Map of the South China Sea: iStock
Map of the South China Sea: iStock

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson last Thursday accused the United States of “staging a farce of a thief crying ‘stop thief.’” The allegation was made by Hua Chunying when she was asked to comment on Washington’s recent strong criticisms of Beijing’s militarization of the South China Sea.

Last August, the country’s main media outlets, including Xinhua, its official news agency, leveled the same accusation at Vietnam, its southern communist neighbor and a key South China Sea claimant state, when the latter urged its fellow Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) members to raise China’s land reclamations and military activities in the hotly disputed waters.

Based on China’s actions in the area, including massive reclamation and a military build-up that incomparably exceeded those undertaken by Vietnam in terms of scale, speed and ambition, as well as international attention and apprehension vis-à-vis Beijing’s aggressive expansionism, this author contended that by accusing its smaller neighbor of acting as a “thief crying ‘stop thief,’” it is not Vietnam, but rather China, that behaves hypocritically.

By accusing the US of the same behavior, it seems that this is China’s typical reaction when its contentious activities in the contested waters are strongly criticized.

The question is whether it is the US or China that is the “thief crying ‘stop thief’” in the contested area.

Hua Chunying argues that the military forces deployed by the US far exceed the combined total of those by China and other coastal countries in the South China Sea.

It’s undeniable that the US has military bases in – and conducts military exercises with – the Philippines, its key regional ally and another key South China Sea claimant nation. So, too, is the fact that its warships visit some regional countries, such as Vietnam, and the US Navy regularly conducts freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the area.

Besides these, the US doesn’t have any other major permanent military base or equipment, nor does it conduct other activities in the South China Sea.

In contrast, China has increasingly intensified its militarization activities in the region. It has recently deployed anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missile systems to three of its huge man-made islands on three reefs – namely Subi Reef, Fiery Cross Reef and Mischief Reef – in the Spratlys and landed powerful bomber aircraft on Woody Island in the Paracels.

Thus, her argument that it is the US – not China – that is militarizing the area is debatable.

In any case, those military actions by the US are agreed, supported – or at least not opposed – by the Philippines, Vietnam and other regional countries.

Take the US’s FONOPs – which are probably its most controversial activities in the area – for instance. China is angry about the operations, accusing Washington of conducting them, not because such a freedom is “entitled under the international law” but because it just wants to use it “to do whatever it likes as a hegemon.”

It may be true that the US carries out the FONOPs partly because it wants to maintain its regional dominance. The problem for China is that, as US Defense Secretary James Mattis rightly pointed out last Tuesday, “there’s only one country [i.e. China] that seems to take active steps to rebuff them or state their resentment of them.”

Speaking with reporters while flying on to Hawaii, where he stopped before going to Singapore to attend the annual Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD), Mattis also said the South China Sea is “international waters, and a lot of nations want to see freedom of navigation.”

Except for China, no country publicly criticized the US’s FONOPs and many other countries inside and outside the region, such as Japan, Australia, India, the United Kingdom and France, want freedom of navigation in the area, which is one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes and among the most strategically vital waters

Indeed, except for China, no country publicly criticized the US’s FONOPs and many other countries inside and outside the region, such as Japan, Australia, India, the United Kingdom and France, want freedom of navigation in the area, which is one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes and among the most strategically vital waters.

More importantly, whilst claimant states, notably the Philippines and Vietnam, are receptive to the US’s actions, they are critical of China’s. This is because Beijing’s maritime moves violate their sovereignty and threaten regional stability.

In her comments, the Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman claimed: China is “deploying only necessary and limited homeland defense facilities on its own islands and reefs” and by doing so Beijing “is exercising its right to self-preservation and self-defense entitled under the international law in an upright way. This is legitimate and legal.”

These claims are dubious, if not false. The “islands and reefs” China claims as “its own” and deploys military hardware to are claimed by other regional countries.

