Senator calls for US action on East sea disputes

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A US senator on Monday urged condemnation of China's behavior in maritime rifts with its neighbors, saying Washington has been too weak-kneed as tensions rise in the East Sea.

US Senator Jim Webb (pictured) urged Congress to condemn China over a growing number of maritime rifts Photo: AFP

Jim Webb, who heads the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on East Asia, introduced a bill that would denounce China for the use of force and urge it to seek a peaceful resolution to disputes.

China has a host of territorial disputes with its neighbors and incidents at sea have been on the rise.

"I think we in our government have taken too weak of a position on this," Webb, a member of President Barack Obama's Democratic Party from Virginia, said at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"When we say the United States government doesn't have a position on sovereignty issues, not taking a position is taking a position," Webb said.

The bill introduced by Webb and Senator James Inhofe, the subcommittee's top Republican, "condemns the use of force" by China and affirms that the US military will "assert and defend freedom of navigation rights" in the East Sea.

Webb did not call for an explicit stand on territorial disputes, but said that the US needed to send "a clear signal" and to work multilaterally for a solution.

The US generally does not take positions on territorial disputes in which it is not directly involved.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in remarks in July 2010 in Vietnam, said that the US had a national interest in freedom of navigation but did not take a position on the East Sea disputes.

China and Vietnam each claim the strategic Paracel Islands and Spratly archipelago.

Tensions have also risen this year between China and the Philippines, another claimant to the Spratlys, which said Monday that it would from now on refer to the East Sea as the "West Philippine Sea."

China and Japan have a longstanding dispute over the islands known as the Diaoyu in Chinese and Senkaku in Japanese, and Japan last year briefly detained a Chinese captain after a clash at sea.

During the crisis, Clinton said that the islands fell under the scope of the 1960 security treaty that requires the US to defend Japan from aggression, remarks that angered China.

Webb, a former combat Marine and journalist with long experience in Asia, recently proposed a rethink of plans to realign US military bases in Asia that have caused intense political controversy in Japan.

Webb voiced hope that senators would allow flexibility when they meet this week on the so-called defense authorization bill, which allocates funding for the 2012 fiscal year.

"I'm pretty confident that we're going to have some specific language in the authorization addressing the way forward on this," Webb said.

Under a 2006 plan, the US would shift the Futenma base -- a long source of grievance as it lies in a crowded urban area on Okinawa -- to an isolated stretch on the same island.

Some activists have sought to move the base completely off Okinawa, home to around half of the 47,000 US troops in Japan, and prime minister Yukio Hatoyama resigned last year after failing to secure changes to the 2006 plan.

Webb -- in a proposal supported by Senators Carl Levin and John McCain, the top Democrat and Republican on the Armed Services Committee -- said the 2006 plan was politically infeasible, especially with Japan dealing with the aftermath of its devastating earthquake.

Under the senators' proposal, Futenma's air assets could be shifted to Okinawa's existing Kadena base, with Futenma's real estate returned.

To avoid congestion at Kadena, some of its air assets would in turn be moved to Guam or other bases in Japan.

The senators also called for the US to freeze a base move in South Korea pending clarity on cost overruns.

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