McCain: US can't let China 'do as they please' while smaller countries suffer

The United States must ensure that China cannot "do as they please" while smaller Asian countries suffer, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Monday in a Washington speech. 

McCain said tensions over the South China Sea between China and several other countries highlight the need for an increased U.S. presence in the region. 

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Peacefully resolving that fight is one of several "major tests" facing the United States as it shifts its focus from the Middle East to the Pacific, McCain said in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The lawmaker was quick to point out he was not advocating direct U.S. action in the South China Sea. But he did note the White House's decision to increase its Pacific presence will be a much-needed check to Chinese aggression there and elsewhere in the region. 

America's role, in some way, should ensure that rising powers such as China cannot just "do as they please [while] smaller states suffer," McCain said.

Increased focus on the Pacific was the cornerstone of President Obama's new national security strategy unveiled in February. 

In April, Beijing sent three warships to a section of the South China Sea, off the northwest coast of the Philippines, to support a Chinese fishing ship being detained by the Philippine navy. 

Claiming territorial sovereignty over the coastal waters where the Chinese fishing vessel was detained, Manila has deployed an additional warship to the area.

As that standoff continues, Beijing's continued investment in advanced military hardware, from fifth-generation fighters to aircraft carriers, has only fueled those tensions.

However, the Pentagon thinks U.S. participation in an international treaty that would set up a type of common law for the world's oceans could be the key to solving the South China Sea problem.

The pact, known as the "Law of the Sea" treaty, would essentially establish the rules of the road for the United States and other countries across the world's waterways.

Signatories to the treaty would also be part of an international forum whose job it would be to resolve territorial disputes like the one in the South China Sea.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta argued last Wednesday that the treaty would be vital in "underpinning [the] public order" on the high seas for the United States and the rest of the international community.

"The time has come for the United States to have a seat at the table ... and accede to this important treaty," Panetta said.

While more than 160 countries have approved the treaty, the Senate continues to block ratification of the international pact.

Opponents on Capitol Hill claim ratifying the treaty will hamstring U.S. naval operations with unnecessary international oversight.

If Congress agrees to the pact Navy commanders may be forced to clear future military operations with other pact members before moving forward, critics claim.

McCain called upon the Senate to take action on ratifying the Law of the Sea treaty at a CSIS-sponsored event in June. The Arizona Republican took a similar tone during his speech Monday.

While not mentioning the treaty by name, McCain said it as time for Congress to "set aside political bickering and point-scoring" and commit to a stronger U.S. position in the Pacific.