In her remarks, Hua also reiterated that “China follows a defense policy that is defensive in nature. We will never attack others unless we are attacked.” But, if its past and recent behavior is any guide, there is no guarantee that the hulking nation will not offensively launch military attacks on others, notably its smaller neighbors.

In 1974, it attacked and seized the Paracels (Hoang Sa) from the then South Vietnam. Despite Vietnam’s opposition, China has ever since occupied the islands and recently sent its H-6K bomber aircraft to the disputed area.

In 1988, Chinese forces launched a deadly attack on South Johnson (Gac Ma) Reef, which was hitherto under Vietnamese control. China has occupied the reef as well as other reefs and islets, including Fiery Cross Reef, in the Spratly Islands ever since.

In 2012, the Asian behemoth forcibly seized control of Scarborough Shoal, claimed by the Philippines. Such a move by China prompted Manila to take its territorial dispute with Beijing to the United Nations-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration. In July 2016, the international arbitral tribunal overwhelmingly ruled in favor of the Philippines, invalidating many of China’s claims and actions.

In her statement, Hua Chunying also reiterated that “China has solemnly stated on many public occasions that … China will never seek hegemony or expansion.” Actually, Chinese President Xi Jinping has repeatedly and solemnly made such a statement in virtually all of his major domestic and, especially, international speeches.

Beijing’s past military attacks against Vietnam and the Philippines and many of its recent actions in the contested waters, however, point to the contrary.

When talking to reporters on May 29, Mattis also recalled that Chinese President Xi Jinping “made a promise in 2015 in [a joint press conference with President Obama in White House’s Rose Garden] that the Chinese “would not be militarizing the Spratly Islands.” But the Pentagon chief added: “We have seen – the last month, they have done exactly that, moving weaponry in that was never there before.”

Indeed, as already pointed out, when it comes to the South China Sea, China doesn’t always do what it said or promised. Worse, it does the exact opposite of what its officials and leaders preach.

It is therefore unsurprising that China’s expansion and militarization activities in the area have always dominated the Singapore-based Shangri-La Dialogue – Asia’s annual and premier security summit.

In his keynote speech last year, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull warned against “a coercive China” while Mattis strongly criticized Beijing’s “construction activities” and “militarization.” its “disregard for international law,” “contempt for other nations’ interests, and its efforts to dismiss non-adversarial resolution of issues.”

This is also the case with this year’s SLD, which was held on June 1-3, even though North Korea’s denuclearization is currently a regional and global hot topic.

In her remarks on Sunday, French Defense Minister Florence Parly said: “Last year, one of the issues that dominated the debates was the situation in the South China Sea” and “this will … remain a key concern this year.”

In a veiled criticism of China’s militarization in the disputed waters and Beijing’s refusal to resolve the disputes in accordance with international law, she stated the maritime disputes “should be resolved by legal means and negotiation, not by fait accompli, and freedom of navigation must be upheld.”

Delivering the forum’s keynote opening address on Friday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi presented his country’s vision for a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific Region [a notion vigorously championed by the US’s current administration] that is based on a number of key elements. These include “a common rules-based order” and “equal access as a right under international law to the use of common spaces on sea and in the air that would require freedom of navigation … and peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with international law.” Again, these are references to Beijing’s controversial behavior in the contested sea.

In his intervention on Saturday, US Defense Secretary Mattis took a much stronger posture, accusing China of “intimidation and coercion” and firmly stating: “America is in the Indo-Pacific to stay.”

While his pledge that the US does not plan to abandon its role in the region may be seen in Beijing as a threat, it is definitely an assurance to many regional countries that are wary of their giant neighbor’s maritime actions.

All in all, it may not require “a keener eye” – to borrow the words of the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman – to figure out “who is militarizing the South China Sea.” If the US is militarizing it, “it is self-evident” that China is outperforming the former. Or, more exactly, China’s militarization is far more problematic than the US’s. Thus, Beijing’s accusation of Washington acting like “a thief crying ‘stop thief’” in the disputed sea is very hypocritical.

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.