By David Brunnstrom
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A leading U.S. senator has proposed that the United States provide hundreds of millions of dollars to help train and equip the armed forces of Southeast Asian countries faced with Chinese territorial challenges.
Republican Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, made the proposal in an amendment to the 2016 U.S. Defense Authorization Act expected to be passed later this year, entitled the South China Sea Initiative.
It allows for the provision of up to $425 million over five years to countries including Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam for "equipment, supplies, training and small-scale military construction."
The amendment was approved by the Armed Services Committee on May 14 by a vote of 22 to four - indicating strong bipartisan support. It still needs to be approved by the full Senate and the House of Representatives, which will vote on the overall bill later in the year.
McCain's proposal comes at a time of heightened tension in the South China Sea, where China has been increasingly assertive in pushing its claims to territory contested with several Southeast Asia states.
On Friday, the United States said China had placed mobile artillery systems on a reclaimed island in the South China Sea, a development that McCain called "disturbing and escalatory." [ID:nL3N0YK3P5]
McCain, who was taken prisoner during the Vietnam War and held for five and a half year, told a news conference in Ho Chi Minh City the United States needed to "take certain measures which will be a disincentive to China to continue these kinds of activities."
Washington has expressed concern about the scale and scope of Chinese land reclamation in the South China Sea. It says Chinese dredging work has added some 2,000 acres to five outposts in the resource-rich Spratly islands, including 1,500 acres this year alone.
The United States has deployed more military resources to the Asia-Pacific as part of a strategic rebalance to the region and has been working to strengthen the defense capabilities of countries there and to encourage a more unified approach to dealing with China. [ID:nL1N0YF09O]
Some members of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations, including U.S. ally the Philippines and fellow claimant Vietnam, have been vocal critics of Chinese actions in the South China Sea, but the group as a whole has been divided on the issue and reluctant to intervene.
(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Leslie Adler)