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Hearing of the East Asian and Pacific Affairs Subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee - Maritime Territorial Disputes and Sovereignty Issues in Asia

Hearing

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Location: Washington, DC

Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) today chaired a Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs hearing where he called on the Administration to use American influence to discourage the use of military force or the unilateral expansion of sovereignty claims in East Asia, and to employ the "creative energy of our leadership" to seek the resolution of escalating maritime territorial disputes.

"What we have been witnessing over the past several years is not simply a series of tactical disputes. They are an accumulation of tactical incidents designed to pursue a larger strategic agenda. Virtually every country in the region understands that. It is the duty of the United States to respond, carefully and fully, to it," said Senator Webb.

In July the Chinese government established a prefectural-level government called Sansha on Woody Island located in the Paracel Islands chain, and appointed 45 legislators, a Standing Committee, a mayor and a vice mayor. Woody Island, also called Yongxing, has no indigenous population, no natural water supply. The jurisdiction of this new prefecture, according to Chinese state media, extends to more than 200 islets and over 2 million square kilometers of water.

On this move, Senator Webb said, "China's actions this past year go a step farther in attempting to expand administrative and physical control over areas in the South China Sea previously out of its internationally recognized jurisdiction….All of East Asia is watching the United States' response to these recent Chinese actions in the South China Sea and East China Sea, particularly the countries of ASEAN, with whom we have shared expanding relations, and Japan and the Philippines, two countries with whom we share the solemn commitment of being treaty allies."

Tensions between China and Japan have escalated in the past week over claims to the Senkaku Islands. Last Friday, China sent six maritime surveillance ships into waters around the islands--the largest-ever intrusion by China into this area. On Tuesday, following a meeting with Secretary of Defense Panetta in Beijing, China's defense minister stated that China reserves the right to act further against Japan in this dispute.

"This threat has direct consequences for the United States," said Senator Webb "In 2004, the Bush administration stated clearly that the Japanese-U.S. Security Treaty obligations extended to the Senkaku Islands, which according to accepted principles of international law, are under the administrative control of Japan. Secretary Clinton reiterated this position in 2010 following the incident with the Chinese fishing boat. Given the recent incursion by China into waters around the Senkaku Islands, it is vital that we continue to state clearly our obligations under this security treaty."

Senator Webb has expressed concerns over sovereignty issues in this region for more than 16 years. His first hearing upon assuming chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations East Asian and Pacific Affairs Subcommittee was on maritime territorial disputes and sovereignty issues in Asia in July 2009.

Senator Webb was the original sponsor of a resolution, unanimously approved by the Senate in June 2011, deploring the use of force by China in the South China Sea and calling for a peaceful, multilateral resolution to maritime territorial disputes in Southeast Asia. In July 2012, Senator Webb delivered remarks on the Senate floor questioning the legality of China's the unilateral assertion of control of disputed territories in the South China Sea. In his speech, he urged the U.S. State Department to clarify the situation with China and report back to Congress. Last month, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution (S. Res. 524) declaring China's actions "are contrary to agreed upon principles with regard to resolving disputes and impede a peaceful resolution."

Senator Webb has worked and traveled throughout East Asia and Southeast Asia for more than four decades--as a Marine Corps Officer, a defense planner, a journalist, a novelist, a senior official in the Department of Defense, Secretary of the Navy, and as a business consultant.


Opening Remarks
Senator Jim Webb
Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Hearing on Maritime Territorial Disputes and Sovereignty Issues in Asia
September 20, 2012

Today, the East Asian and Pacific Affairs Subcommittee will consider the impact of recent and ongoing maritime territorial disputes and sovereignty in Asia, one of the most critical issues of strategic importance for the United States and for the entire Pacific region. I have written and spoken about this issue for many years, since long before I entered the Senate. It was the subject of the first substantive hearing I held as chairman of this subcommittee, in July 2009 and it probably will be the subject of the last substantive hearing that I am holding as the chairman of this subcommittee. Unfortunately, since that time the disagreements over sovereignty and the potential for conflict have only increased. In addition to the much-publicized "pivot" into East Asia, it is imperative that the United States policy be based on a clear set of principles that everyone here at home and in the region can understand, and from which our enduring relationships can continue to grow.

