US President Joe Biden’s top official on Asia policy came under attack on Thursday by the senior Republican on the committee considering his nomination to the State Department’s No 2 position for agreeing to direct military talks with China.
As part of his opening remarks in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s grilling of Kurt Campbell, James Risch of Idaho cited a recent incident in the South China Sea as an example of why direct military-to-military talks with Beijing are counterproductive.
After more than 100 Chinese ships last month approached Whitsun Reef in the Spratly Islands, which is controlled by the Philippines but also claimed by China and Vietnam, Manila protested, accusing them of “swarming” in Philippine waters. The Pentagon and the People’s Liberation Army then accused each other of violating maritime rules.
“The recent focus at the Apec summit on establishing working groups with China allows them to weaponise against us,” Risch contended. “Beijing wants to tie us up in these mechanisms and use them to constrain our policies.”
“The administration claims – and maybe even believes – talks will help avoid miscalculation. If we were dealing with a good-faith actor, that should be true,” he added.
“Just days after China agreed to these talks and everybody happily shook hands, it conducted aggressive acts at sea and in air, risking lives of US and allied sailors.”
Campbell, the National Security Council coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs who led calls for Beijing to reestablish the military-to-military talks, was nominated by Biden last month to replace Wendy Sherman as deputy secretary of state, second in command to Antony Blinken.
Committee chairman Ben Cardin, Democrat of Maryland, told Campbell the Senate was “trying to expedite the consideration of your nomination”, owing to the urgency of challenges presented by China, as well as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the war in the Middle East.
However, the two were more aligned on another front involving China, with Campbell suggesting that he had moved to a harder line when it comes to Beijing’s involvement in Ukraine.
Risch said he disagreed with any openness by the Biden administration to Beijing having a role in ending the war in Ukraine.
“China must not and should not be allowed to use Ukraine as a way to anchor itself in European security issues because of some misguided belief that it can calm Russia down,” the senator said.
In a meeting with China’s special envoy for Eurasia, Li Hui, in August, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and acting deputy secretary of state Victoria Nuland said Washington welcomed a “productive” role for Beijing – “if that role respects Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty”, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller confirmed.
Though China purports to be an independent actor that has not taken sides, very clearly they have taken sidesKurt Campbell, deputy US secretary of state nominee
Campbell suggested that China’s support for Russia had aided Moscow militarily, a development that would make it difficult for him to support any further involvement by Beijing on ending the war.
Referring to a recent meeting that he had with Risch’s staff on the matter, Campbell said: “I don’t want to say that they schooled me but I really came away with … a greater sense of what the limitations are for any kind of role that China can or would play in the future” as a peace broker.
“China has assisted through a variety of means, not necessarily direct military means but … through commercial and other engagements, but Russia has largely reconstituted militarily,” Campbell added. “And even though China purports to be an independent actor that has not taken sides, very clearly they have taken sides.”
As with many disputes between Beijing and Washington over rights in the South China Sea, China’s recent tangle with Philippine and US vessels dredges up the question of America’s stance on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), a comprehensive set of rules governing nations’ rights to waters off their coasts.
Beijing regularly argues that Washington has no right to condemn China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea because the US has not ratified Unclos, as it did when Biden officials denounced the country for increasing confrontations with others in the region last year.
Since then, many more such incidents have occurred, including the one last week near Whitsun Reef, which made resumption of military-to-military talks a priority for Campbell.
Senator Brian Schatz, Democrat of Hawaii, raised Unclos at the hearing, predicting the chamber had enough votes to pass a bill calling for ratification, which was sponsored by Hawaii’s other senator, Mazie Hirono. The bill has bipartisan support, with Republicans Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana co-sponsoring.
“I think we can get the votes because I think the politics has changed as we understand the urgent need for us to act together collectively on a competition with China,” Schatz said.
Source : SCMP