In a sign of growing congressional concern about China’s increased assertiveness in the South and East China seas, Congress has included a provision in the draft fiscal year 2015 National Defense Authorization Act requiring the Department of Defense to report to key congressional committees an assessment of China’s moves to affect the current state of affairs in these disputed seas.

The provision calls on the Defense Department, within 180 days, to provide an unclassified report to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee on China’s actions to change the status quo with regard to competing territorial and maritime claims in the two seas. Congress has also required the Pentagon to report on the implications of China’s moves for U.S. security interests in Asia.

This provision marks an increase in congressional interest in Asia’s maritime disputes by imposing concrete requirements on the administration. Previous congressional expressions of frustration about China’s actions took the form congressional hearings and non-binding resolutions such as the one passed by the House of Representatives on December 4. This resolution called for disputes in the South China Sea to be resolved by peaceful means using international law and through negotiating a code of conduct between China and the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Vietnam and the Philippines, two countries in a dispute with China in the South China Sea, charge Beijing with taking provocative actions in recent years to enforce its territorial and maritime claims. China rejects these charges and says it is responding to unilateral steps by Vietnam and the Philippines to boost their claims and indicts the United States for meddling in the territorial disputes to undermine Beijing’s influence in the region. Washington insists it does not take sides in the disputes, but urges all parties to avoid unilateral and provocative actions to change the status quo.

In the East China Sea, where Tokyo and Beijing have overlapping claims, Chinese ships and planes have repeatedly faced off against Japanese vessels and aircraft in recent years.

The draft authorization bill calls on the Pentagon to assess China’s maritime strategies and capabilities, including Chinese anti-access and area denial strategies, and how these affect U.S. strategy in the Asia-Pacific. Congress also asks the Defense Department for a description of ongoing and planned changes in U.S. military capabilities in the region.

The draft bill requests an annual briefing on military-to-military engagements between the United States and China and how these exchanges will “reduce the potential for miscalculation and tensions in the South China Sea and the East China Sea.” It also asks for a detailed description of “all planned and potential military-to-military engagements” between the United States and China in the subsequent 12 months.

This increased congressional attention will make clear to the Pentagon that it has the strong backing of Congress to monitor and respond to China’s assertive actions in the Asia-Pacific’s two largest maritime disputes.

About Murray Hiebert

Murray Hiebert serves as senior fellow and deputy director of the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS in Washington, DC. He earlier worked as a journalist in Asia for the Wall Street Journal and the Far Eastern Economic Review.