Hearing of the Asia and Pacific Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee - Opening Statement of Rep. Salmon, Hearing on Diplomacy and Security in the South China Sea: After the Tribunal


Date: Sept. 22, 2016
Location: Washington, DC

The South China Sea is one of the toughest and most persistent problems in this Subcommittee's jurisdiction. These maritime and territorial disputes are universally recognized as a long term security challenge and potential short term flashpoint. Conflicting claims to the strategic waterways which connect maritime Asia endanger trade, transportation, commerce, and energy flows, creating the risk of conflict. China has taken the riskiest and most dangerous actions of any party to the disputes, seizing territory far from its shores, fielding huge fleets of coast guard and fishing vessels to bolster its claims, and constructing military outposts throughout contested zones to consolidate its strategic position. Despite the dire and worsening situation, recent developments have given the South China Sea an unfulfilled potential for positive progress.

This summer, an arbitral tribunal constituted under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea issued an eagerly-anticipated ruling in a case between China and the Philippines, bringing legal certainty to the obvious truth that China's claims in the South China Sea are illegitimate. Though the international community cheered the ruling, its influence is still uncertain. Since the tribunal announced its ruling, the uncertain status quo has persisted in the South China Sea, and there have been signals that China plans to take its construction efforts to the Scarborough Shoal, a sensitive area just off Philippine shores, which would be a serious escalation.

At the same time, China has moved aggressively to generate diplomatic cover for its legally untenable and unjustifiable claims. Throughout the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), China has used surrogates to disrupt and block consensus, successfully preventing unified statements on the issue at recent regional summits. There are also obvious signs of intense efforts to win more Southeast Asian support for China's position. For example, Thailand recently stated its support for China's so-called efforts to maintain peace in the South China Sea, though Thailand is not a claimant to that dispute and has traditionally remained neutral on the issue.

Conduct from the Philippines during this period has been more and more disappointing. The Philippines' victory before the international tribunal was a shining example of the peaceful resolution of a dispute between two states, based on legal principle as opposed to force. It demonstrated the value of the system of international law that states have used cooperatively to avoid major conflict for decades. Despite this victory, the Philippines has not leveraged the ruling in its dealings with China. The cool response was at first lauded as savvy diplomacy, but since then things have become decidedly worse.

The new President, Rodrigo Duterte, has called into question the Philippines' dedication to the rule of law, creating a domestic crisis of widespread extrajudicial killing. He has engaged in childish name-calling towards President Obama and our Ambassador to the Philippines. He has announced his intention to end longstanding and successful counterterror cooperation in Mindanao, raised the possibility of increasing arms acquisitions from China and Russia, and spoken of ending joint maritime patrols with the U.S. Navy.

At the same time, the importance of the Philippines' legal victory has been downplayed or avoided altogether. President Duterte has affirmatively avoided the topic in his discussions with Chinese interlocutors, and he deliberately declined to raise the issue in a recent high-profile speech, throwing away his prepared remarks on the ruling at the last minute.

To be sure, many ASEAN states have good reason to evaluate critically their capacity and will to resist China's influence on this issue. In virtually every case, modest defense capabilities and close economic ties mean that China is an undeniably important partner for each ASEAN country. By playing their cards close to their chest, or signaling potential compromise with China, Southeast Asian nations seem to be navigating the post-ruling uncertainties of the South China Sea extremely cautiously, feeling out bilateral options, and seeking the most advantageous near-term result, at the cost of a collective response that might better suit each of their needs.

As in many other realms, responsibility falls to the United States in the South China Sea; not just to advance our allies' and partners' interests, but to protect our own. Every nation has a stake in the rule of law, the protection of territorial integrity, and in peaceful dispute resolution. In Southeast Asia, where a vacuum of strategic military strength is being filled by China's rising forces, these interests are in jeopardy. It falls to us to backstop our partners with our own strength and integrity, and to remind those nations faltering under China's self-serving diplomatic assault what is at stake.

With our expert panel today, we will review the developments in the South China Sea disputes following the arbitral ruling, with an eye towards formulating policy options to protect the freedom of navigation, the rule of law, and peaceful dispute resolution. We'll also be looking to strengthen, rather than weaken, our relationships in the region in response to this challenge, and I look forward to the witnesses' recommendations for that as well.