As already taut political tensions in the South China Sea stretch toward the breaking point, the protagonists have stepped up their “public relations” campaigns. But these campaigns are laced with hypocrisy, disingenuousness and disinformation, and the protagonists’ credibility is thus also being stretched thin.
For its policies and actions in the South China Sea, China has been accused of being aggressive; bullying other claimants; violating the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) as well as international law; militarizing the features; undermining the status quo; generating instability; being out of step with international rules and norms; damaging the environment; and threatening freedom of navigation. Some of the allegations are accurate — at least from the perspective of rival claimants and their supporters. But other claimants and critics like the United States, Japan and Australia have committed similar transgressions. Thus their self-serving accusations ring hollow.
For example, in the 1970s and 80s while the US, Japan and Australia remained silent — other claimants occupied features there that China considered its sovereign territory. They then altered the features by adding to them, built structures, ports and airstrips, and allowed access for their militaries. They appropriated the largest and most useful features under spurious claims leaving only the dregs and submerged features.
Now that China is trying to “catch up” by building on some of the unoccupied features, the other claimants have accused it of not exercising “self-restraint” and thus violating the DOC. But other claimants have also violated the DOC’s self-restraint provision by continuing their reclamation and construction activities after the 2002 agreement. More significant, the Philippines — by filing a complaint with the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague — has violated what China considers the most important DOC provision of all, that is the commitment “to resolve their territorial and jurisdictional disputes through friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned.”
China has declared that it will not abide by a ruling adverse to its interests and the US and Australia have criticized it for this. But the US did not abide by the decision of the International Court of Justice when it ruled for Nicaragua against it and Australia has withdrawn from its jurisdiction rather than arbitrate boundary issues with Timor Leste.
Other claimants are also violating international law by undertaking unilateral activities in disputed areas that change the nature of the area. Indeed, from China’s perspective, the former Western colonies have been stealing its fish and petroleum in collaboration with outside Western companies. Moreover, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam have arrested Chinese fishermen for fishing in disputed waters.
The US has over time deftly conflated freedom of commercial navigation with its real priority — freedom of navigation for its warships and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) vessels and aircraft.
The rival claimants have also echoed the US’ accusations that China is threatening commercial freedom of navigation. The US claims its FONOPs in the South China Sea are intended to preserve and protect freedom of commercial navigation for itself and others that is threatened by China’s claims and actions. But the US has over time deftly conflated freedom of commercial navigation with its real priority — freedom of navigation for its warships and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) vessels and aircraft. In so doing it makes frequent reference to the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which it has not ratified but claims to be enforcing.
In contrast, China has ratified the UNCLOS but regularly violates its provisions — or at least the US’ interpretation thereof. Indeed, US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently told a US House of Representatives hearing that China “can’t have it both ways” by being a party to the UNCLOS but rejecting its provisions, including “the binding nature of any arbitration decision.” Yet the US is trying to do precisely that — pick and choose which provisions it will abide by. But not having ratified the UNCLOS, the US has no standing to have its concerns arbitrated and little credibility to unilaterally interpret it to its benefit.
Vietnam supported the recent US FONOP near Triton island in the Paracels by the USS Curtis Wilbur, proclaiming piously that it “respects the right of innocent passage through its territorial seas conducted in accordance with the relevant rules of the international community.” But Vietnam has both a territorial sea baseline and a prior notification regime that have been the targets of US FONOPs.
India also supported the US position. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said “countries must respect and ensure freedom of navigation…” But India has also been the target of US FONOPs challenging its ban on military activities and maneuvers in its EEZ without its permission. Malaysia and US ally Thailand have similar restrictive regime for their EEZs. Malaysia’s regime has been challenged by US FONOPs. But it quietly supports US “militarization” of the region by allowing US ISR planes to refuel on its territory. If India participates in South China Sea military exercises that take place in Malaysia or Thailand’s EEZs without their permission, it will be doing the same thing it opposes in its own EEZ.
