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Rising rivalry with China Increasingly Concerns U.S. Senate

December 26th 2013

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The recent flare-up in tensions in the Pacific has raised new doubts about America and China’s ability to peacefully coexist as both set their sights on Asia’s booming potential. On a range of issues — from territorial claims to business practices, economic policies to the environment — the two countries’ struggle to find common ground is all but certain to dominate the headlines for years to come.

Julian Pecquet visited China for 10 days in October at the invitation of the China-United States Exchange Foundation, a Hong Kong-based nonprofit that funds visits by lawmakers, journalists and others. He found that Beijing’s suspicions about the great power across the Pacific mirrored those in Washington, DC.

Congress is taking a hard line against China in the showdown over a handful of tiny Pacific islands, complicating the Obama administration’s efforts to manage the issue.

Senators of both parties are demanding that China rescind its new air defense zone over Japanese-held islands, going beyond the White House's own admonishments. And several Republicans have taken issue with the administration's recommendation that U.S. air carriers abide by China's request to be informed of all flights through the zone.

“I don't think anyone should be reporting to them,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told The Hill. “If the Chinese are willing to shoot down a civilian aircraft on an illegitimate claim, then they're a criminal government. Airlines are free to do whatever they choose, but I don't think our government should be telling them to do that because it sends confusing messages.”

The sharp tone risks antagonizing China, which blames the United States and its much vaunted “pivot to Asia” for rising tensions in the area.

Chinese military officials argue that President Obama's decision to beef up the U.S. military presence in the region has emboldened U.S. allies such as Japan and the Philippines to step up their challenge to China's decades-old territorial claims in the East and South China Seas. “The rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific played a role in encouraging some of the allies to take a more provocative, a more aggressive stance,” said an official with China's Academy of Military Science in Beijing.

China feels threatened by the administration's decision to move more ships and open up small outposts throughout the region, the sources in Beijing said. “These disputes may not be problems the U.S. would like to see but their actions to prioritize military factors may make those already existing disputes become more and more heated,” the official added.

The biggest tension point is with Japan, which purchased three deserted islands in the East China Sea that China views as its territory. Tensions came to a head last month when China unilaterally established its air defense zone over the Senkakus. Japan refused to recognize it and the Obama administration flew two B-52 bombers through the zone in a show of force.

Chinese and U.S. leaders quickly sought to calm tensions, but neither side is backing down. Vice-President Biden told President Xi Jinping in Beijing earlier this month that the U.S. had “deep concerns” about the zone but stopped short of demanding that China rescind it. “We are looking to China to take steps to reduce tensions,” a senior administration official said.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) criticized Biden for not placing the issue front and center in his public remarks when he met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Beijing in December. The Senate unanimously passed a resolution in July condemning “the use of threats or force by naval, maritime security, or fishing vessels and military or civilian aircraft in the South China Sea and the East China Sea to assert disputed maritime or territorial claims.”

And Rubio, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Affairs panel on East Asia, joined three other committee leaders of both parties in a letter telling China's ambassador to Washington to back off earlier this month. “We urge your government not to implement this ADIZ as announced, and to refrain from taking similar provocative actions elsewhere in the region,” they wrote. “There is nothing for China to gain by undermining regional stability and threatening the peace and prosperity that is the shared objective of all Asia-Pacific nations.”

The Obama administration has not taken a position in the territorial disputes but wants a multilateral solution to the competing claims. China prefers one-on-one negotiations with its far smaller neighbors.

Beijing thinks the U.S. has taken a side on the issue, and that it has sided with longtime ally Japan. It notes that America's 1960 Defense treaty with Japan mentions the islands. “Although [the U.S.] still states that it has no position on the territorial dispute,” the Chinese military official said, “to me it just seems absurd that it would commit itself to defend a few small islands which it has no position about.”


1895: Japan marks Diaoyu/Senkaku islands as Japanese territory, claims no one lives there

1945: US takes control following WW2

1960: US-Japan defense treaty covers islands

1960s: Surveys suggest oil deposits under the islands

1971: China and Taiwan claim the islands as their own, argue Japan stole them during 1894-1895 war

1972: Japan regains administrative control

2006: Incursions by Chinese and Taiwanese vessels begin

Sept. 2012: Japanese government buys three islands from private owner to thwart bid by nationalist mayor of Tokyo, sparking major anti-Japanese protests in China

Nov. 2012: Beijing issues new passports laying claim to disputed islands in the South China Sea, drawing protests from the Philippines and Vietnam

2013: China steps up military activity, locking targeting radar on a Japanese ship and moving ballistic missiles closer to the coast

Nov. 23, 2013: China declares Air Defense Identification Zone around the islands, requiring aircraft to report their flight paths to Beijing

Nov. 26, 2013: US flies two unarmed B-52s through the zone without informing China

Dec. 4, 2013: Vice-President Biden in Beijing tells President Xi Jinping that America is “deeply concerned” with China's zone but stops short of demanding its removal.

Julian Pecquet writes for TheHill.com, from where this article is adapted.

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