HAIKOU, CHINA – There is a big difference between reasoning and rationalization. Reasoning is the use of facts and logic to derive a conclusion regarding a given issue. Rationalization is the use of reasoning to justify a preconceived conclusion. Many countries have rationalized their positions regarding their claims and actions in the South China Sea. Indeed there are no “innocents” — only degrees of rationalization.
For its policies and actions in the South China Sea, China has been accused of being aggressive; bullying other claimants; violating the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) as well as international law and norms; militarizing the features it occupies; threatening freedom of navigation; damaging the environment and causing ASEAN disunity.
But China argues that what it calls the Nansha (the Spratlys) and their “adjacent waters” have been under its sovereignty since “time immemorial.” According to China’s rationalized perspective, the former Western colonies have been stealing its fish and oil and gas in collaboration with outside Western companies and powers.
Moreover, to China, other claimants like the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam have committed similar transgressions. Indeed, in the 1970s and ’80s while the United States, Japan and Australia remained silent, they occupied features there that China considered its sovereign territory. They then altered the features by adding to them, built structures, ports and airstrips, and allowed access for their militaries. In China’s view they appropriated the largest and most useful features under spurious claims leaving only the dregs and submerged features.
In China’s rationalization of its more recent actions, it suffered by previously being relatively non-aggressive. When China tried to “catch up” by building on some of the only remaining unoccupied and low-tide features, the other claimants accused it of not exercising “self-restraint” and thus violating the 2002 DOC. But to China, other claimants have also violated the DOC’s self-restraint provision by continuing their reclamation and construction activities after the signing of the agreement. More significant to China, the Philippines — by filing a complaint with the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague — violated what China considers the most important DOC provision of all — the commitment “to resolve territorial and jurisdictional disputes through friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned.”
It is a violation of precedent-setting international arbitration rulings to undertake unilateral activities in disputed areas that change the nature of the area. When China does so or tries to prevent others from doing so it is called a “bully” by the smaller countries. But the reality is that this pejorative term is often used by less powerful countries to engender sympathy in their interactions with the more powerful ones — including with the U.S. For example, the U.S. freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) that use some of the world’s most lethal surface warships to publicly violate the national laws of less powerful countries are perceived by some as “bullying.”
China has rejected an international arbitration panel’s ruling adverse to its interests. The U.S. and Australia have criticized it for doing so. But the U.S. rejected the decision of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) when it ruled for Nicaragua against it. Also, Australia withdrew from ICJ jurisdiction rather than arbitrate boundary issues with East Timor. So what “international rules and norms” apply and who is and who is not in compliance with them are rationalized by many countries.
The U.S. accuses China of “militarizing” the South China Sea but fails to define the term. Critics of China’s actions like Vietnam and the Philippines reclaimed features and “militarized” them years ago — albeit on a lesser scale. Moreover, the Philippines used a naval vessel in a standoff with China at Scarborough Shoal — a clear threat of use of force and thus a violation of the U.N. Charter, UNCLOS and the DOC. More recently, the U.S. has maintained a studied silence regarding Taiwan’s decision to send more troops and possibly anti-aircraft missiles to Itu Aba.
But it is the U.S. itself that has perpetrated one of the most egregious examples of hypocrisy by increasingly militarizing the region with its forward deployed troops, assets and patrols as part of the “rebalance” of its defense forces — all the while condemning China’s militarization of the features it occupies.
The rival claimants have also echoed U.S. accusations that China is threatening commercial freedom of navigation. But the U.S. has over time deftly conflated freedom of commercial navigation with freedom of navigation for its warships and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) vessels and aircraft. In so doing it makes frequent reference to the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which it has not ratified but claims to be implementing. Yet the U.S. is trying to pick and choose which provisions it will abide by and interpret them to its benefit. The U.S. rationalizes that it is abiding by its interpretation of this convention and others are not.
Vietnam supported the January 2016 USS Curtis Wilbur FONOP near Triton Island in the Paracels by proclaiming 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 for entry of warships into its territorial sea that have been the targets of U.S. FONOPs.
India also supports 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 exclusive economic zone (EEZ) without its permission. Malaysia and U.S. ally Thailand have similarly restrictive regimes for their EEZs. Indeed, Malaysia’s regime has been challenged by U.S. FONOPs. But it supports U.S. military probes in other countries’ waters by allowing U.S. intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance planes to refuel on its territory. All have presumably rationalized their seemingly contradictory behavior.
The Philippines accused China of wanton environmental damage in the Spratlys and the arbitration panel found it guilty as charged. But China is certainly not the first or only claimant to damage the environment of these atolls or to allow their military to use them. 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. Again these contradictions are rationalized by arguing that China’s transgressions were much more expansive.
In April 2016, Singapore criticized China for “meddling” in ASEAN’s internal affairs. Indeed, China has attempted with some success to garner support from Brunei, Cambodia and Laos for its position that the South China Sea disputes should be negotiated by the countries directly concerned. However, the U.S., by strongly supporting the Philippines and Vietnam’s positions against China, has contributed to ASEAN disunity on this critical issue as well. Singapore’s rationalization of this dichotomy is presumably in its “national interest.”
And so it goes.
The point is that we should realize that much of what we hear and read about countries’ claims and actions in the South China Sea is nationalism-fueled rationalization — not objective reasoning based on logical analysis of all the relevant facts.
Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China. A longer version of this piece first appeared in the IPP Review.
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