The Implications of China's South China Sea activities

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U.S. Navy and Republic of Singapore ships steam through the South China Sea for the second of two combined Republic of Singapore and United States naval formations during a division tactics exercise during Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) 2008.

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I want to begin by thanking Congressman Forbes and Congresswoman Bordallo for their leadership, it is my honor to appear before you here today. They have been among the very few political leaders in the nation to carefully track a growing menace to U.S. security interests - China's military build-up and threat to the Asian order. I direct Asian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, and I am a member of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. The foregoing analysis and recommendations are my own.

We are here today because tensions in the South China Sea have been on the rise following a number of incidents at sea and tough rhetoric among the claimants to the sea's waters and islands.

Notable incidents include the following:

  • The most famous is the reckless collision of a Chinese fighter with a U.S. EP-3 plane in 2001, which led to the death of the Chinese pilot and the EP-3's emergency landing on Hainan Island.
  • More recently, in 2009 Chinese naval and maritime security vessels harassed unarmed U.S. surveillance ships in international waters in the Yellow Sea and South China Sea.
  • In February of this year, a Chinese frigate fired warning shots at Filipino fishing boats near the Jackson Atoll off the Philippines' Palawan Island just off the disputed Spratly Islands.
  • In May, China unilaterally announced a fishing ban, to last until August, in the northern part of the South China Sea.
  • Two allegedly Chinese, though unidentified, fighter jets were spotted near Palawan Island in May.
  • Three Chinese Ocean Marine Surveillance ships harassed a PetroVietnam vessel, cutting its towed survey cable, within Vietnam's Exclusive Economic Zone in May. Less than three weeks later, a Chinese fishing boat rammed another PetroVietnam ship, also within Vietnam's EEZ.

China's economic success and growing military might are emboldening it to press its maritime territorial claims and carve out a maritime sphere of influence in the Western Pacific that would restrict U.S. military access to the region. Recognizing this, countries like Vietnam and the Philippines--perhaps to Beijing's surprise--have decided that now is the time to take a firm stand. And while Chinese aggression has mostly been directed at Southeast Asian countries, vital U.S. national interests are at stake in the South China Sea as well.

Dan Blumenthal is a resident fellow at AEI.

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