Singapore - China's actions and statements regarding the ever deepening crisis in the South China Sea show they haven't yet decided to act like a mature great power ready to engage the world fairly and constructively, according to U.S. senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT).
McCain and Lieberman were in Singapore this weekend as the leaders of the U.S. congressional delegation to the 2012 IISS Shangri-la Security Dialogue. The duo held a series of meetings on the sidelines of the event and also visited Malaysia on their trip, to engage with government and civil society leaders there. Saturday afternoon, they sat down for an exclusive interview with The Cable and explained why they believe China is missing a huge opportunity to advance its own interests as well as regional and world stability in its handling of the South China Sea disputes.
Of course, the Chinese government decided not to send any high level representatives to the Shangri-la Dialogue, but Chinese academics and lower level officials did speak during some of the conference events, including in an off the record panel Saturday afternoon where Lieberman spoke, also attended by McCain and your humble Cable guy.
Both senators said that China's arguments and actions regarding the South China Sea show that China is not yet willing or able to play the role of a great power. For example, the Chinese repeatedly promise to adhere to the code of conduct on maritime disputes, but meanwhile the Chinese government is trying to resolve the disputes by exerting pressure on smaller countries bilaterally and outside of the purview of international legal structures.
"The problem with that is there are overlapping claims and somebody is going to lose out if the Chinese are able to orchestrate that," McCain said. "This is a very crucial time to see what China's behavior will be."
China also continues to play an unhelpful role in the international effort to solve other big problems, such as with Syria and North Korea, McCain said. "That is not the behavior of a mature superpower."
The Chinese assert that their claims to the South China Sea are justified by international law but then they refuse to yield to international bodies to adjudicate those disputes, which shows they really have little willingness to engage in a fair process to solve the problem, Lieberman said.
"That really means that the dispute is not going to be resolved unless it is resolved coercively in an unequal way between this giant power and these small countries that also have claims," Lieberman said. "What's happening now with these disputes is important in terms in terms what the Chinese are saying to the rest of the world about what kind of great power China will be."
"Chinese claims in the South China Sea are expansive, to say the least," said Lieberman, pointing out that China uses data dating back to the 13th century to back up its assertion that over 80 percent of the South China Sea is theirs to control.
"And bogus," McCain chimed in.
The Chinese also are clear in their position that their disputes with its neighbors related to the South China Sea "have nothing to do with the US," as a front page commentary in the People's Daily this week said.
But Lieberman laid out exactly why the U.S. has not only an interest but also a role in the resolution of the South China Sea disputes.
"Besides the general but very real interest we have in what kind of great power China will be, we have $1.2 trillion in U.S. trade that goes across the waters of the South China Sea," he said. "If that's compromised or limited in any way by an overly aggressive China, that would have a devastating effect on our economy."
As the U.S. gets more involved in the South China Sea dispute, there's a risk U.S. policy makers must take into account that the situation could escalate into a military conflict, especially since the U.S. has had a mutual defense treaty with the Philippines since 1951.
"Right now we want the crisis diffused, we certainly don't want it escalate further," said McCain. "The treaty obligations with them, I'm not sure we should immediately specify what they are."
Lieberman said the U.S. argument that China must adhere to international law when dealing with maritime disputes is weakened by the fact that the U.S. has not ratified the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Defense Secretary Leon Panetta promised in his speech here with mysterious confidence that the U.S. senate would ratify that treaty this year.
"These disputes between China and other nations are just exactly what the UNCLOS was created for. And the fact we are arguing to China they should accept the arbitration process created under UNCLOS and yet we haven't ratified it ourselves - we're not being true to our own position, we're diminishing our own credibility, and we're not at the table. So it's really time that we ratify it," Lieberman said.
"I don't disagree with anything Joe said," McCain added. "But the Chinese claims would be thrown out in a minute if they tried to assert them under the Law of the Sea."
Overall, McCain said the Chinese are getting more assertive and less cooperative as they become more powerful.
"[Former Singaporean Prime Minister] Lee Kwan Yew once told us that he believed China would be very nice to us until they had sufficient naval power to tell us to leave the western Pacific," he said.
But there is an upside for America, McCain added.
"The Chinese have increased our popularity in the region dramatically."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.