Washington, DC – Congressman Howard L. Berman, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, delivered the following remarks as prepared for delivery at today’s committee hearing, titled: “Beijing as an Emerging Power in the South China Sea.” The statement follows:
Thank you Madam Chairman for calling this timely hearing. Over the past few months, tensions in the South China Sea have escalated. In the past, territorial disputes in the region have been contained after cooler heads prevailed and diplomatic solutions achieved, and I hope the current situation follows a similar pattern. But what’s different this time is that the tensions have been stoked by China’s increasingly aggressive actions.
Five other countries along with China claim ownership of parts of the South China Sea, but China’s territorial claims are unusually expansive and intentionally vague. And while China is not the only claimant country to take unilateral actions to assert its control over territory and resources, Beijing’s actions are by far the most provocative.
China has threatened and damaged foreign ships, unilaterally declared a fishing ban for part of the year in half the South China Sea, and arrested foreign fisherman who did not comply.
Beijing has also increasingly militarized the region. It has established a new military garrison in the Paracel Islands, and announced the beginning of regular, combat-ready patrols in disputed areas of the South China Sea. These actions run directly counter to diplomatic efforts to resolve differences and risk further heightening regional tensions. They also undermine Beijing’s assurances to its neighbors and the world that China seeks a “peaceful rise.”
The immediate priority in the South China Sea is to de-escalate tensions and to encourage all parties to refrain from taking tit-for-tat actions that could lead to conflict. Stepping back from the crisis is in all parties’ interests, as the potential costs of conflict in the region far outweigh any of the potential economic benefits contained in the seabed of the South China Sea. The political leadership in the claimant countries should also make efforts to cool domestic public opinion, which is stoked by strident nationalistic sentiments.
The United States has a strong national interest in the maintenance of peace and stability, freedom of navigation, unimpeded lawful commerce, and ensuring a peaceful resolution of claims in the South China Sea accepted by all countries. Secretary Clinton and other top officials in the Obama Administration have repeatedly made clear to Beijing that we will not allow China to assert its hegemony over the region, and we must continue to press China must resolve its claims peacefully.
I thank the panel of expert witnesses for being here with us this morning. I look forward to their testimony and hearing what steps can be taken to ensure that the South China Sea does not devolve into hostile conflict. I yield back the balance of my time.