Center for Strategic Communication

The Senate Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs convened on September 20th, to discuss the maritime territorial disputes in Asia. The South China Sea, with claims by China, Vietnam, Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei, and the East China Sea, involving various disputes with China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan as claimants, were the main disputes examined. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Kurt Campbell, testified before the committee. The need for U.S. involvement in the disputes was a key theme that emerged in the hearing.

It began with Senator Jim Webb providing the history of the disputes in the East China Sea and South China Sea. Early in his statement he asserted that actions by China in recent years are “an accumulation of tactical incidents designed to pursue a larger strategic agenda.” This comment mirrored one by Dr. Yoshihara, Professor and John A. Van Beuren Chair of Asia-Pacific Studies at the US Naval War College, who testified in the House on September 12 on this same issue. He further stated that the U.S. seeks neither regional hegemony nor to contain China.

Assistant Secretary Campbell echoed Senator Webb’s statement by saying that America has an interest in the peaceful resolution of the disputes. In addition, he firmly stated that the United States objects to any party in any dispute resorting to the threat or use of force.

He recommended the U.S. continue engaging in the situations by building and strengthening bilateral relations in the region, encouraging ASEAN and its development of a Code of Conduct, and ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).  Assistant Secretary Campbell also noted that to enhance bilateral relations the U.S. needs to look to building military ties in addition to political and diplomatic ones.

Concerning the South China Sea, Assistant Secretary Campbell said that the U.S. approach has been “consistent and well-coordinated.” He went on to say that a way for the involved parties to build trust and a “habit of cooperation” is joint collaboration on resource exploitation.

The United States also holds strategic interests in the East China Sea disputes. Japan, a longtime key ally, is a claimant in the Senkaku/Diaoyu Island dispute. In 2004 President Bush stated that the Japanese-U.S. Security Treaty extends to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, this stance was recently reiterated by Secretary of Defense Panetta in his visit to Tokyo. The implication was that the U.S. may have to intervene on Japan’s behalf in the event of a conflict.

For both disputes, Assistant Secretary Campbell repeated Secretary Clinton’s remark that all parties should make an effort to reduce tension. With heightened tensions, it is easy for miscalculation to lead to an outbreak of hostilities. Reducing tension is one way of avoiding tragic mistakes.

When asked by Senator Dick Lugar whether current U.S. actions in the disputes is sufficient, Assistant Secretary Campbell replied that the basis of our involvement is strong and we just need to build on the efforts we have started.

Continued U.S. presence in Asia is essential and we must continue the work we have begun. At the same time we need to work on increasing trust and reducing tension among the disputants in order to prevent the conflicts from escalating.