Throughout my entire professional life I have worked to emphasize the importance of a strong United States presence in East and Pacific Asia. To state the obvious, the United States has strong, enduring, vital interests in East Asia, and East Asia would be a far more volatile place if the United States were to recede from the region. Since World War II, our country has proved to be the essential guarantor of stability in this region, even as the power cycle shifted from Japan to the Soviet Union and most recently to China. Economically and politically, all of East Asia and the Pacific has benefited from the stability that has been made possible by our involvement in this region.

I reiterate this point in order to emphasize that neither this hearing nor any other comments and writings that have been made over the years by me are intended to diminish or discourage the evolution of our larger relations with China. The great value that the United States has added to the complex historical mix of East Asia transcends any one country. The concerns that are raised today would have been raised just as quickly if they were directed at Japan during the 1930s, or the Soviet Union when I was a Department of Defense executive in the 1980s. The United States does not seek hegemony in this region, nor does it seek containment. Its vital interest is stability, which allows countries of all different populations and sizes the opportunity to resolve their differences without fear of intimidation or the tragic consequences of war. And history teaches us that when stability is lost in East Asia, violence replaces it.

The strong presence of the United States in the Pacific Asia region since World War II has been invaluable in the economic development and growth of more mature political systems throughout the region. This was true even in our frequently misunderstood effort in Vietnam. As Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore commented in his memoir From Third World to First, "Although American intervention failed in Vietnam, it bought time for the rest of Southeast Asia….America's action enabled non-communist Southeast Asia to put their own houses in order….Had there been no U.S. intervention, the will of these countries to resist would have melted, and Southeast Asia would have most likely gone communist. The prosperous emerging market economies of ASEAN were nurtured during the Vietnam War years."

During the Cold War, American policy encouraged a stronger relationship with China partly as a way to counter Soviet influence in East Asia. But massive American investment in China, coupled with the abrupt fall of the Soviet Union, helped enable a rapid and continuing power shift in favor of China, at the same time that American concerns in Pacific Asia were placed on the back burner due to the manner in which our attention was distracted by the volatility of events in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Muslim world.

In April 2001, following the collision of a Chinese fighter with a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft in international airspace, I warned of this development in an article in The Wall Street Journal, noting that "China engaged in a massive modernization program, fueled largely by purchases of Russian weaponry and bolstered by the acquisition of American technology," which was having an impact on sovereignty claims in the East China Sea and the South China Sea. I warned in that article that China "has laid physical claim to the disputed Paracel and Spratly Island groups, thus potentially straddling one of the most vital sea lanes in the world… has made repeated naval excursions into Japanese territorial waters, a cause for long-term concern as China still claims Japan's Senkaku Islands … and has never accepted the legitimacy of Okinawa's 1972 reversion to Japan."

In 2006, in the final debate of my campaign for the United States Senate, I was allowed to ask my opponent one question. I asked him what he thought we should do about the sovereignty disputes in the Senkaku Islands.

For a region in relative peace compared to the rest of the world, East Asia has a significant number of open territorial disputes, mostly with maritime borders. China and Japan both claim the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Taiwan all claim sovereignty over all or part of the Spratly Islands, also in the South China Sea. Japan and Korea claim sovereignty over the Liancourt Islands, also known as Takeshima by Japan and Dokdo by Korea. Japan and Russia claim the Kuril Islands. These are open, active disputes. They involve not only claims to the land features but also claims to surrounding waters. And as all of these Asian nations have grown more prosperous, their sovereignty claims have become more fierce.

It is the policy and the desire of the United States to pursue harmonious relations with each of these countries. We also recognize that these countries have long and complicated histories with each other which impact these claims. We take no sides in the resolution of such historical disputes. But we should not refrain from using our influence to discourage the use of military force or the unilateral expansion of claims of sovereignty. And it should be within the creative energy of our leadership to seek proper venues for the resolution of these disputes, particularly in the area of the South China Sea.

What we have been witnessing over the past several years is not simply a series of tactical disputes. They are an accumulation of tactical incidents designed to pursue a larger strategic agenda. Virtually every country in the region understands that. It is the duty of the United States to respond, carefully and fully, to it.

In the past week, our most important ally in Asia--Japan--has come to the brink of open conflict with our largest creditor--China--over claims to the Senkaku Islands. This latest incident represents years of growing tension. In 2008, Japan and China agreed to develop oil and gas resources in waters near the Senkaku Islands, in an effort to focus on the benefits of economic cooperation. This cooperation was cut short in 2010 when a Chinese fishing captain rammed a Japanese coast guard vessel near the islands.

