Commentary / World

South China Sea standoff

by Frank Ching

Beijing must be feeling the pressure from the United States to stop its campaign of turning tiny reefs that it controls in the South China Sea into artificial islands capable of accommodating military aircraft and vessels. The Monday edition of the People’s Daily online carried not one but two commentaries criticizing the U.S. for its accusations against China.

Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama said he was concerned that China was using its “sheer size and muscle” to bully smaller neighbors, such as the Philippines and Vietnam, which are embroiled in maritime disputes with Beijing. And Ashton Carter, on his first trip to Asia since becoming U.S. defense secretary, warned that militarization of territorial disputes in the South China Sea could lead to “dangerous incidents.”

Their statements stem from the latest evidence of China engaging in wide-ranging reclamation of land in the South China Sea by scooping up sand from the seabed and pouring it, plus loads of cement, onto submerged reefs and turning them into artificial islands which are capable of hosting helipads, airstrips and harbors.

Last November, IHS Jane’s, a provider of military information and analysis, released satellite imagery showing that the Chinese had created an island almost 3,050 meters long and 300 meters wide on Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands of the South China Sea. The reef, controlled by China, was also claimed by the Philippines and Vietnam.

About 320 km away is Mischief Reef, claimed by the Philippines but occupied by China since 1995. In the early years put up flimsy structures on stilts but, last month, the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington published images showing land formations and structures, including fortified sea walls, which did not exist six months previously.

Such reclamation and construction are part of a drive by China to turn the features that it controls — including Gavens Reefs, Hughes Reef and Johnson South Reef — into artificial islands. None of the reefs qualified as islands under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

While the law of the sea also does not recognize the legality of artificial islands and does not accord them a territorial sea or an exclusive economic zone, their existence changes the reality on the ground.

China has brushed off all criticism of its reclamation and construction activities. Foreign Minister Wang Yi, asked about this at a press conference, said: “China is carrying out necessary construction on its own islands and reefs. The construction does not target or affect anyone.”

He criticized other countries that put up structures in the Spratly Islands as engaging in “illegal construction in another person’s house” — China claims virtually all land features in the South China Sea.

Other countries, however, disagree. The Philippine Defense Ministry spokesman, Peter Paul Galvez, urged China to dismantle the structures it has put up on Mischief Reef, saying that they affect his country’s national security.

The Communist Party, at the latest plenary session of its Central Committee six months ago, focused on rule of law as the theme, insisting that everything must be done according to law.

On Oct. 24, United Nations Day, Foreign Minister Wang published an article calling on the international community to “reaffirm their commitment to maintaining world peace and international rule of law.”

The international community, he said, must “reject the law of the jungle where the strong do what they want and the weak suffer what they must.”

In the context of disputes in the South China Sea, however, the foreign minister did not explain why, when there is a dispute over territorial sovereignty, the world should always accept China’s claims as being beyond dispute while other countries are presumed to be acting illegally. Moreover, China refuses to accept mechanisms provided by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea for judicial arbitration.

China is clearly by far the strongest claimant militarily. The other claimants — the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei — are by comparison small and weak.

Wang and the government that he represents insists that the only choice the small, weak, militarily insignificant countries of Southeast Asia have is to hold one-on-one negotiations with China, whose military budget is the second biggest in the world and which has the world’s largest Coast Guard fleet, with more patrol vessels than Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia combined.

Surely, China does not want the world in 2015 to be a place where, in the foreign minister’s words, the law of the jungle holds sway and “the strong do what they want and the weak suffer what they must.”

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.