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Senate Eyes Passage of Bill to Check China in Asia-Pacific

Legislation would recommit to military sales to Taiwan

People’s Liberation Army soldiers drill in Hong  Kong earlier this year. The Senate is looking at legislation aimed at preventing China from becoming a hegemonic regional power. ( Anthony Kwan/Getty Images file photo)
People’s Liberation Army soldiers drill in Hong  Kong earlier this year. The Senate is looking at legislation aimed at preventing China from becoming a hegemonic regional power. ( Anthony Kwan/Getty Images file photo)

The Senate is looking to pass in the coming weeks a bill that would guide U.S. strategy in the Asia-Pacific with an eye toward preventing China from becoming a hegemonic regional power.

The Senate Foreign Relations committee last week unanimously advanced a bipartisan bill from Sens. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., and Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., who lead the Asia-Pacific Subcommittee. The measure would authorize more than $1.5 billion in new funds over the next five years for the State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development and the Pentagon to maintain regional political support for the rules-based international order that the United States has championed over the last 70 years.

Committee aides say they believe the legislation’s likeliest course to passage is through a unanimous consent agreement. Companion legislation has been filed in the House by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., that Senate staffers believe will get a boost if the Senate acts first.

“For decades, U.S. policy was rooted in the belief that support for China’s rise and for its integration into the postwar international world order would liberalize China,” Gardner said at a September subcommittee hearing on China’s military strategy. “Contrary to our hopes, China expanded its power at the expense of the sovereignty of others.”

The bill is the latest effort in Congress to counter China’s reach. Senators are set to clear separate legislation that would more than double the amount of U.S. government financing for infrastructure projects available to developing nations in the Asia-Pacific and around the world.

Gardner’s 59-page legislation, which has the support of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary James Mattis, does not spell out how the $1.5 billion is to be divvied up between State, USAID and the Pentagon.

Rather, the legislation says the money must be spent on activities that improve the defense capacity of partner nations to “resist coercion” and to participate in bilateral and multilateral “engagements” aimed at responding to China’s “destabilizing activities” and North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs. Funding also would support counterterrorism programs in Southeast Asia to respond to continuing concerns about the Islamic State’s regional influence.

“It’s a soup to nuts Asia policy bill. We’ve been working on this for a very long time,” said a Foreign Relations Committee staffer who was not authorized to be named, noting that Gardner and Markey have held five subcommittee hearings on different aspects of the legislation.

The $1.5 billion amount came out of a 2017 bipartisan proposal spearheaded by the late Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, who called for the establishment of an Asia-Pacific Stability Initiative to counter China’s military build-up and to resist its territorial claims.

Bill Provisions

Notably, the legislation would recommit the United States to continued arms sales to Taiwan — a self-governing island in East Asia that China claims as its own — at a time when Beijing is increasingly throwing its economic weight around to pressure third-party countries to end their diplomatic recognition of Taipei. The bill calls on the administration to encourage the travel of “high-level” U.S. officials to Taiwan as a show of diplomatic support.

Another likely irritant to China in the bill is its codification of a U.S. policy of “regular freedom of navigation and overflight operations in the Indo-Pacific region.” In recent months, the U.S. military has stepped up its flights over international waters in the South China Sea that Beijing claims, without international recognition, as its own.

And amid lingering concerns that President Donald Trump is looking to reduce the number of deployed U.S. troops in South Korea, Japan and elsewhere as a cost-saving measure, the legislation would recommit the United States to separate defense treaties signed in the 1950s and 1960s with South Korea, Japan, Australia and the Philippines.

The legislation also urges the Trump administration to develop a strategy for deepening trilateral security cooperation with South Korea and Japan, specifically in missile defense and intelligence-sharing.

“When signed into law, ARIA will become a generational approach that will put American interest first by reassuring her allies, deterring our adversaries and securing U.S. leadership in the region for future generations,” Gardner said, referring to the bill’s name: Asia Reassurance Initiative Act.

Much of the Asia-Pacific’s future economic growth is expected to come from Southeast Asia, which gets considerable attention in the legislation’s provisions on security cooperation, economic policy, human rights and rule of law.

The bill urges that the Trump administration elevate the U.S. relationship with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) —an intergovernmental forum comprised of 10 regional countries — to a full “strategic partnership.”

Foreign Relations staffers said they have won administration support for provisions in the bill that encourage the deepening of multilateral trade talks — despite Trump’s preference for bilateral trade deals. The legislation would authorize the administration to negotiate a “comprehensive economic engagement framework” with ASEAN.

“The rules-based international order is absolutely fundamental to global peace and security,” Markey said in a statement. “But Asia, arguably the most consequential region for the United States, faces critical challenges such as nonproliferation, human rights, and respect for democratic values.”

Congressional concerns about human rights violations in Myanmar and the Philippines led to the inclusion of bill language that would deny U.S. security assistance to the Burmese military and the Philippines’ national police.

The bill also would provide $210 million — a boost of $60 million from an earlier proposed amount— in authorized annual funding through 2023 to promote democracy, civil society, human rights and rule of law in the Asia-Pacific.

The Senate version of the fiscal 2019 State-Foreign Operations legislation contains just $150 million in funding for such activities, but Foreign Relations staffers said they are working with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who leads the Appropriations subcommittee with responsibility for foreign aid, to increase the number to $210 million. 

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