On Saturday in Singapore, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter addressed the attendants at the 14th Shangri-La Dialogue, a high-level security forum, asserting China’s recent land reclamation in the South China Sea was “out of step” with international norms, and adding his opposition to “any further militarization” in the region. As a high-level Chinese military delegation looked on uncomfortably, Carter asked for “a peaceful resolution of all disputes” and called for “an immediate and lasting halt to land reclamation by all claimants.”
But before the Chinese delegation got too uncomfortable in their seats, he acknowledged the actions of the other claimants who have been busy constructing their own outposts in the South China Sea. (Vietnam currently has 48, the Philippines eight, Malaysia five and Taiwan one.) Despite their activity, Carter pointed out the Chinese have far exceeded the others in pace and scale, having reclaimed over 2,000 acres on five outposts within the last 18 months — more than all of the other claimants combined have done in their history.
The Chinese reaction to Carter’s speech was quick and pointed, with one Chinese military official saying his comments were “groundless and not constructive.” Senior Colonel Zhao Xiaozhuo of the Chinese Academy of Military Science added further, “Freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is not at all an issue because the freedom has never been affected.”
Colonel Zhao’s remarks are disingenuous, given freedom of navigation should include the right of foreign militaries to fly their aircraft over the South China Sea. Last week, the Chinese military ordered a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft to “go now”— an obvious attempt by Beijing to impede freedom of navigation in the skies over the South China Sea.
Freedom of navigation should also include the right of Vietnamese fishermen to fish in traditional fishing grounds. Last month’s declaration of the municipal administration of Haikou in Hainan, China’s southernmost province, of an annual fishing ban would appear to hinder the freedom of navigation for Vietnamese fishermen. The affected area encompasses the Gulf of Tonkin, the Paracels island chain which China took from Vietnam in 1974, and the Scarborough Shoal, a disputed reef in the Spratly Islands China seized from the Philippines in 2012.
Colonel Zhao went even further, adding, “It is wrong to criticize China for affecting peace and stability through construction activities.”
Yet, his comments followed reports confirmed by the Pentagon that China had placed mobile artillery on one of its reclaimed islands in the South China Sea, causing John McCain, Chairman of the U.S. Senate Armed Service Committee to call the action “disturbing and escalatory.” While the deployment of artillery is largely symbolic, given the Chinese navy’s more formidable presence in the waters (and all regional claimants except Brunei have military fortifications in the Spratly island chain), the move has focused international attention on Beijing’s motives in the region and precipitated the call for a halt to all militarization of the islands of the South China Sea.
Beijing’s escalation of land reclamation efforts on islands it controls, and the denial of actions taken to limit freedom of navigation have only motivated Southeast Asian nations with claims in the South China Sea to undertake joint military preparations while building up their own militaries and drawing military assistance from actors outside the region, such as the U.S. and Russia.
On Sunday, Carter visited the Vietnamese navy and coast guard and pledged $18 million toward the purchase of U.S. patrol boats. McCain had earlier proposed an amendment to the 2016 U.S. Defense Authorization Act entitled the East Sea Initiative. Under the amendment, the U.S. would provide assistance in training and equipping the armed forces of Southeast Asian countries in order to deal with territorial challenges.
What many of the delegates of the Shangri-La forum called for was immediate action by China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations to agree on and adopt a “code of conduct” governing the disputed waters. Yet as Chinese dredgers are hard at work reclaiming land and increasing China’s de facto control, there is little incentive for Beijing to sign such a document.
Meanwhile, the U.S. is unlikely to remove its “pivot to Asia” anytime soon, and any further restriction on the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea by Beijing will likely be met with a challenge from Washington, as Defense Secretary Carter foreshadowed in his comments to the Shangri-La delegates, “Turning an underwater rock into an airfield simply does not afford the rights of sovereignty or permit restrictions on international air or maritime transit….There should be no mistake: the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, as US forces do all around the world.”
Expect more turbulence in these waters in the coming months.