovation and the U.S. ability to work well with allies and form coalitions, Forbes said the U.S. does not seem to have a current strategy for addressing China – at least not one that is clearly articulated.
He stressed the importance of acknowledging competition with China and the need to counter the country’s assertive behavior in the region. However, he added that a winning strategy would seek to deter aggressive behavior through a strong presence – but does not necessarily have to be adversarial toward China and improved U.S.-China relations.
“If we don’t have some metric to measure them (strategies) - how do we know if we are winning are not? Winning does not mean the other side has to lose. We can develop winning strategies that can push the region forward and help both sides come out ahead of where they would have been otherwise,” Forbes explained.
Regarding efforts to train and equip U.S. allies in the region, Forbes referred to new language, inserted into the 2016 defense bill by SASC Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that seeks to provide funds to train and equip allied countries in the Pacific such as Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.
The new funding for U.S. allies in the Pacific appears to be a deliberate effort to counter, mitigate or deter Chinese activities in the region.
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 speech in Hawaii several months ago 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.
Preferring to call them "artificial features" rather than "islands" or "territories," Pentagon officials say China's attempted island and outpost building does not bolster any legitimate territorial claims in the region -- according to established international conventions.
Under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, negotiated in the 1980s and updated in the 1990s, an island is defined as a "naturally formed area of land above the water at high tide."
Also, article 60 of the U.N. Convention says "artificial islands are not entitled to territorial seas."
According to the U.N. treaty, there are no provisions granting rights to waters without regard to land-based sovereign rights. The U.N. treaty specifies that territorial waters extend for 12 miles off of the coast of sovereign territory. This means that, while other countries have a right to peaceful innocent passage within the 12 miles, the waters are regarded as an extension of the territory of the country, a Pentagon official explained.
However, according to the U.N. treaty, 12 miles water off the shore of an artificial structure - something which does not meet the definition of an island-- would not be regarded as an extension of a country's territory, Pentagon officials explained.
The U.N. treaty also specifies that up to 200 miles off the coast of a country is considered part of an economic exclusive zone, or EEZ. This means the host country has exclusive first rights to resources and any economic related activities.
This means countries cannot, for instance, fish in the waters of an EEZ or set up an oil-drilling effort without securing the permission of the host country. However, activities within an EEZ that do not relate to economic issues are allowed as part of the freedoms associated with the high seas, Pentagon officials explained.
-- Kris Osborn can be reached at Kris.Osborn@military.com