The Cable

Rubio Calls for Sanctions on Beijing for South China Sea Antics

In dealing with Beijing, is this a brilliant bill or blunder and bluster?


The Trump administration may get an assist in crafting a hawkish stance toward China — from Congress.

One-time presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R.-Fla.) introduced a bill Tuesday that would slap sanctions on China for its destabilizing actions in the East and South China Seas, where Beijing has built artificial islands and airfields and warned neighboring countries to stay out.  

“The People’s Republic of China,” the bill reads, “should not be allowed to continue to pursue illegitimate claims and to militarize an area that is essential to global security.”

Rubio proposes sanctions — including asset freezes, travel bans, and visa restrictions — on “any Chinese person” who contributes to construction or development projects in any contested area of the South China Sea, or who is complicit in actions or policies that threaten stability of those areas. Interpreted broadly, that would target everybody from Chinese coast guard and naval personnel to construction firms to fleets of Chinese fishermen who informally patrol far-flung waters.

The bill also urges a more muscular U.S. response to China’s territorial ambitions. It calls for the United States to “continue and expand” freedom-of-navigation operations meant to challenge China’s claims, and calls for the United States to meet Chinese “provocations” with “commensurate actions that impose costs on any attempts to undermine security in the region.”

It isn’t clear yet how much support Rubio can count on; it was introduced in committee without a single co-sponsor. Neither Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R.-TN) nor Ranking Member Ben Cardin (D-MD)’s office has yet responded to request for comment.

In the House, Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS) — Trump’s pick to head the CIA — introduced a bill in July calling on China to cease militarization and reclamation in the South China Sea and to end provocation in the East China Sea.

What is clear is that the hard-line legislation comes on the heels of a carefully arranged call between U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and the president of Taiwan, an issue that the Chinese do not take lightly. Trump also, in a series of tweets, accused China of intentionally devaluing its own currency to make it more difficult for U.S. companies to compete — and of building a “massive military complex” in the South China Sea.

Some foreign-policy analysts welcomed the bill as a way to show China some teeth. It’s a “welcome reminder that the United States has many tools at its disposal to influence Chinese policy in the South China Sea and East China Sea,” Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Foreign Policy. Though the bill has warts — Glaser noted that it focuses exclusively on China’s behavior in the disputed waters, not other claimants’, and targets activities like lighthouses that aren’t necessarily nefarious — she welcomed the effort to push back in area crucial to global trade and to the stability of Asia.

Even if this bill fails, she said, it is a reminder to the incoming administration that a targeted approach to the individuals and companies involved in military activity, construction, and dredging in the South and East China Seas would be useful in taking the lead on this issue, restoring U.S. credibility in the process.

But Zheng Wang, a Carnegie fellow at New America, said the “highly political” move could backfire. Since an international arbitration panel ruled against China in July on its legal position in the South China Sea, Zheng said, Beijing has been relatively restrained. Rubio is “pushing something that is only harmful to the bilateral relationship and the national security of the United States.”

“This is highly political and the senator himself probably does not really know the day to day issues and the development of South China Sea situation, so he doesn’t know really well about the reality.” Wang noted that China had been actually been more peaceful in the South China Sea since the July arbitration case in which a tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines over China, even though, at the time, Chinese President Xi Jinping rejected the decision. Given that this was the case, Wang said, this sanctions would be regarded as confusing to China. Rubio, he said, is “pushing something that is only harmful to the bilateral relationship and the national security of the United States.”*

But China is not the only country in Congress’ crosshairs. On Dec. 1, the Senate voted unanimously to extend sanctions on Iran for 10 years. And the House passed a bill that would restrict travel by Russian diplomats based in the United States. The Senate has not yet approved the legislation. On Wednesday, Russia made quite clear that it would retaliate by restricting American diplomats’ movement if this bill were to become law.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said that U.S. authorities would do well to remember that “diplomacy is based on the principle of reciprocity.”

*Updated 5:15 PM ET Dec. 7, 2016 to include comment from Zheng Wang.

Photo credit: Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering ambassadorial and diplomatic affairs in Washington. @emilyctamkin

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