WASHINGTON (AP) — Senators pressured the Obama administration on Wednesday for a more robust response to China's provocative actions in East Asian seas, as concern grows in Washington that Beijing is building artificial islands to assert military control over disputed territory.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, complained that the administration lacked a "coherent policy," and disputed the administration's view that China is losing international stature because of its provocative moves.
"I see no price whatsoever that China is playing for their activities in the South and East China Seas. None. In fact, I see us paying a price," Corker said. "We see our friends coming in constantly worried about where we are, what our commitment levels are."
Secretary of State John Kerry is traveling this weekend to Beijing, where he is to meet with President Xi Jinping. U.S. officials say he'll be carrying a message that China's large-scale land reclamation and general behavior in the South China Sea will hurt China's image and its relations with its neighbors and, potentially, with the United States itself.
China has rattled the region with its assertive claims both over islands held by Japan in the East China Sea, and in the South China Sea, where islands and reefs are contested by China and five other Asian claimants. China has reclaimed about 2,000 acres of dry land since 2014 that could be used as airstrips or for military purposes, according to U.S. officials.
China claims the islands are its territory. Its Foreign Ministry on Wednesday voiced serious concern about a Wall Street Journal report, which cited anonymous U.S. officials, that the U.S. is considering sending military ships and planes to challenge Chinese claims to islands it is building.
The assistant secretary of defense for the Asia-Pacific, David Shear, declined to comment on the report at the committee hearing Wednesday, and on whether the U.S. was considering a demonstration of freedom of navigation within 12 nautical miles of the islands' notional territorial zone. But Shear said many of the features claimed by China in the disputed Spratly island chain are submerged and do not carry territorial rights.
"We claim the right of innocent passage in such areas and we exercise that right regularly both in the South China Sea and globally, and we are going to continue exercising that right both under the surface of the water and in the air," he said.
Top diplomat for East Asia, Daniel Russel, said that no matter how sand China piles up on reefs, it can't "manufacture sovereignty." He said the U.S. is calling for restraint on territorial disputes, and "diplomacy will continue to be our instrument of first resort."
Russel maintained that China's provocative actions had hurt its standing. He cited recent, thinly veiled criticism of China by the Southeast Asian bloc and a legal challenge brought by the Philippines. The United States is "increasingly in demand" as a guarantor of security in the region, he said.
"If the Chinese strategy was to freeze us out, it has backfired," Russel said.
But the top-ranking Democrat on the committee, Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, complained that sometimes it appears that the only U.S. response to provocative actions by China is a "press release."