Tensions mount in the South China Sea. Satellite imagery has revealed that China has placed military equipment on the islands it has built (or built up) in the vital waterway, despite a pledge by Beijing to not militarize the area. Last week, a Chinese vessel seized a U.S. underwater drone operating in international waters. After criticizing Washington for “hyping up” the incident, China returned the drone to the U.S. Both developments bode ill for hopes that China would moderate its behavior in the contested region and suggest that the incoming U.S. administration needs to prepare for a challenge as soon as it takes office.
During his visit to the United States in September 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping promised to not militarize the Spratly archipelago, islands and features in the South China Sea claimed by China and the Philippines, and controlled by China. While China has constructed numerous bases and facilities on the territory it controls, it has insisted that they were “mainly for civilian purposes.”
Last week, however, satellite imagery revealed by the Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative, a website produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a prominent U.S. think tank, showed that China has deployed military equipment on every island or feature it controls. Six months of extensive analysis uncovered what seem to be anti-aircraft guns, close-in weapons systems (CIWS) to protect against cruise missile strikes, and towers that are thought to contain targeting radar. All would violate Xi’s pledge.
In the wake of the revelations, China’s Defense Ministry first responded in a news briefing by noting that “The Nansha islands (what China calls the Spratlys) are China’s inherent territory. China’s building of facilities and necessary territorial defensive facilities on its own territory is completely normal.” The ministry followed up with a note on its website that said “necessary military installations … are mainly for defense and self-protection and are legitimate and lawful.” Finally, Beijing justified the move by blaming the U.S. for its repeated efforts to ensure that it, and other trading nations that use the waterways, retain freedom of navigation. “If someone makes a show of force at your front door, would you not ready your slingshot?” All those explanations make sense but they are a violation of Xi’s pledge, nevertheless.
Days after that back and forth, a Chinese naval vessel seized an underwater drone operated by the U.S. Navy. The drone was sailing in international waters, collecting data on the salinity, temperature and clarity of the water. After U.S. complaints, China’s Defense Ministry explained that it had discovered “unidentified equipment” and seized it to prevent “any navigational safety issues” before discovering it was a U.S. drone. Since the seizure occurred as sailors on the USS Bowditch were preparing to hoist the drone back onto their ship, that explanation is plainly false.
China took the drone for two reasons. First, Beijing wants to express its displeasure with U.S. surveillance and monitoring of waters it considers sensitive. While the U.S. reconnaissance is consistent with most interpretations of international law, China takes exception to that view, and instead insists that all activities in its exclusive economic zone with military applications are illegal.
Second, Beijing is sending a signal to U.S. President-elect Donald Trump that it is displeased with his actions, in particular the criticism of Chinese economic policies and his phone conversation with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen and the threat to reassess the “one China” policy that guides U.S. relations with China.
Trump inserted himself into this most recent dispute, tweeting first that the theft was “unpresidented” (soon after corrected to “unprecedented”) and then adding that “We should tell China that we don’t want the drone they stole back — let them keep it!” The president-elect’s comments muddy an already murky situation; he has no authority and it is President Barack Obama’s job to deal with China until Jan. 20. Trump will have his own opportunities to deal with China soon enough.
China has frequently tested U.S. leaders as soon as they take office and Trump’s statements have raised the stakes for Beijing. Trump is challenging core elements of the U.S.-China relationship, policies that Beijing cannot afford to weaken. Beijing’s restrained response to the Tsai phone call did make an impression on Trump; it is now likely to up the ante.
Five trillion dollars worth of trade transits the South China Sea each year. China insists that its activities pose no threat to transit or navigation. That assurance rings hollow in the wake of the violation of the nonmilitarization pledge that was exposed last week. The world cannot afford to let China make light of international law and its own promises of restraint. All governments must insist that China refrain from the unilateral assertion of its claims, the flouting of international law and the militarization of disputed territories in the South China Sea.
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