Deceit and hypocrisy in the South China Sea


Special To The Japan Times

An old joke has it that there are three common disingenuous statements: “Of course I will respect you in the morning,” “The check is in the mail” and “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.”

For countries with security interests in the South China Sea, there are now several similar whoppers that appear frequently in relevant countries’ rhetoric regarding those issues — all shaped by and having implications for the political domain. Indeed, one factor complicating and confusing the issues there is the deceit and hypocrisy of nearly all the claimants and major actors.

Omissions and commissions in their proselytizing range from misinformation or “white lies” to disinformation to glaring gaps between what a nation says and does. The ASEAN leaders will gather this week at a “special” summit with President Barack Obama in California to discuss among others the South China Sea situation. They may wish to seek agreement on the meaning of some of the key words and concepts regarding the issues and check to see if they are on the same page — or not.

Many key words have become political tools and their meanings have been intentionally muddled. It is “reclamation” (of submerged features!), not “island creation;” “freedom of navigation,” not “provocative intelligence probes” or “gunboat diplomacy;” “defensive” weapons, not “offensive” or simply “weapons” (even though many if not most can be used for both); “places,” not “bases;” “international waters” not “exclusive economic zone,” and so on.

For example, the U.S. 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 it is clear that the features that China has built up and upon can and will harbor military as well as civilian assets and personnel. ‘Defensive’ weapons have already been placed on some of its occupied features. So what does “militarize” mean to the protagonists? Critics of China’s actions like Vietnam and the Philippines reclaimed features and “militarized” them years ago — albeit on a lesser scale. However one of the most egregious examples of hypocrisy is perpetrated by the U.S., which clearly has “militarized” and continues to “militarize” the whole region with its forward deployed troops, assets and patrols, bolstered by its “rebalance” of its defense forces.

Similar deceit and hypocrisy surround the controversy over “freedom of navigation.” The U.S. claims its “freedom of navigation operations” (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. Indeed, the official historical background to the FONOP Program states that “since the founding of the nation, the United States has asserted a vital national interest in preserving the freedom of the seas and necessarily called upon its military forces to preserve that interest. One of the first missions of a young U.S. Navy was to protect the safe shipping of U.S. commercial vessels through the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea and adjoining seas, against pirates and other maritime threats.”

But as this narrative hints, the U.S. 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 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which it has not ratified but claims to be enforcing.

In ironic contrast China has ratified the convention but regularly violates its provisions — or at least the U.S.’ interpretation thereof. Since the U.S. has not ratified UNCLOS it has no standing to have its concerns arbitrated and little credibility to unilaterally interpret it to its benefit.

Vietnam supported the recent U.S. FONOP 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 U.S. FONOPs in the past.

India also supported the U.S. position. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said “countries must “respect and ensure freedom of navigation. …” But India has also been the target of U.S. FONOPs challenging its ban on military activities and maneuvers in its EEZ without its permission.

Malaysia has a similar restrictive regime for its EEZ but quietly supports U.S. “militarization” of the region by providing refueling facilities for U.S. ISR planes. And on it goes.

The Philippines 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.”

China denies the accusation and argues that it undertook environmental impact assessments before the construction and that any damage was minimal. This boggles the mind as visual evidence from satellite photos appears to support the Philippines’ position.

But 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.

These are just some examples of how the South China Sea has become a maelstrom of deceit and hypocrisy. Policymakers and analysts must separate the “wheat from the chaff” when addressing the South China Sea disputes.

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

  • TBL

    Mencius: One who retreated fifty steps in the battlefield mocks another who retreated one hundred steps, not knowing the little difference of their action.

  • CaptainAsia

    Bottom line is China does not own the seas South of China. Call it what you may, deceit, hypocrisy or lies. China is wrong in this claim and no matter how much academic muddying of an intellectual argument you try to portray, it convinces no one. As we all know, academics that study and write in China about China also write only positive CCP articles, never any criticism. So Mr Valencia, you are nothing more than a 50 cent wumao troll.

  • jybarz

    How much has China paid you, Mark Valencia? Or has it threatened you deportation or jail in China?

    In all your BS article you never mentioned the validity or non validity of China’s nine dash line claim which is the very basis of its lying, stealing and bullying.

    So who is deceitful and hypocritical? Definitely you and your master China!

  • Liars N. Fools

    Gasp. Hypocrisy and deceit. How horrible. Maybe one little contribution to transparency might be how much the author is paid by Chinese authorities.

    I have been to Hainan a number of times, and it is pretty. But it is a backwater, including intellectually and academically.

  • Master of Unlocking

    Valencia is a paid hack of the Chinese, but since saying “China is 100% right and every other country is 100% wrong on everything” will not convince anyone but the 50 cent brigade, of course even he has to make some attempt to appear fair and balanced occasionally.

    Which is why even he now concedes in this opinion piece that satellite photos support the Philippines’ claim that China’s reclamation activities are causing massive environmental damage, and he now concedes that, China’s repeated denials that it is militarizing the region notwithstanding, China’s artificial islands “can and will” hold a military presence in the future. He attempts to accuse other claimants of hypocrisy by pointing out that they have “militarized” as well, but that is just whataboutism again, as the scale of China’s militarization far exceeds that of all the other claimants put together. Scale is important, Mr. Valencia.

    Then he tries to say that the US is also “militarizing” the area. But it is not the US building artificial islands in the middle of the South China Sea in order to build military bases on them, it is China. The US sails warships through the South China Sea, as is their right, as it is international waters and any country can do so. For reasons only the Chinese can fathom, China claims the entire South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest international trade routes, as Chinese territory, and builds bases on it in order to control and deny access to other countries. There’s a difference, Mr. Valencia.

  • RT Colorado

    agitprop pure and simple.

  • Dave Perry

    Wow, the author is really bending over backwards trying to put Freedom of Navigation operations (FONOPs) in a negative light. Newsflash, FONOPs are to protest the illegal maritime claims by any nation, allied or otherwise. The illegal encroachment by the Chinese is just the latest. To say that the US is somehow being hypocritical in that warships are used is pretty darn funny!

  • Freedom

    Wow, Mark Valencia has gone off the deep end. Pity; he used to be a respected academic.

  • China is too powerful.

  • “Since the U.S. has not ratified UNCLOS it has no standing to have its concerns arbitrated and little credibility to unilaterally interpret it to its benefit.”

    Oh, my no. UNCLOS is not the only source of applicable international maritime law. UNCLOS obliges its signatories to follow its terms but does not cancel the existing rights of non-signatories.