United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations
Hearing: “Safeguarding American Interests in the East and South China Seas”
May 13, 2015
U.S. Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), Chairman
In June 2014, this committee held a hearing on the future of U.S.-China relations. And at that time, I raised concerns over the lack of a coherent China policy, including the absence of sustained high-level engagement from senior administration officials despite the consistent rhetoric that the U.S.-China relationship is one of the most consequential relationships for U.S. political, security and economic interests.
I left that hearing scratching my head. And nearly a year later, I’m even more troubled.
Yesterday, this committee convened to discuss a new nuclear cooperation agreement with China. And we heard troubling information about Chinese intent to divert U.S. technology for military purposes. In addition, we were told that China has not taken adequate steps to end proliferation of sensitive technologies by Chinese entities and individuals to countries of concern, including Iran and North Korea.
Despite these concerns, administration officials testified in support of a new nuclear cooperation agreement – noting the mutual benefits for the bilateral relationship, including commercial interests.
And this afternoon, the absence of a genuine China policy will be on display as we discuss the situation in the East and South China Seas where China continues to engage in provocative and destabilizing behavior.
As you can see from the pictures on display, China continues to engage in land reclamation and construction activities – the scope and scale of which are unprecedented – in the South China Sea.
Figure 1 shows Fiery Cross Reef, in the Spratly Islands, as it appeared in May 2014. Figure 2 shows that same reef less than a year later with over 1300 meters of runway already completed and analyst assessments that it could be expanded up to 3100 meters.
Clearly, these activities are not simply limited to dredging and piling sand. China is deliberately constructing facilities on these reefs and islets that could be used for military purposes, including airstrips and ports, as you can see in Figure 3, which shows Fiery Cross Reef just a few weeks ago. Again, in Figure 4, you can see large, multistory buildings with additional military capabilities.
Moreover, Beijing has publicly confirmed that there are military uses for these facilities, with China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson stating on March 9 that this construction was undertaken in part to “satisfy the necessary military defense needs.”
It is worth noting that all of these activities are occurring against the backdrop of China’s massive military build-up, including significant investments in anti-access/area-denial capabilities.
Most China watchers believe that Beijing does not want to start a conflict in either the East or South China Seas. Yet many of the same experts concede that Beijing may do everything short of engaging in a military conflict to solidify its claims.
That is why I recently joined with Senators McCain, Reed and Menendez in a bipartisan letter to Secretary Kerry and Secretary Carter to highlight our growing concerns with China’s efforts to alter the status quo through ongoing land reclamation and construction activities in the South China Sea.
According to the most recent statistics, some $5 trillion in global ship-borne trade passes through the South China Sea annually. As you can see from Figure 5, all of the major trade routes through the South China Sea pass near disputed areas in both the Spratlys and Paracels.
I hope we will be able to have a thoughtful discussion today that outlines U.S. interests in the Indo-Pacific and how Chinese actions in the East and South China Seas effect, if at all, the balance of the U.S.-China bilateral relationship.
In addition, I hope we will explore various options available to the United States to ensure that the situation in the East and South China Seas does not result in conflict.
I support efforts to constructively engage with China, including to strengthen economic and trade ties.
Yet simply defaulting to an approach that maintains cooperation while “managing differences” with China is not a successful formula, particularly when such “management” cedes U.S. influence and places American interests at risk in the Indo-Pacific.
I am concerned that absent a course correction, specifically high-level and dedicated engagement from the United States Government to articulate a coherent China policy, our credibility will continue to suffer throughout the region – whether it is in regards to nonproliferation or preserving freedom of navigation in the East and South China Seas.
I look forward to hearing from the witnesses.
For full details on the hearing and archive footage, visit: https://www.foreign.senate.gov/hearings/safeguarding-american-interests-in-the-east-and-south-china-seas.