Washington: A bipartisan group of powerful American Senators has slammed China for sinking a Vietnamese vessel in the disputed South China Sea, terming it a “flagrant violation” of international law at a time when the world is combating the COVID-19 pandemic that spread partly due to Beijing’s “cover-up and negligence”.
Last week, the State Department expressed serious concern over reports that China sank a Vietnamese fishing vessel in the vicinity of the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.
This incident is the latest in a long string of Chinese actions to assert unlawful maritime claims and disadvantage its Southeast Asian neighbours in the South China Sea, said State Department Spokesperson Morgan Ortagus.
The Pentagon said that the Chinese behaviour stood in contrast to the United States’ vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region, in which all nations, large and small, are secure in their sovereignty, free from coercion, and able to pursue economic growth consistent with accepted international rules and norms.
A joint statement was issued on Monday by Senators Cory Gardner and Ed Markey, chairman and ranking member of Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific, and International Cybersecurity Policy, along with Senators Jim Risch and Bob Menendez, chairman and ranking member of Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“I condemn in the strongest terms China’s sinking of a Vietnamese vessel in the South China Sea,” Gardner said.
“This is a flagrant violation of international law and comes at a time when nations around the world are focused on combating the COVID-19 scourge that spread in part due to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) cover-up and negligence,” he said.
Gardner urged the US administration to use every policy tool at its disposal, such as those provided by Asia Reassurance Initiative Act, to push against the CCP’s “malign behaviour” and continue to vigorously re-assert the international rights of freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea.
As authoritarians exploit the pandemic to erode rule of law, the US must continue to call out Beijing’s efforts to assert unlawful maritime claims in the South China Sea, said Markey.
“The United States will not turn a blind eye to military coercion of Southeast Asian countries. Like the rest of the world, the Indo-Pacific is focused on fighting the coronavirus, but the United States must continue to assist our regional partners and allies in defending their freedom of navigation, the free flow of commerce, and adherence to international agreements in the face of Chinese aggression during this pandemic,” Markey said.
The reports of a Chinese Coast Guard vessel sinking a Vietnamese fishing vessel and China’s other activities on illegally reclaimed features in the South China Sea are deeply concerning, Risch said.
These are just the latest examples of the CCP’s blatant intimidation of its neighbours to assert its excessive maritime claims, he said.
“The CCP is undermining regional stability at a time when the international community should be coming together to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. The United States will work with our allies and partners in the region to uphold a free and open Indo-Pacific and promote peaceful activity in the South China Sea,” Risch said.
“At a time when the international community should be working together to face a common foe, China’s continued divisive and aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea is deplorable. The first duty of any coast guard is to guarantee safety at sea not to contribute to lawlessness and danger,” Menendez said.
The Chinese coast guard’s culpability in the collision and sinking of a Vietnamese fishing vessel is unambiguous, and constitutes unsafe and unacceptable maritime behaviour, deserving of condemnation, he added.
“All nations in the Indo-Pacific must be able to live free from coercion in a region governed by international law, norms and institutions. I strongly believe that the United States must stand up and support efforts by regional institutions and our allies and partners to ensure freedom of navigation and economic opportunity throughout the entire Indo-Pacific,” Menendez said.
China is engaged in hotly contested territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas. Beijing has also made substantial progress in militarising its manmade islands in the past few years, which it says it has the right to defend.
China claims sovereignty over all of the South China Sea. But Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Taiwan have counter claims. In the East China Sea, Beijing has territorial disputes with Japan.
The South China Sea and the East China Sea are stated to be rich in minerals, oil and other natural resources. They are also vital to global trade.