China has become a danger to the stability in Southeast Asia and needs to be told to stop its maritime provocations, according to scholars and policy makers at a two-day gathering in Washington, DC.
At the fourth annual South China Sea Conference of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a major think tank, scholars and policymakers were under no illusion that Beijing would tame its ambitions on its own any time soon.
Therefore: “Now is the time to change our dialogue and be less deferential in our diplomatic speak”, said Republican Mike Rogers, chairman of the Intelligence Committee of the US House of Representatives.
He accused China of “gluttonous, naked aggression” in its drive to control territory and resources in the South China Sea and called on the government to be more direct and aggressive when dealing with China, echoing the point of view of the White House.
The Obama administration has been increasingly critical of China’s assertive actions and has called on it to clarify its expansive claims in accordance with international law.
While the US is not among the half-dozen claimants in the South China Sea, Washington says it has a national interest in peaceful resolution of the disputes.
US allies like the Philippines, as well as Vietnam, have become increasingly worried by Chinese efforts to drill for oil or assert authority in waters they consider their own in the South China Sea.
In May, Chinese officials sent an oil rig in waters also claimed by Vietnam, setting off repeated confrontations between the two countries’ ships. “This is a new level of Chinese assertiveness”, said Tran Truong Thuy, director of the Foundation for East Sea Studies in Vietnam.
China is now viewing the South China Sea as its own, Thuy said, and that claim includes islands like the Paracels as well as underwater territory. Beijing has laid claim to about 2,000 shipwrecks on the seabed of the waters and claims the right to conduct research, he said.
The conflict over the disputed sovereignty of the territorial waters has led to a deterioration of Chinese-Vietnamese relations which today, according to Thuy, are the worst since China’s neighbor turned Communist following the Vietnam War in the 1970s.
At the conference, Rogers called for the US to increase intelligence sharing and military cooperation with other nations in the region to push back against China and show that it is not the sole and dominant power.
“Any military in the world that uses its power to bully, intimidate and destabilize the economy of the world, is not in the United States’ best interests, nor of our allies nor our friends,” Rogers told the conference.
The Republican lawmaker, who chairs the House panel that oversees US intelligence operations, said that despite American preoccupation with other trouble spots around the world, China should not question US resolve in protecting freedom of navigation and commerce in the South China Sea, which carries 40 percent of world trade.
Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), said Washington and its allies need to impose costs on China’s behavior.
“We have to make the Chinese leadership understand that unilateral change and the rule of force is not acceptable”, Cronin said. Therefore, strengthening the regional cooperation among US partners like Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and others is of the essence, he added.
The idea is, Cronin said, to counter China’s efforts to use its economic power as leverage over its neighbors and dictate its terms in the South China Sea.
The CSIS conference opened as the US and China concluded an annual strategic and economic dialogue in Beijing where US Secretary John Kerry was urging China to adhere to stricter rules governing territorial claims in Asia’s contested, resource-rich seas.