McCain Warns of ‘Flashpoint’ in the South China Sea

6/21/2011
By Stew Magnuson
Tensions between China and its less powerful neighbors over territorial claims in the South China Sea could erupt into conflict, Sen. John McCain said recently.
“I am increasingly concerned … that the South China Sea is becoming a flashpoint,” said McCain, R-Ariz., at a June 20 Center for Strategic and International Studies forum on China-U.S. relations, in Washington, D.C.
China has claimed a large, U-shaped section of the South China Sea since the 1940s, which is commonly referred to as the “nine-dotted line.” It claims all islands in the sea as sovereign territory — including surrounding waters — as an exclusive economic zone. It includes the Spratlys, an island chain that has rich fishing grounds, along with the possibility of oil reserves.
In early June, Chinese fishing boats and Vietnamese petroleum exploration vessels were involved in a skirmish in the waters, resulting in a diplomatic row between the two nations.
McCain criticized China’s increasingly assertive actions to defend the nine-dotted line. “One of the main forces exacerbating tensions in the South China Sea … is the behavior of China and the unsubstantiated territorial claims that it seeks to advance,” he said.
Recent Chinese actions in the region “erode the freedom of navigation,” and the nation cannot deny neighboring countries access to the sea and its resources, he said.
Stressing the U.S. national security interest in maintaining a favorable strategic balance in the South China Sea, he suggested that the United States should supply maritime defense and detection capabilities tomembers of the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Such military aid could include early warning radar and coastal security vessels, McCain said.
ASEAN countries include: Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, and one landlocked nation, Laos. Most of the tensions over the disputed territory are between China and the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, and non-ASEAN member Taiwan.
The United States could facilitate third-party negotiations in support of a peaceful agreement, he said. But ASEAN must present China with a united front. He called for the United States to commit to regional security, not isolationism. “We will not withdraw or be pushed out of the Asia-Pacific region,” he stated. The goal should be to disperse our forces in the Asia-Pacific region, he added.
McCain also addressed defense budget cuts. “We must be guided by strategy, not arbitrary arithmetic,” he warned. We must make the “necessary investments in our national defense capabilities…to remain the world’s leading military power,” he said.
He criticized the Obama administration’s proposed defense cuts of $400 billion over the next 12 years as lacking “strategic rationale.” The president did not explain why that figure was chosen and what the cuts would entail.
“I think reasonable people could also agree that this is no way to plan for our national defense,” he said.
— Reporting by Fumiko Hedlund

Topics: International

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