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US Reaffirms Its Rights to Operate in South China Sea

China's claims over disputed territory in the South China Sea, and its increasing military capabilities, have raised questions and concerns in Washington. U.S. Senator Jim Webb held a hearing Wednesday to address the situation and to ask what role the U.S. should play in Asian disputes.

The South China Sea region has enjoyed relative peace for the last 30 years. But Senator Jim Webb, a Virginia Democrat, is examining whether China's efforts to expand its control over the area threatens to upset the balance.

He spoke to a panel of experts on Capitol Hill as the sole representative of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "China has sought not only to expand its economic and political influence but also to expand its territory. China's military modernization has directly supported this endeavor," he said.

Webb said key concerns involve China's claims to the Spratly and Paracel islands. The Spratly Islands - a grouping of small islands, rocks and reefs - are claimed in part or in whole by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei. The Paracels are claimed by both China and Vietnam.

The islands are believed to hold significant oil and natural gas reserves, making them prized territories. They also sit near valuable shipping lanes.

In its claim over the islands, China has deemed the area an exclusive economic zone.

Webb says the United States is uniquely positioned to help find a solution to these disputes. "It is important to point out that only the United States has both the stature and the national power to confront the obvious imbalance of power that China brings to these situations," he said.

While the United States does not make any claim to the territory, the U.S. military has been confronted by China while conducting operations in the area.

In the latest incident in March, a U.S. Navy ship, the USNS Impeccable, was harassed by a group of Chinese vessels. Beijing accused the United States of violating international law by carrying out activities in the area.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Robert Scher, testifying at the hearing, reiterated the U.S. position that its activities were in accordance with laws set by the United Nations. "Our military activity in this region is routine and in accordance with this customary international law. We will continue to conduct operations in the South China Sea, and U.S. activity will be based on our interest in the region and our desire to preserve security and stability throughout the western Pacific," he said.

Scot Marciel, a State Department official in charge of affairs related to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations says the regional grouping should be involved in any solution. "It would be sort of logical to assume that the Chinese would prefer to deal one on one with individual members of ASEAN, I think for the ASEANs it makes sense to deal more as a group," he said.

He suggested using as a basis a non-binding 2002 declaration signed by members of ASEAN that called for the countries to settle territorial disputes through peaceful means.