Commentary

Dangerous Congressional Meddling in the South China Sea

There is a strong argument for a vigorous congressional role in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy. For example, the Constitution requires that all treaties receive a two-thirds vote from that body for ratification. Even more important, the Constitution gives Congress the crucial authority to declare war. Yet even as those legitimate and important powers, especially the war power, have atrophied in recent decades through a combination of executive usurpation and congressional abdication, Congress has injected itself, to an ever greater extent, into the day-to-day operations of foreign policy that were meant to be handled by the executive branch. 

Two recent incidents highlight that trend. One was a Senate resolution regarding the highly sensitive territorial disputes in the South China and East China seas between China and neighboring states. The other was an especially ill-timed House measure that sought to tighten economic sanctions against Iran immediately following the election of a new and apparently much more conciliatory Iranian president. Both were decidedly unhelpful to the Obama administration’s ability to navigate among some rather perilous diplomatic shoals, but of the two episodes, the Senate meddling has the greater potential to cause long-term damage to U.S. foreign policy, especially to relations with a key power: China.

Congress has injected itself, to an ever greater extent, into the day-to-day operations of foreign policy that were meant to be handled by the executive branch.”

On the surface, the Senate resolution seemed innocuous enough. It expressed the “strong support of the United States for the peaceful resolution of territorial, sovereignty, and jurisdictional disputes in the Asia-Pacific maritime domains.” The resolution also proclaimed that the United States “does not take a position on competing territorial claims over land features and maritime boundaries.” But despite such soothing language, the measure was a rather undiplomatic rebuke to China and its policies.

It stressed a U.S. national interest in the disputes, including respect for “universally recognized principles of international law,” the maintenance of peace and stability in the region, “open access to all maritime domains,” and “unimpeded lawful commerce.” Since the United States is the world’s leading maritime power, emphasizing the importance of those goals is legitimate and unsurprising. But all of the “numerous dangerous and destabilizing incidents” in recent years that the measure listed as posing a threat to those interests were attributed to Chinese actions. 

That aspect was especially unfair. The infamous naval “water cannons” battle between Taiwanese and Japanese naval vessels in the East China Sea last summer was hardly an example of peaceful, responsible, conduct by either party. Likewise, Vietnam’s initiation of military air patrols in disputed regions of the South China Sea, or the Philippines’ temporary occupation of a disputed shoal last year, clearly raised tensions. Yet the senators had nothing to say about such provocations from parties other than China.

Indeed, the resolution enumerated several steps taken by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and such individual parties as the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Japan that warranted praise for trying to reduce tensions and create the basis for compromise solutions.  In contrast, the resolution went out of its way to list numerous actions, including some that were not directly connected to the Chinese government, purporting to demonstrate Beijing’s uncooperative, belligerent behavior. The text of the resolution even cited a May 8 article in the People’s Daily by some Chinese scholars questioning Japan’s sovereignty over Okinawa, even though Chinese officials promptly distanced themselves from that article and emphasized that Beijing in no way challenges Japan’s sovereignty over the island. 

Lest anyone in China miss the underlying message, the resolution went on to emphasize Washington’s support for Japan’s continuing administration of the Senkaku Islands (which China claims under the name Diaoyu Islands) and stressed that the bilateral U.S.-Japan defense treaty covered those islands, despite their disputed status. So much for the professed U.S. “neutrality” regarding territorial controversies!

Several of the “resolved” clauses exhibited more than an undertone of criticism and hostility toward China. One condemned “the use of coercion, threats, or force by naval, maritime security, or fishing vessels and military and civilian aircraft” in either the South China Sea or East China Sea “to assert territorial claims or alter the status quo.” Since the resolution previously listed numerous alleged Chinese actions but not a single one by any other party, it was apparent against whom this warning was directed. Likewise, resolution language encouraging the deepening of Washington’s efforts to develop partnerships with other countries in the region “for maritime awareness and capacity building,” and expressing support for “the continuing of operations by United States Armed Forces in the Western Pacific, including in partnership with the armed forces of other countries in the region,” to advance those goals could hardly be viewed in Beijing as friendly.

Not surprisingly, the Chinese government reacted angrily to the passage (by an overwhelming margin) of the Senate resolution. A Foreign Ministry statement condemned the vote, saying that the senators “took heed of neither history nor facts, unjustifiably blaming China and sending the wrong message.” It added that the government had already made “stern representations with the U.S. side,” and urged the Senate to correct its error “to avoid further complicating the issue and the regional situation.”

Ever since Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s speech to ASEAN in July 2010, Chinese suspicions have grown that the United States is injecting itself into the murky, sensitive territorial disputes in the South China and East China seas. The Obama administration’s military flirtation with Vietnam, the rebuilding of U.S. military ties with the Philippines, and the repeated assertions that the defense treaty with Japan covers the Senkaku Islands, have all furthered those suspicions. The last thing the U.S. Senate needed to do was to become directly involved in a thoroughly biased fashion and confirm that Washington is determined to undermine China’s claims and interests. This set of issues was already a diplomatic mine field, and the Senate’s action has increased the likelihood of a detonation.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is the author of nine books and more than 500 articles and published policy studies on international affairs.