US Indo-Pacific commander Admiral John Aquilino is shown speaking June 30, 2016, when he was still a vice-admiral serving as deputy chief of naval operations. Photo: AFP / Saul Loeb

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 [Chinese] 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 Jinping’s pledge not to 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 says are defensive weapons on features it claims and occupies.  It views them as critical to the defense of an existential asset – its 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 that “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 the US stepping up its 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 neglect to 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 US itself frequently claims that it is defending its national-security interests by its forward military deployments, its ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) 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 US, 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 Poseidon sub-hunters and electronic-warfare platforms.

The US has clearly increased its military presence in the region. Indeed, the US has now deployed 60% of its air and naval forces to the Indo-Pacific region.

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 that 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 United States’ largest warships, second only to US aircraft carriers, and can host heavy helicopters.  

In China’s view, the US 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. Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin has 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 US 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. Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones – especially regarding what their rival may do with its assets. That cuts both ways.

Mark Valencia is a non-resident senior research fellow at the Huayang Institute for Maritime Cooperation and Ocean Governance.