WASHINGTON - Republican Senator Marco Rubio and Democratic Party Senator Ben Cardin on Thursday (May 23) formally reintroduced the South China Sea and East China Sea Sanctions Act that would "impose sanctions against Chinese individuals and entities that participate in Beijing's illegitimate activities to aggressively assert its expansive maritime and territorial claims in these disputed regions".
The bipartisan Bill is intended to put the brakes on China's consolidation or expansion of its claims of jurisdiction over the sea and air space in disputed zones in the South China Sea - claimed by Taiwan and several Asean countries, most critically Vietnam and the Philippines - and East China Sea, where Beijing's dispute is with Japan and South Korea.
Experts said the Bill was overdue. It was first introduced in 2017. Now, it also comes too late to change the fait accompli of China's footprint and presence in the disputed zones.
In the South China Sea, China has reclaimed and built on large areas of land, converting low-lying rock and coral formations to habitable islands, and in some cases deploying military assets.
"The US can't roll back Chinese island building and militarisation in the South China Sea," Dr Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia and the director of the China Power Project at the Centre for Security and International Studies (CSIS), told The Straits Times. "In my view, this action is like closing the door after the horse has left the barn," she said. "These steps should have been taken years ago."
"The important variable is whether the binding language is retained in a final Bill that gets passed into law and signed by the President," said Dr Glaser.
"I hope we can deter China from establishing baselines and an ADIZ (Air Defence Identification Zone)," she added. "That is what this Bill aims to do. I guess better late than never, but is it too little too late?"
A statement on Senator Rubio's website said: "This legislation is timely given ongoing efforts by the United States to conduct freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific region."
"Because the Chinese government's ongoing and flagrant violations of international norms in the South China and East China Seas cannot go unchecked, this legislation authorises new sanctions to put Beijing on notice that the United States means business and intends to hold violators accountable," the senator added.
The statement quoted Senator Cardin as saying: "China has been bully in both the South and East China seas, encroaching on and intimidating its neighbours. Such aggressive behavior cannot go on unchecked.
"The United States will defend the free flow of commerce and freedom of navigation, as well as promote the peaceful diplomatic resolution of disputes consistent with international law. I am pleased to join Senator Rubio and our colleagues to send a strong bipartisan message in defence of our national interests and those of our allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific region."
Co-sponsoring the Bill are 13 other senators: Republicans Tom Cotton, Todd Young, Josh Hawley, Rick Scott, Marsha Blackburn, John Cornyn and Mitt Romney; and Democrats Tim Kaine, Richard Blumenthal, Kirsten Gillibrand, Joe Manchin, Tammy Duckworth and Doug Jones.
The text of the Bill notes a long list of statements at multiple forums by senior US officials on China's activities in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. It notes harassment and provocation of Philippine and Japanese vessels in the South China Sea and East China Sea respectively.
Sanctions would apply to companies and individuals involved in any way in those activities, from dredging to construction to transportation to deployment of military hardware. Additionally, US persons will be prohibited from facilitating certain investments in the South China Sea or East China Sea.
It also provides a list of named Chinese entities, and stipulates that the "Secretary of State shall submit to the appropriate congressional committees a report that identifies each Chinese person the Secretary determines is engaged in the activities".
It mandates close monitoring and regular reporting.
Off the Map
The Bill also orders that the US government not publish any documents indicating that the US recognises Chinese jurisdiction over territory in the South China Sea "contested by one or more members of the Association of South-east Asian Nations or the territory or airspace of areas of the East China Sea administered by Japan or the Republic of Korea".