“Although the United States does not take a position on the territorial and maritime disputes, I believe it is essential for the U.S. Navy to maintain a visible presence and assert its freedom of navigation and overflight rights in the South China Sea in accordance with customary international law. To reduce the risk of conflict in the South China Sea, I believe that the United States should use its position in several regional organizations, including the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Regional Forum, and the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus, to facilitate initiatives and confidence-building measures that will help generate momentum for claimant states to reach agreement on a binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. (Excerpts from Advance Policy Questions for David Shear – U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, Dec 2013)
Ambassador Shear was nominated to be Assistant Secretary for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs in December 2013. Below are excerpts from his responses to policy questions from the United States Senate Armed Services Committee.
20. How would you characterize the current U.S. relationship with China?
As the President said when hosting President Xi Jinping last summer, the United States welcomes the continuing peaceful rise of China as a world power and that, in fact, it is in the U.S. interest that China continues on the path of success, because we believe that a peaceful and stable and prosperous China is not only good for the Chinese people but also good for the world and for the United States. I would describe the U.S. relationship with China as having elements of cooperation and competition. The United States continues to pursue opportunities to engage where there is mutual benefit, while constructively managing those areas where we may have differences. Moreover, I believe that getting this relationship right will be critical to the future of U.S. national security as well as international security for decades to come.
25. What do you believe are the Chinese political-military goals in the Asia-Pacific region? Globally?
In my view, the overriding objectives of China’s leaders appear to be the following: ensuring the continued rule of the Chinese Communist Party; continuing China’s economic development; maintaining the country’s domestic political stability; defending China’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity; and securing China’s status as a great power. Within this context, preventing any moves by Taiwan toward de jure independence remains a key part of China’s strategy. Within each of these dimensions there lies a mix of important challenges and opportunities for the United States that will continue to deserve priority attention.
27. How do you assess the current cross-strait relationship between China and Taiwan, and how can we help prevent miscalculation on either side?
Since Taiwan President Ma took office in 2008, Taiwan has made considerable progress to reduce tension across the Taiwan Strait. In February of this year, representatives from Taipei and Beijing held their first official talks in mainland China since 1949. The meeting marked a symbolic development in the continued easing of cross-strait tensions. I believe the United States consistent policies, based on the three joint U.S.-China Communiqués and the Taiwan Relations Act – which include making available to Taiwan “such defense articles and services in such quantities as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability” – have provided the security and confidence necessary for an easing of cross-Strait tensions. By most accounts, China has become more assertive in its claims of sovereignty in various domains, including maritime, air and space. There are numerous examples of this assertiveness, including China’s increased aggressiveness in asserting its maritime claims in the South China Sea and the recent declaration of its Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ).
35. What role should the United States play in the ongoing maritime dispute in the South China Sea?
The United States is a Pacific nation that has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime domain, the maintenance of peace and stability, free and open commerce, and respect for international law in the South China Sea. I agree with the assessments of the Departments of State and Defense that the United States should not take a position on the competing territorial claims over land features in the South China Sea. I also believe all parties should resolve their disputes through peaceful means and in accordance with customary international law, without resorting to the threat or use of force. The United States should sustain its presence in the South China Sea and uphold its commitments to its allies and partners in order to maintain peace and stability in the region.
36. How does the presence of the U.S. Navy in the South China Sea influence this maritime dispute and, in your view, would an increase in U.S. activity in that region serve to stabilize or destabilize the situation?
The U.S. Navy is a key provider of the military presence that underlies peace and stability across the globe, including in the East and South China Seas. Although the United States does not take a position on the territorial and maritime disputes, I believe it is essential for the U.S. Navy to maintain a visible presence and assert its freedom of navigation and overflight rights in the South China Sea in accordance with customary international law. If confirmed, I would work with our military commanders to evaluate the appropriate level of naval activities in the South China Sea to maintain regional peace and stability as well as unimpeded access for lawful commerce and economic development.
37. What should the United States do to help prevent dangerous encounters in the South China Sea?
To reduce the risk of conflict in the South China Sea, I believe that the United States should use its position in several regional organizations, including the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Regional Forum, and the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus, to facilitate initiatives and confidence-building measures that will help generate momentum for claimant states to reach agreement on a binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.
Much of the recent discourse regarding Taiwan has involved the state of Taiwan’s defensive military capabilities and the U.S. commitment to do what is “necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability” as required by the Taiwan Relations Act. In particular, much of the debate about how best to enhance Taiwan’s current defensive capabilities has revolved around fighter aircraft and what air defense capabilities are most prudent and appropriate under the circumstances.
46. What do you believe should be the priorities for U.S. military assistance to Taiwan?
Our priority should be to assist Taiwan in implementing an asymmetric and innovative defense strategy to deter aggression from China. Taiwan’s military must develop a defense force that can challenge a larger adversary and undermine China’s ability to coerce Taiwan.
92. What are the greatest challenges for greater engagement with Vietnam?
Vietnam’s human rights record remains a major concern and, as U.S. Ambassador, I have supported the current policy of withholding lethal assistance until we see further progress in this area. Meanwhile, Vietnamese leaders will continue to attempt to balance its relationships with the United States and with China. We should continue to respect this reality and the pace of engagement with which Vietnam is comfortable. We have come a long way in building a bilateral relationship based on mutual trust, respect, and understanding. I am confident that our two countries will continue to find ways to deepen engagement and promote our mutual interest in peace and stability in the region.
93. What is the strategic importance of Vietnam to PACOM and how does it fit within PACOM’s overall Southeast Asia strategy?
As Ambassador, I have seen first-hand what an important role Vietnam plays in South East Asia, and have been pleased to support our strengthened bilateral security relationship. It’s been an honor to serve as Ambassador during a time in which we have expanded defense relations. As you know, Vietnam occupies a geo-strategically crucial location along the South China Sea and its busy sea lanes. As a South China Sea claimant, it is also a key player in one of the world’s most sensitive and important political issues. Its large population and dynamic economy make it a growing economic force in the region. Vietnam often acts as one of ASEAN’s most strategic thinkers on regional geo-politics. It founded the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM+) forum in 2010, has developed new Experts Working Groups under ADMM+, and has been keen to develop ASEAN as a leading multilateral institution in many other ways.
Law of the Sea
126. Do you support U.S. accession to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea? If so, why?
I believe accession by the United States to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea would send a clear signal that the United States remains committed to advancing rule of law, in the world’s oceans. The United States is at the forefront of promoting rule of law and under the Convention the United States would have the legal foundation for navigational rights needed to project power, respond to crises, reassure our allies and partners, sustain deployed forces, and secure sea and air lines of communication. Supporting the Convention would further sustain our economic prosperity and trade worldwide.
127. Would U.S. accession to the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention benefit the U.S. military’s mission in the Asia-Pacific region? If so, how?
It is my belief that U.S. accession to the Law of the Sea Convention would be of great benefit to the U.S. military’s mission in the Asia-Pacific region. Accession would enhance the United States’ exercise of the Convention’s freedom of navigation and overflight rights. Accession to the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention would also support combined operations with Asia-Pacific partners and the Proliferation Security Initiative, strengthen the U.S. position in discussions with China, substantiate undisputed title to our extended continental shelf area, and further establish the United States as a leader in future developments in the law of the sea. Additionally, accession would further add to U.S. credibility in a myriad of Asia-focused multilateral venues where Law of the Sea issues are debated.