US and its allies should close ranks amid China's moves in South China Sea: John McCain

RSIS Distinguished Public Lecture by John McCain, US Senator for Arizona, at the Marina Mandarin Hotel, on June 3, 2016.
RSIS Distinguished Public Lecture by John McCain, US Senator for Arizona, at the Marina Mandarin Hotel, on June 3, 2016.ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

There are actions the United States and its friends can take to show China the consequences of its actions in the South China Sea are far more damaging to itself than to other countries, Senator John McCain said on Friday (June 3).

One of those actions is to accelerate the ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free trade deal that brings together 12 nations including the US, Japan and Singapore and covers 40 per cent of the world's economy, said Mr McCain.

"That would make for long term economic benefits to every nation in the region engaged in it," he said after his lecture on America’s Enduring Commitment to Security and Prosperity in Asia at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

The senator, who is a retired Navy captain and chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, was replying to a question on the options of response of the US and countries in the region should China reject the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration on a case against its claims to the South China Sea brought by the Philippines.

But he acknowledged that the TPP faces stiff challenges. The accord was signed by  leaders of the 12 countries earlier this year but looks unlikely to be approved by the US Congress any time soon, with President Barack Obama nearing the end of his term and the candidates in a race to succeed him all opposed to the deal.

"I have to give you the honest answer. Things are not good right now," said Mr McCain on Friday. 

Mr McCain also suggested stepping up freedom of navigation operations to bring home the point that the South China Sea is international waters and "filling in islands is in violation of international law". The latter is a reference to China's controversial reclamation of disputed reefs in the sea to bolster its territorial claims.

The US military has conducted several “freedom of navigation” operations in which it sends a ship or plane to pass by a Chinese-claimed island as a way of showing it rejects claims of sovereignty.

"I'd like to see both airplanes and ships transiting around these islands as normal routine," said Mr McCain, who is in Singapore to attend the 15th Shangri-La Dialogue, a high-level forum for defence officials, scholars and business executives from Asia-Pacific.

He added that the legitimacy of the UN court ruling, expected in the coming weeks, "will be derived from the actions of nations that are not party to the case, especially those in South-east Asia".

The choice of the region in the 21st century, he said, was not between China and the US but "between two futures - one in which the rules based order is upheld and its benefits expanded to ever more people in Asia, or a darker future that resembles the past in this region and the world, where might makes right and bullies set the rules and break them".

The senator had in a recent article accused China, over the past several years, of acting less as a responsible stakeholder in the rules-based order in the Asia Pacific region and more like a bully.

On Friday, he said the US will remain committed to regional security.

It will continue to "maintain a favourable military balance" in the region that "secures our enduring national interests, upholds our treaty commitments and safeguards open seas and open commerce", he said.