A bill introduced by Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Ben Cardin (D-MD) on Wednesday calls for sanctions against Chinese individuals and companies that participate in island-building projects across the disputed South China Sea region.
“China’s illegitimate actions in the South China Sea threaten the region’s security and American commerce. These ongoing, flagrant violations of international norms cannot be allowed to go unchecked, and the sanctions called for in this legislation would put Beijing on notice that the United States means business and intends to hold violators accountable,” said Rubio.
“In recent years we have seen an increasingly provocative China in the maritime domains, coercing and intimidating neighbors in both the East China Sea and South China Sea, attempting to use the threat of military force to address territorial and regional disputes, and undertaking an aggressive island-building and militarization campaign which threatens regional stability,” added Cardin.
“In the face of these actions the United States must be crystal-clear with regards to our long-standing national interests in the free-flow of commerce, freedom of navigation, and in the peaceful diplomatic resolution of disputes consistent with international law, and that we will safeguard our interests and those of our allies and partners and uphold a rules-based order for the Asia-Pacific region. This legislation provides significant new tools and options for our policy in the region and I’m pleased to join Senator Rubio in this effort,” Cardin continued.
The bill would require President Trump to impose sanctions and prohibit visas for Chinese individual and entities who “threaten the peace, security, or stability of the South China Sea or East China Sea.” It would also prohibit any formal recognition of islands annexed by China in either region, the publication of documents that portray the disputed islands as Chinese territory. Foreign aid to any country that does recognize China’s territorial claims would be restricted.
Rubio is a senior member of the Foreign Relations Committee, while Cardin is the ranking Democrat on the committee.
The press release for the bill mentions reports that China has begun new construction work on disputed South China Sea islands – which will not be disputed in any meaningful sense for much longer if China keeps building installations on them, no matter what international courts might say to the contrary.
Quartz.com finds the timing of Rubio and Cardin’s bill “curious,” since Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is making his first major trip to Asia this week, including a visit to Beijing. Actually, it sounds less like a puzzling maybe-coincidence and more like a fairly straightforward effort to put congressional muscle behind Tillerson’s visit.
As Quartz notes, some of the Chinese entities specifically mentioned in the Rubi0-Cardin bill are companies Tillerson clashed with when he was CEO of ExxonMobil, and the Chinese are generally wary of President Trump for criticizing their trade and monetary practices. This is not a bad moment for Congress to let China know they are critical of its policies as well.
Alternately, the bill could be seen as Rubio and Cardin attempting to box Trump in on China, or a cynical ploy for attention. Quartz seems to shoot that theory down right after mentioning it, by describing Rubio’s “resistance to China’s growing assertiveness at sea and authoritarianism at home” as “genuine.” It’s interesting to note that while media reports on the South China Sea tend to dance around exactly what China is doing out there, Rubio’s press release straightforwardly condemns “Chinese aggression.”
China was, of course, not pleased by the proposed legislation.
“The bill proposed by some US senators shows their arrogance and ignorance,” said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying on Friday. “China’s position on the SCS is consistent and clear. Relevant bill made by the US senators has violated the relevant international laws and basic norms of governing international relations. The Chinese side is firmly opposed to it.”