A US senator is warning that while US attention is distracted by the presidential campaign, all of East Asia is watching what Washington will do about Chinese actions in the South China Sea.
“They know a test when they see one,” Democratic Senator James Webb said in the Wall Street Journal.
“They are waiting to see whether America will live up to its uncomfortable, but necessary, role as the true guarantor of stability in East Asia, or whether the region will again be dominated by belligerence and intimidation,” he said.
The article was the latest in a series of strong indications that senior members of the US Congress are increasingly concerned by Chinese claims in the South China Sea.
On Sunday, the New York Times said in an editorial that confrontations over territorial control in the South China Sea were “alarmingly frequent” and could get out of hand, with dangerous consequences.
The newspaper said: “There is no question that China’s economic power and its assertive use of its navy and commercial vessels to project influence has changed the regional dynamics.”
As a result, the Times said, the administration of US President Barack Obama should invest more effort in the South China Sea, both working with China and strengthening alliances with its rivals.
Webb argued in his article that the question is whether China truly wishes to resolve issues through acceptable international standards.
“History teaches us that when unilateral acts of aggression go unanswered, the bad news never gets better with age,” he said. “Nowhere is this cycle more apparent than in the alternating power shifts in East Asia.”
Webb said that China has “for all practical purposes” unilaterally annexed an area that extends eastward from the East Asian mainland as far as the Philippines and nearly as far south as the Strait of Malacca.
The senator said that US reaction had been “muted” and that the US Department of State’s response was “carefully couched” in diplomacy.
“In truth, American vacillations have for years emboldened China,” he said.
“Due to China’s growing power in the region, by taking no position Washington has by default become an enabler of China’s ever more aggressive acts,” Webb said.
However, the US, China and all of East Asia has now reached “an unavoidable” moment of truth. Seeking peaceful resolution is one thing, while “flagrant, belligerent acts” are quite another, Webb said.
“How this challenge is addressed will have implications not only for the South China Sea, but also for the stability of East Asia and for the future of US-China relations,” he said.