The United States has asked China to learn from India's handling of its maritime disputes with its neighbours, ahead of a key ruling by an international arbitrary tribunal on rival claims over the strategic South China Sea.
China has taken a position of non-acceptance and non-participation on the jurisdiction by the International Court of Arbitration in a case the Philippines has brought against China's claims to nearly all of the South China Sea, Abraham Denmark, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for East Asia, told lawmakers at a Congressional hearing.
"In 2014, the Permanent Court of Arbitration -- the same court that will issue a ruling on the South China Sea next week -- ruled against India in favour of Bangladesh in a three-decade-old maritime dispute," he said on Thursday.
"To India's great credit, it accepted the decision and has abided by it, noting at the time that settlement of the issue would enhance mutual understanding and goodwill between the two countries. This is an example we would encourage China to follow," the top Pentagon official said.
The court, based in The Hague, is due to give its ruling next week, raising fears of confrontation in the region.
The Philippines has sought a decision from the tribunal regarding the validity of China's nine-dash line as a maritime claim under the Convention, as well as the clarification of maritime entitlements under the Convention of South China Sea islands and other geographic features.
"The arbitral tribunal's upcoming ruling will present an opportunity for those in the region to determine whether the Asia-Pacific's future will be defined by adherence to international laws and norms that have helped keep the peace and enabled it to prosper, or whether the region's future will be determined by raw calculations of power," Denmark said.
"China, in particular, will face an opportunity to stand within an open and principled regional architecture," he said, adding that the path of pursuing the peaceful resolution of disputes and the adherence to international law has been chosen in the past by those in China's position.
"For example, India — an increasingly important partner to the US in Asia and globally — is an exemplar of how a proud and increasingly powerful country can handle such disputes with its neighbors in accordance with international law," Denmark said.
With the South China Sea at a crossroads, there is a degree of uncertainty surrounding how some claimants will act in the coming months, he said but assured the lawmakers that the US will play an active role to shape the region's future.
Testifying before the same committee, Colin Willett Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Multilateral Affairs Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, also praised India for peacefully resolving its maritime dispute with Bangladesh.
"The region abounds with examples of neighbours finding peaceful ways to resolve difference over overlapping maritime zones. Indonesia's and the Philippines' successful conclusion of negotiations to delimit the boundary between their respective exclusive economic zones (EEZs) and India's and Bangladesh's acceptance of the decision from an arbitral tribunal with regard to their overlapping EEZ in the Bay of Bengal are just a couple that come to mind," he said.
Willett accused China of double standards on the issue of following international laws.
"China was very much involved in negotiating the Law of the Sea Convention and consented to the dispute settlement procedures set forth in the Convention when it became a party to this treaty," he said.
"And, as we have seen, China has not been shy in invoking its maritime rights and freedoms under the law of the sea in areas of the world where it is not a littoral state, but where it aspires for a greater role, such as the Arctic or in the Indian Ocean. This type of double standard is not sustainable," Willett said.
As China's economic and strategic interests expand, so too will its interest in ensuring the universal application of international principles such as freedom of navigation and overflight.
"Nations cannot simply pick and choose where in the world's oceans and seas international maritime law applies and where it does not; it cannot demand the rights and freedoms under the law of the sea in some parts of the globe while denying them to other countries closer to home," he asserted.
"And the United States cannot accept having rights and freedoms apply differently in the South China Sea than they do everywhere else in the world," he said.
Congressman Randy Forbes, Chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces said China's reaction to next week's ruling will provide a clear indicator of how that is going, and whether Beijing's quest for regional dominance can be curbed by international law and world opinion.
"If China continues to flaunt international law and world opinion, however, I firmly believe that the surest way of averting another devastating conflict in the Asia-Pacific region will be for the US to remain present, engaged, and capable of projecting decisive military power in the region. Might does not make right, but it can be used to deter threats to peace, prosperity, and the rule of law," Forbes said.
Although China is legally bound to its result, it has refused to participate and has clearly said that it will not comply, said Congressman Mat Salmon.
"I am concerned that many seem to have written-off China's noncompliance as a foregone conclusion. We must remember that this case is the most significant, substantial approach to settling disputes in the South China Sea through a peaceful, equitable process; China should be held accountable to the tribunal's ruling," Salmon demanded.