Blinken: 'China's Objective' Is Control of the Entire South China Sea

Susan Jones | April 28, 2016 | 8:03am EDT
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U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken, center, smiles with unidentified officials of Vietnam National University during his visit, in Hanoi, Vietnam, Thursday, April, 21, 2016. Blinken on Thursday questioned China's intentions with its massive land reclamation project in the South China Sea. (AP Photo/Tran Van Minh)

( - "I just want to ask you this, if you agree with this line," Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) asked Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken on Wednesday: "China's consistently pursuing a single, long-term strategy with the effective control of the entire South China Sea as its ultimate goal."

"Yes," Blinken responded, "I think that is China's objective."

Rubio noted that the latest flashpoint in the South China Sea, where China is building artificial islands for military purposes, is a shoal located 120 nautical miles off the Philippines, where the U.S. has military bases of its own.

China reportedly is moving to build another island on the shoal, even as a United Nations tribunal moves closer to a decision on the Philippines' complaint that China's seizure of the shoal violates international law. A ruling on the dispute is expected very soon.

"We've reached a point now, though, where there's no denying the fact that China has positioned itself as a geopolitical rival to the United States," Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) told the Foreign Relations Committee. "The calculated and incremental strategy on the part of Beijing to challenge U.S. power is having real consequences for U.S. interests and international norms in the Indo-Pacific and beyond."

Corker said it's even more troubling that in his opinion, the Obama administration still doesn't have a coherent China policy:

"For example, in the South China Sea, neither the rhetoric nor the freedom of navigation operations have deterred or slowed down China's land-reclamation activities, including the stationing of military related assets on these artificial islands. Moreover, many experts assess it is increasingly likely that Beijing will declare an air defense identification zone in the South China Sea."

An air defense identification zone extends a country's airspace for defensive purposes.

Deputy Secretary Blinken admitted that the U.S. has "significant areas of difference" surrounding China's "assertive and provocative behavior" in the South China Sea.

A main concern is freedom of navigation, and Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) challenged Blinken on that point, asking him if he considers U.S. freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) in the South China Sea as "routine."

"Yes," Blinken said. "We're engaged in regular FONOPS, and those will continue."

"I would hope that we would actually step up our pace of activities in South China Sea," Gardner said. He said it's clear that the pace of current freedom of navigation operations "have not sent the message to China that this is a navigable waterway under international law."

Blinken told Gardner that the Obama administration has been "very actively and very aggressively messaging China privately and publicly about its obligations, as well as the obligation of other claimants.

"We have been working very closely with all of the claimants to secure from them an understanding that, for example, the (U.N.) arbitration is an appropriate mechanism to resolve these disputes, and it will be binding on the parties (China and the Philippines) once it is issued."

Blinken said as long as the United States "remains fully present" in the region, "any tactical advantage that China derives from some of these (island) outposts will be vastly outweighed" by "alienating virtually every country in the neighborhood." Those alienated countries, including Vietnam, are becoming closer to the United States as a result of China's activities, he added.

Sen. Corker agreed with Sen. Gardner that holding freedom of navigation operations once a quarter is viewed by China "as nothing but symbolic."

With 60 percent of the U.S. Navy in the Asia Pacific region, "I don't know why we're not doing it weekly or monthly," Corker said. "I don't think it's any question but that China views that solely as a light-touch, symbolic effort, and I have no idea why we're not cruising within those 12 nautical miles on a weekly basis."

In a foreign policy speech on Wednesday, Republican Donald Trummp said "fixing our relations" with China depends on a strengthened America.

"China respects strength, and by letting them take advantage of us economically, which they are doing like never before, we have lost all of their respect," Trump said.

"We have a massive trade deficit with China, a deficit that we have to find a way quickly, and I mean quickly, to balance. A strong and smart America is an America that will find a better friend in China, better than we have right now.

"Look at what China is doing in the South China Sea. They're not supposed to be doing it. No respect for this country or this president. We can both benefit or we can both go our separate ways, if need be -- that's what's going to have to happen," Trump said.

While visiting Germany earlier this week, President Obama spoke about U.S. relations with China in an interview with PBS host Charlie Rose.

"How aggressive do you see the action in the South China Sea, and do you worry that they will cross some line in which you will have to respond more aggressively?" Rose asked the president.

"I've been consistent since I have been president in believing that a productive, candid relationship between the United States and China is vital, not just to our two countries but to world peace and security," Obama said. "And generally, we've been able to establish those kinds of channels and work through a series of tensions.

"I have repeatedly said to the Chinese government that we welcome a continued, peaceful rise of China. One of the arguments that I make in the United States is that we have a lot more to fear from a weak, disintegrating, paranoid China that can't absorb, you know, hundreds of millions of people who might slip back into poverty. We're a lot better off with a China that feels confident."

Obama said when it comes to the South China Sea, China has decided to ignore international norms and rules. "[T]heir attitude is, we're the biggest kids around here, and we're going to push aside the Philippines or the Vietnamese."

Obama said the U.S. "isn't choosing sides" in China's dispute with other nations: "What we are trying to uphold is a basic notion of international rules, norms, and order."

Obama said the U.S. wants China to be a "partner," but when they "break out of international rules and norms...we're going to hold them to account."

"And how do you do that?" Rose asked.

"Well, there's going to be a variety of diplomatic mechanisms. They care about what we think. They're not looking to pick a fight either. We do have to understand their politics and their systems, and we're not looking for any rash actions of any sort, but what we have been able to do is to send a clear message to them that the international community is on the side of resolving these disputes peacefully."

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