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U.S. Officials to Congress: Chinese Response to Pending South China Sea Ruling Unclear

Scarborough Shoal

Scarborough Shoal

Neither what China will do following the ruling on its dispute with the Philippines over coral reefs in the South China Sea is clear, nor is the United States response beyond “preserving space for a diplomatic solution.”

On Thursday subcommittees from House Armed Services and House Foreign Affairs held a joint hearing on “a region at a crossroads,” as Abraham Denmark, deputy assistant secretary for East Asia in the Pentagon put it to attempt to measure what comes next.

Beijing has already signaled that it does not feel bound by the decision from the Hague tribunal, expected to be announced July 12.

China has distanced itself from other claimants in the vital waterway that include Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan by building islands on coral reefs that house radar sites, military airfields and have created¬†harbors for its coast guard and People’s Liberation Army Navy ships to exercise “low-intensity coercion” in the region. The question he said comes down to accepting the rule of law or “the raw calculation of power,” Denmark said.

His counterpart at the State Department, Colin Willett, said, “The United States has a vested interest” in the South China Sea, but does not take sides in territorial disputes. The pending case does not involve settling territorial claims but in determining whether the land features are islands or something less.

But when asked if China decided to occupy Scarborough Shoal, near the Philippines, she said the United States would consider the move “very destabilizing,” but would go no further. Denmark said that a response¬†depends upon what Beijing placed on the disputed territory. If it was military, it would increase its ability to control the South China Sea, out to its self-proclaimed 9-dash line of claimed territory, he said.

Willett added the United States will “continue to protect our rights and others'” to freely navigate the waters and fly over the air space where allowed by international law.

“Our focus is on [Chinese] behavior after the decision,” she added. The idea behind U.S. thinking and actions even now is “flouting the law … isn’t paying dividends.”

Denmark said the United States is working to deter China with an increased military presence and a higher operating tempo.

Earlier in the day at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C., think tank, Rep. Mac Thornberry, (R-Texas), and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, commended the administration for the stepped up presence but noted “a shortage of ships” in the Navy to do much more.

Denmark said that America is working with allies, like the Philippines, and other regional partners to build up their maritime capability, develop a common operating picture to work more effectively together and establish their own maritime presence as a deterrent.

“There are a number of nations that want to work with us,” Thornberry said at the think tank. “Working with us” goes beyond security to economic interaction including the TransPacific Partnership (TTP) and diplomacy to settle disputes, Willett said.

“We’ve answered that call,” Denmark said from the region to show the United States continued high interest in the South China Sea. “I do think [the Rim of the Pacific exercise} is a good demonstration … of America’s power.” He added Beijing and Washington are maintaining a “robust military-to- military diplomacy.” The two countries have made strides in decreasing incidents of “unsafe interactions” at sea and in the air, but “it’s an issue that we are going to continue [discussing] with the [People’s Liberation Army].”

Willett said the United States’ efforts are trying to ensure “everyone performs with restraint” after the ruling is handed down. “It’s not about the rocks; it’s about the rules.”

Thornberry said at Heritage, “We can’t just look at the South China Sea in isolation. …There are calculations going on all the time” in Beijing, Moscow and with other potential adversaries about what the United States will do in meeting new challenges and probes across the globe.