US lawmakers demand challenge to Chinese claims in South China Sea

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US lawmakers Thursday called for the United States to be more robust in its reaction to Chinese construction on reefs and islands in the South China Sea, a week ahead of a visit to the White House by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chair John McCain said during a hearing attended by senior navy officials that the South China Sea was not Chinese territory, and that there should be “freedom of navigation” in the area, The Washington Post reported.

“The best sign of respecting the freedom of the seas is not to de facto recognize the 12-mile limit and the best way to make sure that is not recognized is to sail your ships in international waters – which it clearly is,” McCain was quoted as saying.

Waters up to 12 nautical miles from a nation’s shore are generally regarded as being part of the state’s territorial waters.

Also Thursday, a bipartisan group of 29 lawmakers, led by Randy Forbes, chairman of the seapower subcommittee, sent a letter to the White House supporting McCain’s statements.

The letter says that “although China claims to have halted its reclamation efforts, there are many indications that China is in fact simply moving on to the next steps in a campaign to establish control of the South China Sea.”

Satellite images released earlier this week appeared to show China building a third airstrip on a disputed reef in the South China Sea.

There are overlapping claims in the region by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei.

If the US does not exercise the right to sail near China’s “artificial islands” it “could be interpreted as de facto acceptance of Beijing’s destabilizing behavior,” the letter said.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is to visit the United States from September 22-28, including a state visit to the White House on September 25.

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