Speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD) on Sunday, Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe made many bold, controversial remarks. One such statement was his assertion that since its founding in 1949, the People’s Republic of China “has never provoked a war or conflict, nor has it ever invaded another country or taken an inch of land from others.”
To portray the Asian behemoth as a benign, peace-loving country in his speech at the Singapore-based security conference, Wei also said: “History has proven and will continue to prove that China will not follow the beaten path of big powers seeking hegemony when it grows strong. Hegemony does not conform to China’s values and national interests.”
Such a portrayal of a benevolent, altruistic China has also been repeatedly painted by Xi Jinping in his international homilies. For instance, in his keynote speech at the United Nations Office in Geneva in 2017, Xi, China’s most powerful and authoritarian leader since Mao Zedong, pledged: “No matter how strong its economy grows, China will never seek hegemony, expansion or sphere of influence. History has borne this out and will continue to do so.”
Alas, when it comes to the South China Sea, history has shown that the one-party PRC has not practiced what Wei and Xi preached. It has even done the opposite of what they said.
In 1974, China launched a brief but violent attack on the Paracel Islands, then under the control of US-backed South Vietnam. Defeating the South Vietnamese navy, which was by then very weak, China seized the Paracels and has hitherto occupied the islands.
Though Vietnam still – and strongly – claims sovereignty over the Paracels, called Hoàng Sa in Vietnamese, the PRC has in recent years undertaken massive reclamation work on the islands and deployed anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles as well as fighter jets to the disputed archipelago. In May 2018, China released footage of an H-6K long-range bomber landing on Woody Island, the biggest island in the area, leading to the US and other countries, including Vietnam, to condemn such an aggressive move.
Research published in the Naval War College Review found that the ‘short but intense’ skirmish [in 1974] ‘was the first step in China’s decades-long effort to establish and expand its presence in the South China Sea’
A well-researched study published in 2016 said that the “hitherto-unknown details of the  battle illustrate how Chinese strategists tailored their tactics so as to coerce, deter, and defeat a rival claimant in the South China Sea.” That research, published in the Naval War College Review, also found that the “short but intense” skirmish “was the first step in China’s decades-long effort to establish and expand its presence in the South China Sea.”
It then correctly pointed out a number of China’s expansionist and antagonistic moves in the area. These include its seizure of six reefs and atolls of the Spratly Islands after another skirmish with Vietnam at Johnson South Reef in 1988 and the 2012 standoff with the Philippines, which resulted in Beijing compelling Manila to yield control of Scarborough Shoal.
What’s more, since 2013, the Asian giant has conducted an enormous expansion in the Spratlys, building up artificial islands and then militarizing those man-made bases. It was reported in May last year that China had installed anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missiles on three of its artificial bases in the Spratlys, namely Mischief, Fiery and Subi reefs.
For the Philippines, China’s seizure of Scarborough Shoal in 2012 was the last straw, prompting it to launch an arbitration case against China in 2013. In a landmark verdict three years later, a United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) tribunal unanimously invalidated many of Beijing’s contentious statements and unlawful actions. These included The Hague-based court’s findings that “there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources” within its so-called “nine-dash line,” which covers almost all the South China Sea, and that it “violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights in its exclusive economic zone [EEZ]” by, among others, “constructing artificial islands.”
Yet China forcefully ignored the final and legally binding award and used its huge economic, political and military might to compel other countries and organizations to sideline the milestone verdict.
China has also utilized its new-found power to curtail and coerce its smaller neighbors’ commercial activities in the South China Sea. For example, it has frequently harassed and attacked Vietnamese fishermen. In 2017 and 2018, China pressured its southern communist neighbor, which it also invaded in the brief but bloody border war in 1979, to cease oil and gas exploration operations in the areas that lie within Vietnam’s 200-nautical-mile EEZ because those offshore fields are also near its controversial “nine-dash line.”
Amid its multi-front conflict with the US, the PRC has now appeared less aggressive than it was a few years ago – when, as US president Barack Obama said, the Asian country used its “sheer size and muscle” to push around smaller nations in the South China Sea or applied “the old style of might makes right, as opposed to working through international law and international norms to establish claims, and to resolve disputes.”
