WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama's policy on the disputed South China Sea came under attack Tuesday from a fellow Democrat, and in an unusual twist, it was a Republican adversary who leapt to the administration's defense.
State Department officials were testifying before a House foreign affairs subcommittee, requesting an increase in their budget for East Asia and the Pacific, which Obama has made a strategic priority even as he has been sidetracked by turmoil in the Mideast.
Rep. Brad Sherman of California, the panel's top-ranking Democrat, accused the administration of exaggerating the importance of uninhabited islands in the region's contested seas. He contended that the Pentagon was also playing up the threat posed by China, which has territorial disputes with several of its neighbors.
"While we all agree that the region is important, I think we are going down the wrong path because we are being war hawks about some islets that remain uninhabited to this day. That's how useless they are," Sherman said.
Daniel Russel, top diplomat for East Asia, responded that the U.S. was standing up for international norms and had a "vital" economic and security interests there.
"It's not about the rocks, it's about the rules. We profit when we live in a rules-based world," Russel said.
Rep. Matt Salmon of Arizona, Republican chair of the panel, agreed. He said if the islands have no value, "then why is China building runways on them?"
"It's causing our allies in the region great, great, great concern," he said.
Tensions have risen in the last two years in the South China Sea, and although the U.S. does not claim territory there, it has become a major source of friction with rising power China.
China has reclaimed land on disputed reefs and islets that could be used to project its military might far from the Chinese mainland. The Philippines, which is a U.S. ally, as well as Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei have territorial claims there. China has a separate dispute with Japan over uninhabited islands lying further north.
Although Salmon is a staunch critic of higher spending on most U.S. government programs, he was fulsome in his support of the administration's budget request for $1.5 billion for U.S. foreign operations and assistance for East Asia, for the fiscal year starting in October — an 11 percent increase over fiscal 2015.
"What you all do is keep us out of war. For less than 1 percent of the total budget, the job that you do is incredibly worth it," Salmon said, referring to the proportion of the federal budget spent on global foreign operations.
Salmon was also strongly supportive of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a regional free-trade pact championed by Obama. It was signed in February by the U.S. and 11 Pacific rim nations, including Japan, but has yet to be ratified by Congress.
Like many Democrats, Sherman is vehemently against the pact, fearing it will cost American jobs. He said it was "manifestly against American interests."