During his state visit to the United States last month, Chinese President Xi Jinping famously pledged that “China does not intend to pursue militarization” on the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. This sparked a wave of analysis over what, precisely, Xi meant, given that there is are widespread expectations (both from other South China Sea claimants and the United States) that China will use newly constructed facilities in the Spratlys to host military assets (from combat aircraft to naval vessels and possibly even missile systems).
We received some slight clarification this week from China’s Foreign Ministry. Spokesperson Hua Chunying told reporters that “There is no such thing [as] China ‘militarizing’ relevant islands and reefs” in the South China Sea. “Construction carried out by the Chinese side on relevant islands and reefs of the Nansha [Spratly] Islands is mainly to satisfy civilian needs,” Hua said, pointing to two recently completed lighthouses on Cuarteron and Johnson South Reefs.
However, she also admitted that “there certainly are a limited amount of necessary military facilities for defense purposes only” as part of the construction on Chinese-held islands. This aligns with previous Chinese statements on the purpose of construction in the South China Sea: mainly for civilian purposes, but with the acknowledged goal of “better safeguarding [China’s] territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests.”
A reporter asked Hua to clarify her statements that China will have military facilities in the Spratlys but claims to be not militarizing the islands. Hua replied crossly, “I wonder how you understand the word ‘militarize’” – which is indeed the crucial issue. According to Hua, China’s construction of defensive military facilities does not qualify as militarization; however, the line between defensive and offensive capabilities is blurred (see also: the debate over THAAD missile defense deployment in South Korea). For example, neighboring countries believe the deployment of Chinese radar facilities in the South China Sea would be a step toward militarization as this capability could be put to use in enforcing an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over disputed regions. China, however, could plausibly claim that the radar is a defensive asset only – and thus deny claims that it is going back on Xi’s promise not the militarize the islands.
Importantly, Hua’s remarks show how China is going to play the rhetorical game when it comes to accusations that China is militarizing the region. According to Hua, the South China Sea is already being militarized by “high-profile display of military strength and frequent and large-scale military drills by certain countries and their allies in the South China Sea” – meaning the United States and its partners. China’s construction of military facilities, Hua argued, is a necessary response to those provocative moves.
“It is easy to understand why the Chinese side has to deploy some military facilities on relevant islands and reefs,” Hua said.
With the United States moving closer to conducting freedom of navigation operations within 12 nautical miles of certain Chinese-held artificial features, analysts are already predicting that China could use such a move to justify scaling up its military assets on the disputed features. Hua’s comments – both her definition of militarization and her explanation of the situation – make that all the more likely.