The US accuses China of “militarizing” the South China Sea but fails to define the term. China claims it is not “militarizing” — and will not “militarize” — the features it occupies. Indeed, during his visit last September to the United States, China’s President Xi Jinping said publicly that regarding the Spratlys, “China does not intend to pursue militarization.” China also argues that “militarization” is essentially “in the eye of the beholder.”
However, there is little doubt that the features that China has built up and upon can and will harbor military as well as civilian assets and personnel. Like other claimants, China has already placed what it calls “defensive” weapons on some of its newly created and occupied “islands.” But critics of China’s actions like Vietnam and the Philippines reclaimed features and “militarized” them years ago — albeit on a lesser scale.
Moreover, the Philippines used a naval vessel in its standoff with China at Scarborough Shoal — a clear threat of use of force and thus a violation of the UN Charter, UNCLOS and the DOC. More recently, the US has maintained a studied silence regarding its ally Taiwan’s decision to send more troops and possibly anti-aircraft missiles to Itu Aba. But one of the most egregious examples of hypocrisy is being perpetrated by the US, which clearly has “militarized” and continues to “militarize” the whole region with its forward deployed troops, assets and patrols, as part of the “rebalance” of its defense forces.
Moreover, the US, the Philippines and Vietnam have hyped as a bogeyman the possibility of China declaring an Air Defense Identification Zone in the South China Sea — a regime the US and its Asian allies including the Philippines introduced to the region and that ironically China views as perhaps necessary for it to fend off provocative intelligence probes by the US.
All claimants have undertaken “reclamation” and construction that must have damaged coral reefs and the ecosystem. The Philippine government was relatively silent for years in the face of destructive “muro-ami” fishing in the Spratlys by Filipino boats and crews.
The Philippines has accused China of wanton environmental damage in the Spratlys. According to Philippines Foreign Ministry spokesman Charles Jose, “China’s massive reclamation activities are causing irreversible and widespread damage to the biodiversity and ecological balance of the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea.”
But China is certainly not the first to damage the environment of these atolls or others in the course of military use. All claimants, including the Philippines, have undertaken “reclamation” and construction on features they now occupy that must have damaged coral reefs and the ecosystem they support. Moreover, the Philippine government was relatively silent for years in the face of destructive “muro-ami” fishing in the Spratlys by Filipino boats and crews.
The US has repeatedly damaged isolated reef systems in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Between 1968 and 1973 the entire population of the British-owned Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia was removed, following which the US built a large naval and military base which has since been in continuous operation.
Following the end of World War II, the Pacific atoll of Enewetak in the Marshall Islands came under the control of the US as part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. This lasted until the independence of the Marshall Islands in 1986. During its tenure, the US evacuated the local residents many times, often involuntarily. Forty-three nuclear tests were undertaken at Enewetak from 1948 to 1958. It is projected that the majority of the atoll will be fit for human habitation by the year 2026–2027 after nuclear decay and de-contamination efforts create sufficient reduction in radiation.
Wake Island is claimed by the Marshall Islands but administered by the US Airforce. Its airfield is primarily used as a mid-Pacific refueling stop for military aircraft and as an emergency landing area. The 3,000-meter runway is the longest strategic runway in the Pacific islands. Located south of the runway is the Wake Island Launch Center, a Reagan-era missile defense launch facility operated by the US Army Space and Missile Command and the Missile Defense Agency. It would seem that there must have been considerable alteration of the feature with concomitant environmental damage.
And what about Japan’s modification of the Pacific rock known as Okinotorishima and its recent arrest of a Taiwan trawler operating in what Japan claims is its EEZ extending from it? I am afraid one could go on and on with such examples of hypocrisy.
The latest flap has been over Singapore’s criticism of China for “meddling” in ASEAN’s internal affairs, after China attempted with some success to garner support from Brunei, Cambodia and Laos for its position that the South China Sea disputes should be negotiated by the countries directly concerned. Perhaps it is, but it is also clear that by strongly supporting the Philippines’ and Vietnam’s positions against China, the US has contributed to ASEAN disunity on this critical issue as well.
The point of this essay is that we must not believe everything we hear and read about the South China Sea. Much of it on all sides is self-serving propaganda and the pots calling the kettle black.