Courtney: ‘Ball in China’s Court’ to Reduce Naval Tensions
By RICHARD R. BURGESS, Managing Editor
WASHINGTON — A congressman who oversees naval matters said the increasing tensions between China and the United States and its allies is as much of a naval matter as a territorial matter.
Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., ranking member of the House Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee, told an audience at the Hudson Institute, a Washington think tank, July 18, “The 70-year reign of freedom of navigation which did so much to boost wealth growth across the world is now very much in play because of China’s extra-legal and illegal claims in terms of controlling the South China Sea and the East China Sea [with] the island-building.
“They really are trying to change what has been very successful 70-year-old record of peaceful rule of law that existed in the maritime realm,” Courtney said. “This whole issue of maritime freedom of navigation is changing in real time to the point where all our allies are looking at their naval budgets because they realize they can’t take for granted the environment that existed before.”
Courtney cited the increased demand for U.S. naval presence in the region as a factor in the collisions involving the destroyers USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain and merchant ships in separate incidents last year.
“The ship collisions that occurred fundamentally are being driven by the heel-to-toe deployments of our surface ships in response to this increased activity,” he said.
Courtney supported continuation of the freedom of navigation operations, noting the United States “does not need to ask the permission of the Chinese to exercise the right of innocent passage. … Clearly because of the challenge of quantity, whether or not that is sufficient to drive home the point and change the attitude, I don’t think that’s happened yet. What would be a good is getting some of our allies in the region to join us in those deployments and operations. Once you get a regular stream of traffic in the South China Sea near these islands, and it’s clear they’re going to continue, then I think you really change the dynamic.
Courtney took the opportunity to push for U.S. ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which would enable the United States to participate in deliberations such as the action filed by the Philippines regarding the artificial islands in the South China Sea.
“The policies that are being implemented [by China] in terms of island-building [and] asserting territorial waters that are just way outside international law or norms creates real problems that are just going to aggravate risk,” he said. “Our country could do more in terms of upholding international law in terms of ratifying the Law of the Sea treaty.
“But I personally feel that the ball is more in China’s court about whether or not they want to reduce risk in that part of the world,” he said, noting that other nations in the region are “very dissatisfied with the approach that is being taken [by China] in the maritime realm in that part of the world. They have a front row seat to it and they feel those risks acutely. If we can get to a point where people sit down and start talking these things through, that’s better than playing chicken out there on the high seas.”