The U.S. is ratcheting up cooperation with Asian allies to counter China’s “assertive and provocative behavior in the South China Sea” that is challenging the freedom of navigation in the crucial waterway, Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken told lawmakers Thursday during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing.
Blinken’s remarks came after a bipartisan group of U.S. senators introduced the Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Initiative Act — legislation they say will strengthen security assistance to partners in Southeast Asia and increase U.S. naval patrols near the contested islands in the South China Sea.
Defense officials have yet to publicly confirm the frequency of U.S. Navy patrols in the disputed waters, though some U.S. lawmakers asked the administration to expand the pace of freedom-of-navigation operations in that area to a weekly or monthly basis.
“Sending one a quarter is simply insufficient to send a strong message to China,” Republican Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado said Wednesday. He chairs the Senate Foreign Relations East Asia subcommittee and is one of the sponsors of the new maritime security legislation.
This proposal brought a sharp response from Beijing.
An FA-18 jet fighter takes off on the USS John C. Stennis aircraft carrier in the South China Sea on April 15, 2016.
On Thursday, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying cited data from a U.S. magazine (The National Interest) that indicated it cost “$6.5 million a day” to operate a U.S. carrier strike group. She denounced the legislation and said Washington was “exaggerating deliberately” against Beijing at the expense of U.S. taxpayers.
“With the U.S. national debt exceeding $19 trillion, have those in the U.S. won support from taxpayers when they go to all lengths to push for the so-called freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea?” asked Hua.
Although the United States is not a claimant to the sovereignty over disputed islands in the South China Sea, senior officials have been saying it is vital to U.S. interests that various claimants pursue their claims peacefully and in accordance with international laws.
Blinken told lawmakers anything that “threatens freedom of navigation” and the peaceful resolution of disputes is “a problem” for the U.S.
“China is making it more difficult for us to carry out our own commitments and our own alliances. That is also a problem for us,” Blinken said Wednesday during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.