National Commentary

Webb Puts Spotlight On South China Sea

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Last weekend on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” anchor David Gregory repeatedly ignored the comments by Virginia’s U.S. Senator Jim Webb about an “Munich moment” in the South China Sea that is extremely important to U.S. strategic interests.

Gregory was ill-equipped, clearly, to handle any breaking news on his show that had not been vetted by his superiors ahead of time. He twice passed over Sen. Webb’s reference to a troubling act of military aggression by the Chinese to stick to the script on the subjects of Afghanistan and Libya.
But the next day, this Monday, a resolution introduced into the U.S. Senate by Webb was unanimously approved. It put the U.S. Senate on record “deploring the use of force by China in the South China Sea,” and called for “a peaceful, multinational resolution to maritime territorial disputes in Southeast Asia.”

The incident in question occurred on June 9. Three Chinese maritime security vessels ran into and disabled the cables of a Vietnamese exploration ship, the Viking 2, in an area within 200 miles of Vietnam’s continental shelf. The area is recognized under international law to be within Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone.

This case followed similar incidents on May 26 near Vietnam, and in March near the Philippines, as well as incidents at sea last September in waters of the Senkaku Islands, under the legal administration of Japan, according to a statement issued Monday by Sen. Webb’s office.

Following international condemnation of the June 9 incident, according to Webb’s office, China deployed its largest maritime security ship to the South China Sea, and several other nations in the region have also deployed military vessels there.

“A growing number of nations around the South China Sea are now voicing serious concerns about China’s pattern of intimidation,” Webb said in a statement. “These nations include Vietnam and the Philippines, as well as countries such as Singapore that do not have a stake in the territorial disputes. This is a significant development toward fostering a multilateral approach to resolve these territorial disputes in a peaceful manner, respecting the sovereignty of all claimants.”

While Webb’s statement Monday took a more positive tone, on “Meet the Press” Sunday he was more alarmist, for as much as Gregory would permit him to say. In his reference to a “Munich moment” approaching, he evoked growing concerns that the Chinese are taking a more aggressive approach toward encroaching on the sovereignty of its neighbors, something that, prior to the outbreak of World War II, the Germans under Hitler began doing.

Monday’s unanimous Senate resolution cited the June 4 claim by Liang Guanglie, the Chinese Defense Minister, that “China is committed to maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea,” and the June 11 claim by Hong Lei, the Foreign Ministry spokesman of China, that China “will not resort to force or the threat of force” to resolve territorial disputes.

However, it went on to affirm that the U.S. Senate “deplores the use of force by naval and maritime security vessels from China in the South China Sea,” and that it “calls on all parties to the territorial disputes to refrain from threatening force or using force to assert territorial claims.”

The incidents cited in the resolution, which Sen. Webb has been particularly attuned to insofar as he has been expressing concerns over sovereignty issues in the South China Sea region for over 15 years, included, in addition to the case off Vietnam, an attempt by Chinese patrol boats to ram a Philippine surveillance ship and the fact that China has claimed most of the 648,000 square miles of the South China Sea as its territory.

That claim has been disputed over the years by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei, especially regarding islands in the South China Sea such as the Spratly Islands, composed of 21 islands and atolls, 50 submerged land atolls and 28 partly submerged reefs over an area of 340,000 miles, and the Paracel Islands, a smaller group south of China’s Hainan Island. The sea also contains vital commercial shipping lanes and points of access between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

Nicholas Benton may be emailed at [email protected]