Can Congress Stop China in the South China Sea?

A bipartisan effort is emerging to highlight dangerous trends in Asia—and specifically in the South China Sea. But will Obama listen?

The balance of power in Asia is changing—and not in Washington’s favor.

No longer can the United States count on simply massing forces Gulf War I style and quickly coming to the aid of its allies if combat ever commenced on the Korean peninsula, in the East China Sea, around Taiwan or in the South China Sea—all thanks to China’s massive military buildup and growing anti-access/area-denial capabilities. The Obama Administration is quick to point out America is “pivoting” or “rebalancing” to Asia—maybe one of the most “sticky” foreign policy slogans in the last twenty five years. But catchphrases can’t change the facts and many would argue the pivot remains only a slogan when we take a hard look at facts on the ground. China is not only altering the status quo on land but on the water, in the sky, in space, and maybe even in cyberspace too.

While the Obama Administration would likely rather continue its present strategy of trying to engage Beijing and work towards some sort of “new type of great power relations,” it appears a group of lawmakers are working towards pushing the administration to consider a different approach. Such an approach would likely engage Beijing on a whole range of Indo-Pacific issues—with a specific focus on the challenges in the South China Sea. While it is certainly early days to judge any immediate impact this notable bipartisan effort may have on Administration policy one thing is clear: they certainly know the issues at hand and may be able to offer sorely needed guidance when it comes to the various challenges Washington faces in Asia. At the very least they could help place sorely needed attention such issues sometimes miss in major media outlets.

In a letter released late Thursday addressed to Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, Senators John McCain and Jack Reed (Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Armed Services Committee) along with and Senators Bob Corker and Bob Menendez (Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee) press the Secretaries for “the development and implementation of a comprehensive strategy for the maritime commons of the Indo-Pacific region.”

At a time when it would be easy for ranking member of Congress to focus on hot button and worthy issues such as the rise of the Islamic State, Russia’s moves in Ukraine and the ongoing defense-budget battle, taking on the challenge of Chinese moves in the South China Sea is something Asia hands should applaud. While all might not agree with the tone of the letter nor its recommendations—the focus on issues in the Indo-Pacific and the world’s most important relationship in that of the United States and China is key. As the Senators explain:

The South China Sea is a critical maritime highway through which some $5 trillion in global ship-borne trade passes each year. Unilateral efforts to change the status quo through force, intimidation, or coercion threaten the peace and stability that have benefited all the nations of the Indo-Pacific region. China’s land-reclamation and construction activities on multiple islands across the Spratly chain, and the potential command and control, surveillance, and military capabilities it could bring to bear from these new land features, are a direct challenge not only to the interests of the United States and the region, but to the entire international community.

Here is the real kicker. It seems China’s island building projects in the South China Sea are moving at a very rapid pace—maybe much faster than many analysts have realized:   

It is our understanding that the majority of this work has been completed in the past twelve months alone, and if current build-rates proceed, China could complete the extent of its planned reclamation in the coming year. Gaven Reef has 114,000 square meters of new land since March 2014.  Johnson Reef, which was previously a submerged feature, now stands as a 100,000 square meter “island.”  Construction and reclamation has increased Fiery Cross in size more than 11-fold since August of last year. Reclamation by any state to enhance their sovereignty rights in the South China Sea complicates these disputes and runs contrary to calls from the United States and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for parties to exercise self-restraint. However, while other states have built on existing land masses, China is changing the size, structure and physical attributes of land features themselves. This is a qualitative change that appears designed to alter the status quo in the South China Sea.