China is not the only one ‘militarising’ the South China Sea

Mark J. Valencia says it is unfair to blame Beijing for its defensive weapons systems in the Spratlys when the US and others are similarly provocative

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 December, 2016, 10:56am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 December, 2016, 6:34pm

The “revelation” by Washington’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies that China has emplaced anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems on all seven of its occupied features in the Spratlys dominated the media headlines last week. As usual, US “experts” and media blamed China. Some even suggested its actions were a challenge to the US. But let’s take a balanced perspective.

Yes, China has installed defensive weapons systems on features it claims and occupies. Experts say this breaks President Xi Jinping’s ( 習近平 ) “pledge” not to militarise the features. Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser at the think tank, said as much. She has also written that “development of capabilities to deny American naval access to those waters in a conflict provides evidence of possible Chinese intentions to block freedom of navigation in specific contingencies”. This implies that China’s so-called militarisation of the features is a threat to freedom of navigation, a US security interest.

Others, like Michael Auslin, writing for CNN, have called for the US to take a “hard line” against China’s aggressive actions.

But Xi did not say China would “not militarise the islands”. According to the translation, he said “China does not intend to pursue militarisation”. The key words are “intend” and “militarisation”.

First, it may well have not intended to “militarise” the features. But when Vietnam and the US took certain military action, Beijing may have felt a need to respond to perceived threats to its forces and assets. To China, Vietnam’s deployment of long-range mobile rocket launchers on five features within striking distance of China’s occupied features and continued US freedom of navigation operations close to them constitute threats.

Moreover, China apparently does not consider defensive installations “militarisation”. Indeed, China has repeatedly said that the artificial islands it has constructed would be used for military defence.

What the experts neglect to say is that China has repeatedly warned that if the US persisted with provocative intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance probes, and freedom of navigation operations near its coast and occupied features, it would defend itself. In a January teleconference with US chief of naval operations Admiral John Richardson, Chinese naval commander Wu Shengli (吳勝利) said that “we won’t not set up defences. How many defences completely depends on the level of threat we face”. Self-defence is every nation’s right. The US itself frequently claims that it is defending its national security interests with its forward military deployments, surveillance probes, freedom of navigation operations and its beefed-up naval presence in the South China Sea. What is good for the goose is good for the gander.

Most important, there is clear disagreement as to the definition of “militarisation” and who is doing it. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “militarisation” as “to give a military character to or to adapt for military use”. Under this definition, all the claimants to and occupiers of Spratly features – China, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam – “militarised” them years ago. Indeed, all have stationed military personnel there and built airstrips and harbours that can and have accommodated military aircraft and vessels.

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So, what specifically does the US mean by “militarisation” when it accuses China of it and demands that it refrain from doing so? Is “occasional” military use all right, whatever that means? What if that “military” use is for “humanitarian” purposes, such as search and rescue or disaster response? Does the intent of the use matter – and who decides? How about if it is “for defensive purposes only”?

In China’s view, the US has militarised the situation by ‘projecting power’

More germane, what about the bigger picture regarding the meaning of “militarisation”? The US – unlike China – already has military “places” in Southeast Asia – in its military allies the Philippines and Thailand, and more recently in Malaysia and Singapore. With the pivot, the US has clearly increased its military presence in the region.

In China’s view, the US has militarised the situation by provocatively “projecting power”. Indeed, as a senior US naval officer put it, the freedom of navigation exercises are “an in-your-face, rub-your-nose-in-it operation that lets people know who is the boss” – in other words, it is gunboat diplomacy. As China’s vice-minister for foreign affairs Liu Zhenmin (劉振民) said in November last year, “This has gone beyond the scope of freedom of navigation. It is a political provocation.”

For China, the US programme of military assistance to claimant countries for maritime security confirms this perception. And if there were any lingering doubt, US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter gave a belligerent speech over a year ago on the US aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt as it cruised through the South China Sea, a fortnight after the USS Lassen’s freedom of navigation exercise near the China-claimed and occupied Subi reef. To top it off President Barack Obama declared during his November 2015 visit to the Philippines that “you can count on the United States” to help protect the security of the waters of the region.

Let’s face it: both China and the US are “militarising” the South China Sea – at least in each other’s eyes. Other claimants have done so, and have collaborated with the US effort as well, while other powers like Japan are contemplating doing so. What is clear is that “militarisation” means different things to different nations and people. Countries and experts that accuse others of it should define specifically what they mean. They should specify what it is that China is doing – not what it may do – that others have not.

China and the US may be destined to clash militarily. But, in this era of belligerent leadership on both sides, analysts and the press should not be hastening that destiny. This is a plea for more balance in their analyses and reporting.

Mark J. Valencia is adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China