KANEOHE, HAWAII - 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.