Lawmakers lambasted the Obama administration Wednesday for its lackluster response to China’s military buildup in the South China Sea.
The Pentagon has conducted only two freedom of navigation operations since 2015, even though the Obama administration has promised a more active response, The Associated Press reports.
During a Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing, Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken agreed that China intends to secure control over the entire the South China Sea, in response to a direct query from Republican Sen. Marco Rubio.
Those operations entailed sending ships within 12 nautical miles of China’s artificial islands.
The South China Sea is claimed by numerous powers in East Asia, with China in particular claiming almost the entire region. While the U.S. does not take a position on claims to sovereignty, it is interested in maintaining free passageway, mostly because of the enormous amount of maritime traffic moves through South China Sea waters. The total is approximately $5.3 trillion annually, and of that figure, U.S. trade is about $1.2 trillion, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.
For Republican Sen. Bob Corker, the U.S. response so far to China’s dealings has been nowhere near the kind of force the that should be projected in the region, given that China has now definitively “positioned itself as a geopolitical rival to the United States.”
“I don’t know why we are not doing it weekly, or monthly,” Corker said.
“Merely managing differences with China is not a successful formula particularly when such management cedes U.S. influence and places American interest at risk in the Indo-Pacific and beyond,” Corker added.
Additionally, Corker does not believe that freedom of navigation operations are even sufficient to deter China. Much more is needed to get China to back down.
“For example, in the South China Sea, neither the rhetoric nor the freedom of navigation operations have deterred or slowed down China’s land-reclamation activities, including the stationing of military related assets on these artificial islands,” Corker said. “Moreover, many experts assess it is increasingly likely that Beijing will declare an air defense identification zone in the South China Sea.”
China’s next move is likely to build on Scarborough Shoal, which it took from the Philippines back in 2012. An artificial island on top of the shoal would position China’s military much closer to U.S. military forces stationed in the Philippines. The United Nations is set to issue a ruling on the legality of China’s seizure of the shoal.
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