WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. voiced concern Wednesday that China is gradually asserting control in the disputed South China Sea on the basis of vague territorial claims unsupported by international law.
Sharpening U.S. criticism of the rising Asian power, Daniel Russel, the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, described in congressional testimony a litany of actions by China that are raising tensions.
Russel said China has restricted access to a contested reef in the South China Sea; taken bids on areas far from its own shores for hydrocarbon exploration; and imposed fishing regulations in disputed waters.
"There is a growing concern that this pattern of behavior in the South China Sea reflects an incremental effort by China to assert control over the area contained in the so-called 'nine-dash line,' despite the objections of its neighbors," Russel said, referring to the map markings used by China to depict its maritime territorial claims.
"Any use of the 'nine-dash line' by China to claim maritime rights not based on claimed land features would be inconsistent with international law," he said, urging China to clarify or adjust its claim.
Using less diplomatic language, Republican Rep. Matt Salmon said China's approach seemed to be, "we're going to see what we can get away with, and if the U.S. has the guts, the cojones, to challenge us." Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly said from a distance it looks like China is "picking a fight with Vietnam, with the Philippines, with Japan, among others."
China cites a historical basis for its South China Sea claims. According to the U.S. Congressional Research Service, the nine-dash line covers roughly 80 percent of those resource-rich waters, which are dotted with reefs and islands subject to multiple disputes, also involving the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
The U.S. says it takes no position on the competing sovereignty claims, but says it has a national interest in peaceful resolution of the disputes and in freedom of navigation and commerce. Russel said that agreement between China and Southeast Asia's regional bloc on a code of conduct to regulate behavior in the South China Sea is long overdue.
China has been reluctant to discuss territorial disputes with the bloc, although there has been tentative progress on negotiating the code in the past year.
Russel also voiced concern about the "serious downturn" in relations between China and Japan, a close U.S. ally.
He criticized China's "provocative" declaration of an air defense identification zone over the East China Sea and a spike in "risky activity" by China near uninhabited islands controlled by Japan but also claimed by China. He said the U.S. supported Japan's call for diplomacy and crisis management procedures to avoid a dangerous incident.
Japan's foreign minister will meet with Secretary of State John Kerry in Washington on Friday.
Japan's prime minister recently angered China and drew a rare U.S. expression of disapproval for visiting a controversial war shrine in Tokyo.
Some Republicans took issue with the Obama administration at Wednesday's hearing, saying its attempt to refocus U.S. foreign policy toward Asia lacked substance and that it had failed to reassure allies there.
"The Asia-Pacific region is the future. It's the driver of the global economy and will make our break our geopolitical role in the world," said Steve Chabot, Republican chair of the House subcommittee overseeing U.S. policy toward the region.