Commentary / World

The South China Sea spats: an alternative point of view

by Mark J. Valencia

Special To The Japan Times

For its policies and actions in the South China Sea, China has been accused of being aggressive; bullying other claimants; violating previous agreements, international law and norms; militarizing the features; undermining the status quo; generating instability; damaging the environment; and threatening freedom of navigation.

Some of these allegations are accurate — especially from the perspective of rival claimants and their supporters. But other claimants and countries like the United States, Japan and Australia as well as international media and analysts have been rather one-sided in delineating and emphasizing China’s “transgressions.”

Indeed, it is rare to find in the international media an article or opinion piece on the subject that is not biased against China. To contribute to balance in public information, the following is a one-sided litany of the sins of other claimants and actors from what I think is China’s perspective.

While China demonstrated restraint and others — including the U.S., Japan and Australia — maintained a studied silence, other claimants unilaterally and illegally occupied features that China considers its sovereign territory. They then altered the features by adding to them and damaging the environment in the process; built structures, ports and airstrips; and allowed access for their militaries. They appropriated the largest and most legally desirable features for themselves leaving only the dregs and submerged features for the “rightful sovereign.”

Now that China is trying to “catch up” by occupying and modifying what is left, others have accused it of not exercising “self-restraint” and thus violating the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea (DOC).

China believes that the other claimants have also violated this self-restraint provision by continuing or maintaining their reclamation and construction activities.

More significant, China feels that other claimants have “internationalized” the issues and thus violated what it considers the most important DOC provision of all: “to resolve their territorial and jurisdictional disputes through friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned.”

To China, the Philippines complaint to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea was an unfriendly violation of this basic principle. China thinks the other claimants are also violating international law by undertaking unilateral activities that change the nature of areas it claims. Thus China has responded in like manner. But in doing so China has been perceived as a “bully” by the smaller countries. Unfortunately this perceptual difference is normal regarding interactions between large and small countries. Indeed, this term is often used by smaller countries to describe the actions of the U.S.

As for the greater scale and scope of China’s construction activities, it believes that they are commensurate with its regional responsibilities and capabilities as the world’s most populous country with the world’s second largest GDP and third largest area. China could argue that the comparison should be of land area created per country size, population or GDP.

To China, the former Western colonies have been stealing its fish and petroleum in collaboration with outside Western entities. More specifically, the Philippines involved a naval vessel in the standoff at Scarborough Shoal—a clear threat of use of force and thus a violation of the U.N. Charter.

Regarding its drilling on what it considers its continental shelf in the Gulf of Tonkin, Vietnamese fishing boats violated its declared safety zones and harassed and rammed Chinese civilian boats in disputed areas. Moreover, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam have arrested Chinese fishermen for fishing in disputed waters.

Most galling to China is the fact that the other claimants have welcomed the U.S. — which China believes is trying to contain and constrain it — and even its former arch enemy Japan to “intervene” in the issues and to participate in joint military exercises in the area.

The claimants have also echoed the U.S.’ false accusations that China is a threat to commercial freedom of navigation. Moreover the U.S., the Philippines and Vietnam have hyped as a bogeyman the possibility of China declaring an Air Defense Identification Zone off its coast in the South China Sea — a device the U.S. and its Asian allies, including Japan, introduced to the region and that it views as perhaps necessary to provide early warning and monitor provocative intelligence probes by the U.S.

To top it off, the U.S. is aggressively threatening to fly and sail military assets in Freedom of Navigation exercises over and through China-claimed features and “their adjacent waters” in the Spratlys, in blatant violation of China’s laws.

If this reads like a biased diatribe against the other claimants and actors in the South China Sea, it is supposed to. This is how much of the rhetoric from rival claimants and international media and analysts sounds to China. The point is that a one-sided perspective is unhelpful and only stimulates resentment and backlash by the target. This is the case with the current one-sided criticisms of China.

Yes, in the eyes of other countries China has behaved badly. In China’s view so have other claimants — and the U.S. and now Japan. All need to tone down their rhetoric, incorporate balance in their analyses and public statements, and be realistic in diagnoses, prognoses, proposals and prescriptions. Above all is a need to parley and practice principles — not prejudice and propaganda.

Mark Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in Haikou, China. An earlier version of this article appeared on the Institute for China-America Studies blog.