Last week, Japan's government announced that it would purchase land on the Senkaku Islands from its private Japanese owner, in an attempt prevent the governor of Tokyo from purchasing this land and perhaps using it to stoke further controversy. A move that the Japanese government expected to relieve tensions was met with widespread misunderstanding, including a blast by China. Last Friday, China sent six maritime surveillance ships into waters around the islands--the largest-ever intrusion by China into this area. Anti-Japanese protests in China have reached a new height. These protests, abetted by the Chinese government, have damaged Japanese-owned businesses and caused considerable harm. On Tuesday, following a meeting with Secretary of Defense Panetta in Beijing, China's defense minister stated that China reserves the right to act further against Japan in this dispute--which can only be read as a threat of the use of force.

This threat has direct consequences for the United States. In 2004, the Bush administration stated clearly that the Japanese-U.S. Security Treaty obligations extended to the Senkaku Islands, which according to accepted principles of international law, are under the administrative control of Japan. Secretary Clinton reiterated this position in 2010 following the incident with the Chinese fishing boat. Given the recent incursion by China into waters around the Senkaku Islands, it is vital that we continue to state clearly our obligations under this security treaty.

For several years, China has also demonstrated an increased willingness to use force in the South China Sea. Its claims in this area are based upon a roughly defined "9-dashed line", the so-called "cow's tongue," encircling the South China Sea. In 2009, Chinese vessels harassed a U.S. maritime surveillance ship, the USNS Impeccable, and then a Chinese submarine collided with the sonar cable of the guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain while it was operating in the South China Sea. Last year on three separate occasions in March, May and June, China interfered with the maritime surveillance activities of Vietnamese and Filipino ships by cutting their cables.

Following those incidents, I introduced a Senate resolution deploring the use of force by China and reaffirming U.S. support for the peaceful resolution of maritime territorial disputes. This resolution passed the Senate unanimously. This year in April, tensions in the Scarborough Shoal--an area less than 200 miles from the Philippines coast--escalated as a Filipino coast guard vessels investigated illegal fishing by China. In response, Chinese maritime enforcement ships, backed by PLA naval vessels, roped off the mouth of the lagoon denying access to the territory. China also retaliated through trade measures by blocking Filipino banana exports. In June, Filipino ships withdrew from the standoff due to weather concerns, but Chinese ships remained and are there today.

In July, the Chinese government began implementing a decision to assert administrative control over this entire region. It established a prefectural-level government called Sansha on Woody Island located in the Paracel Islands chain, and appointed 45 legislators, a Standing Committee, a mayor and a vice mayor. Woody Island, also called Yongxing, has no indigenous population, no natural water supply. The jurisdiction of this new prefecture extends to more than 200 islets and over 2 million square kilometers of water--in other words, virtually the entire South China Sea.

This political shift has been matched by economic and military expansion. In late June, the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) opened bidding on oil blocks that fall within Vietnam's exclusive economic zone and overlap with oil blocks that Vietnam itself is developing--some in partnership with United States firms. Within days of establishing the Sansha prefecture, China's Central Military Commission announced that it would deploy a garrison of soldiers to guard the area, and conduct regular combat-readiness patrols in the South China Sea.

Other countries in the South China Sea have been actively working to reinforce their claims in the face of such developments. In June, Vietnam passed a new Maritime Law that restates Vietnam's claim to the Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands. The Philippines has been working through the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf to delimit its expanded continental shelf and clearly define its maritime boundaries. All countries are seeking to benefit from the resources in the region, claiming mineral development rights or fishing rights. However, China's actions this past year go a step farther in attempting to expand administrative and physical control over areas in the South China Sea previously out of its internationally recognized jurisdiction.

These incidents have coincidentally been occurring near the anniversary of Japan's September 18, 1931, invasion of Manchuria. Historian Barbara Tuchman noted that the failure of the international community, and particularly the League of Nations to respond to the Mukden incident at that time "brewed the acid of appeasement that…opened the decade of descent to war" in Asia and beyond. The precedent for Munich was set in Manchuria and China lived through the consequences of the international community's failure to address the unilateral actions taken against its territory. One hopes the present government of China will appreciate the usefulness of international involvement in finding solutions to the increasingly more hostile sovereignty issues in Northeast Asia and in the South China Sea.

All of East Asia is watching the United States' response to these recent Chinese actions in the South China Sea and East China Sea, particularly the countries of ASEAN, with whom we have shared expanding relations, and Japan and the Philippines, two countries with whom we share the solemn commitment of being treaty allies.


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