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Assistant Secretary Russel's Congressional Testimony on Maritime Disputes in East Asia

Published February 5, 2014

Assistant Secretary of East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel testified before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific on February 5, 2014. He discussed tensions in East Asia sea, China's announcement of its Air Defense Identification Zone, and U.S. role in maintaining relations.


Mr. Chairman, we have a deep and long-standing stake in the maintenance of prosperity and stability in the Asia-Pacific and an equally deep and abiding long-term interest in the continuance of freedom of the seas based on the rule of law – one that guarantees, among other things, freedom of navigation and overflight and other internationally lawful uses of the sea related to those freedoms. International law makes clear the legal basis on which states can legitimately assert their rights in the maritime domain or exploit marine resources. By promoting order in the seas, international law is instrumental in safeguarding the rights and freedoms of all countries regardless of size or military strength.

I think it is imperative that we be clear about what we mean when the United States says that we take no position on competing claims to sovereignty over disputed land features in the East China and South China Seas. First of all, we do take a strong position with regard to behavior in connection with any claims: we firmly oppose the use of intimidation, coercion or force to assert a territorial claim. Second, we do take a strong position that maritime claims must accord with customary international law. This means that all maritime claims must be derived from land features and otherwise comport with the international law of the sea. So while we are not siding with one claimant against another, we certainly believe that claims in the South China Sea that are not derived from land features are fundamentally flawed. In support of these principles and in keeping with the longstanding U.S. Freedom of Navigation Program, the United States continues to oppose claims that impinge on the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea that belong to all nations.

As I just noted, we care deeply about the way countries behave in asserting their claims or managing their disputes. We seek to ensure that territorial and maritime disputes are dealt with peacefully, diplomatically and in accordance with international law. Of course this means making sure that shots aren't fired; but more broadly it means ensuring that these disputes are managed without intimidation, coercion, or force. We have repeatedly made clear that freedom of navigation is reflected in international law, not something to be granted by big states to others. President Obama and Secretary Kerry have made these points forcefully and clearly in their interactions with regional leaders, and I – along with my colleagues in the State Department, Defense Department, the National Security Council and other agencies – have done likewise.

We are also candid with all the claimants when we have concerns regarding their claims or the ways that they pursue them. Deputy Secretary Burns and I were in Beijing earlier this month to hold regular consultations with the Chinese government on Asia-Pacific issues, and we held extensive discussions regarding our concerns. These include continued restrictions on access to Scarborough Reef; pressure on the long-standing Philippine presence at the Second Thomas Shoal; putting hydrocarbon blocks up for bid in an area close to another country's mainland and far away even from the islands that China is claiming; announcing administrative and even military districts in contested areas in the South China Sea; an unprecedented spike in risky activity by China's maritime agencies near the Senkaku Islands; the sudden, uncoordinated and unilateral imposition of regulations over contested airspace in the case of the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone; and the recent updating of fishing regulations covering disputed areas in the South China Sea. These actions have raised tensions in the region and concerns about China's objectives in both the South China and the East China Seas.

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 and despite the lack of any explanation or apparent basis under international law regarding the scope of the claim itself. China's lack of clarity with regard to its South China Sea claims has created uncertainty, insecurity and instability in the region. It limits the prospect for achieving a mutually agreeable resolution or equitable joint development arrangements among the claimants. I want to reinforce the point that under international law, maritime claims in the South China Sea must be derived from land features. 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. The international community would welcome China to clarify or adjust its nine-dash line claim to bring it in accordance with the international law of the sea.

We support serious and sustained diplomacy between the claimants to address overlapping claims in a peaceful, non-coercive way. This can and should include bilateral as well as multilateral diplomatic dialogue among the claimants. But at the same time we fully support the right of claimants to exercise rights they may have to avail themselves of peaceful dispute settlement mechanisms. The Philippines chose to exercise such a right last year with the filing of an arbitration case under the Law of the Sea Convention.

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