That said, China hasn’t abandoned its ultimate aim of controlling the resources-rich and strategically vital waterway. In its recently released New Indo-Pacific Strategy, the US Department of Defense is probably right to claim that China “is engaged in a campaign of low-level coercion to assert control of disputed spaces in the region, particularly in the maritime domain. China is using a steady progression of small, incremental steps in the ‘gray zone’ between peaceful relations and overt hostilities to secure its aims, while remaining below the threshold of armed conflict.”
In his speech at the Shangri-La security conference, Wei defended his country’s controversial construction and militarization in the 3.5-million-square-kilometer sea, stating: “It is the legitimate right of a sovereign state to carry out construction on its own territory. China built limited defense facilities on the islands and reefs for self-defense.”
But as ruled by the UNCLOS tribunal, China’s “nine-dash line” claim is invalid according to international law. And as that infamous line was declared illegal by the international tribunal, many, if not most, of China’s contentious actions within it, including its land reclamation and military buildup, are also illegal.
It’s worth noting that the Chinese defense minister mentioned “international law” only once in his SLD speech, when he referred to the United States’ 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, asking: “Is it of Taiwan or the US? Is it a Chinese law or an international law?” That means, he didn’t mention international law when he talked about the South China Sea issue.
Other South China Sea claimants, including Vietnam, and many other nations, such as the US, Japan, India, Australia and Singapore, or outsiders, such as the United Kingdom and the European Union, have long called for disputing states to clarify their maritime claims according to international law
Other South China Sea claimants, including Vietnam, and many other nations, such as the US, Japan, India, Australia and Singapore, or outsiders, such as the United Kingdom and the European Union, have long called for disputing states to clarify their maritime claims according to international law.
In his remarks at the Group of Seven summit in Canada in 2017, Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, urged the G7 states (France, Germany, Italy, the UK, the US, Canada and Japan) to “demonstrate unity regarding the ongoing land reclamation and militarization in the South China Sea, as international law must apply to all countries, big and small, on land and at sea.”
China has still strongly objected to an international-law-based approach to the maritime dispute because adopting such an approach would mean it has to abandon its “nine-dash line” claim.
In his address, Wei Fenghe claimed that before the Shangri-La Dialogue, he visited Vietnam and “reached broad consensus” with his Vietnamese counterpart, General Ngo Xuan Lich, “on maintaining the stability in the South China Sea.”
Speaking shortly after the Chinese defense chief on Sunday, while stressing that “maintaining peace and cooperation is in common interest of the two nations and in fact the whole region”, Lich revealed that he and Wei “met to agree that Vietnam and China have differences in the East Sea [Vietnam’s name for the South China Sea] issues.”
In his remarks, Vietnam’s top military officer likewise stressed that the region and the world at large are “faced with security challenges and complexities” and listed “causes to such a situation.” These include “the mismatch between words and deeds, the behavior of power politics [and] the mentality of ‘might is right’.” Although Lich didn’t mention China or any country, China’s claims and actions in the South China Sea were probably, if not certainly, in his mind when he prepared and made such remarks.
In a keynote speech at the Singapore Lecture in 2016, Tran Dai Quang, then Vietnam’s president, said “the world is faced also with many grave difficulties and challenges,” including territorial and maritime disputes, and warned: “The seriousness of these challenges is extremely worrying as long as the ‘might makes right’ mindset and the resort to the use of force still exist.”
Again, though Quang did not mention China or any other country by name, his remarks were aimed at Beijing’s aggressive activities in the South China Sea and its might-makes-right approach to the maritime disputes in particular.
Speaking at the opening ceremony of this year’s SLD, Lee Hsien Loong spoke quite diplomatically, if not positively, about China, leading Beijing to voice its appreciation of the Singaporean prime minister publicly.
Still, in his remarks, Lee gave Beijing a lot of advice on how to deal with some of its major national, regional and international matters. For example, with regard to the China Sea disputes, he rightly and frankly opined: “China should resolve these disputes peacefully, in accordance with international law, including UNCLOS. It should do so through diplomacy and compromise rather than force or the threat of force, while giving weight to the core interests and rights of other countries.
“Then over time it will build its reputation as a responsible and benevolent power that need not be feared. Instead China will be respected as a power that can be relied on to support a stable and peaceful region,” the Singaporean leader added.
By giving such advice implicitly, yet pointedly, Lee implied that at the moment, China doesn’t want to settle the maritime disputes peacefully, in accordance with international law, nor is it seen as “a responsible and benevolent power” in the region.
Indeed, when it comes to the South China Sea, China’s nice words are fundamentally at odds with its aggressive deeds.