Who is militarizing the south China sea?

Apr 1, 2022
Fiery cross reef south China sea.
The reality is that in each other’s eyes both China and the U.S. are ‘militarizing’ the South China Sea. Image: Wikimedia Commons
There is an ongoing debate between the U.S. and China as to who is militarizing the South China Sea. Who is right is not clear and they both have their arguments.

The Commander of all US-Indo-Pacific forces Admiral John Aquilino has accused China of “fully militarizing three features in the South China Sea”… Mischief, Subi and Fiery Cross Reefs. He did so while on board a US surveillance plane flying near some of the Chinese occupied features. He added “I think over the past 20 years we’ve witnessed the largest [China] military buildup since World War II” and asserted that the buildup “is destabilizing to the region.” He elaborated that China had deployed “anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems, laser and arming equipment and fighter jets.” With an eye to the future, he warned that “they can fly fighters, bombers plus all these offensive capabilities of missile systems.” They threaten all nations who operate in the vicinity and all the international sea and airspace.” Aquilino also raised the old canard that China had violated President Xi’s pledge to not militarize the features.

China’s Foreign Ministry responded that its deployment of “defense facilities on its own territory is a right entitled to every sovereign country” and that US military activities in the area “seriously threaten the sovereignty and security of coastal countries.”

So who is right? That is not clear and both sides have their arguments in this ongoing debate.

China has installed what it claims are defensive weapons on features it claims and occupies. It views them as critical to the defense of an existential asset – their nuclear armed submarines.

But President Xi did not say in September 2015 that China would “not militarize the islands”. According to the translation, he said  _ _ “China does not intend to pursue militarization [of the features]. The key words are “intend” and “militarization”.

China may well have not intended to “militarize” the features. But it did so in response to Vietnam’s deployment of long range mobile rocket launchers on five features within striking distance of China’s occupied features and stepped up its continued US Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) challenging its maritime and some territorial claims.

Moreover, China apparently does not consider defensive installations “militarization”. In a January 2016 teleconference with then US Chief of Naval Operations John Richardson, Chinese naval commander Wu Shengli said that “we won’t not set up defenses. How many defenses completely depends on the level of threat we face”. Self-defense is every nation’s right.

Vietnam claims that “it is within our legitimate right to self-defense to move our weapons to any area at any time within our sovereign territory.” Even the U.S. itself frequently claims that it is defending its national security interests by its forward military deployments, its Intelligence,Surveillance and Reconnaissance(ISR) probes, its FONOPs and its beefed up naval presence in the South China Sea.

There is clear disagreement as to what constitutes “militarization” and who is doing it. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines ‘militarization’ as “to give a military character to or to adapt for military use.” According to this definition all the claimants to and occupiers of  Spratly features– China, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam– ”militarized” them years ago. Indeed, all have stationed military personnel there and built airstrips and harbors that can and have accommodated military aircraft and vessels.

But what about the bigger picture of  ‘militarization’ ? The U.S.–unlike China- already has military ‘places’ in Southeast Asia–in its military allies the Philippines and Thailand–and more recently in Malaysia and Singapore for its Poseiden subhunters and electronic warfare platforms. With the pivot, the U.S. has clearly increased its military presence in the region. Indeed, the U.S. has now deployed 60 percent of its air and naval forces to the Indo-Pacific. The most formidable weapons in its arsenal –aircraft carrier battle groups and nuclear capable bombers– frequent the South China Sea, sometimes several at a time undertaking joint exercises. Under its new Indo-Pacific Strategy, US military alliances and strategic partnerships aimed at China are being reinvigorated and it hopes to emplace mid range missiles in the region.

Ironically, at about the same time Aquilino was hyping China’s military installations, a US expeditionary mobile base – a large logistics support and command and control vessel– entered the South China Sea for the first time.  It is one of the U.S.’s largest warships second only to US aircraft carriers and can host heavy helicopters.

In China’s view, the U.S. has militarized the situation by provocatively ‘projecting power’. Indeed, as a senior US naval officer put it, the FONOPs are _ “an  in your face, rub your nose in it operation that lets people know who is the boss”–in other words ‘gunboat diplomacy’. China’s Deputy Foreign Minister Liu said “This has gone beyond the scope of freedom of navigation. It is a political provocation_ _”.

The reality is that in each other’s eyes both China and the U.S. are ‘militarizing’ the South China Sea. Worse, both are using their military assets to project psychological dominance of the region.

It is clear that ‘militarization’ means different things to different nations. Countries that live in glass houses should not throw stones—especially regarding what their rival may do with its assets. That cuts both ways.

This piece first appeared in the Asia Times. https://asiatimes.com/2022/03/us-china-debate-over-militarization-of-south-china-sea/

Mark J. Valencia is an internationally known maritime policy analyst focused on Asia and currently Adjunct Senior Scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China


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