Speaking at the 10th East Asia Summit in Malaysia on Sunday, China’s deputy foreign minister, Liu Zhenmin, clarified China’s position on the militarization of the South China Sea. Since 2014, China’s activities in the South China Sea have come under close scrutiny after Beijing began a spate of artificial island-building and construction activities on several features in the Spratly Islands at a historically unprecedented pace. Satellite imagery analysis has long shown that China is undertaking construction to facilitate military activities, including setting up new radar facilities, helipads, and airstrips.
In Kuala Lumpur, Liu reiterated China’s long-standing position that the purpose of these islands is to “provide public service” in the region. He noted the value of these facilities for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions. “One should never link the military facilities with efforts to militarize the South China Sea,” Liu added. “This is a false argument. It is a consistent Chinese position to firmly oppose the militarization of the South China Sea.” Liu’s language echoed assurances made by Chinese President Xi Jinping during his September visit to the United States. During a press conference with U.S. President Barack Obama, Xi said that China would never militarize the South China Sea.
Liu’s remarks in Kuala Lumpur highlight one of the more vexing aspects of Chinese rhetoric in the South China Sea for the United States and the Southeast Asian claimant states, including Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. China opposes the militarization of the South China Sea and claims not to contribute to it, but China’s activities on its artificial islands clearly point to militarization. In the United States, senior military officials, including the Commander of U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Harry Harris, have said as much.
Meanwhile, China claims that the United States is responsible for taking the first steps to ‘militarize’ the South China Sea. In Kuala Lumpur, Liu, without directly referencing Washington, said that other countries “should not deliberately stir up trouble but contribute to the peace and stability of the region.” Three weeks before the East Asia Summit, the U.S. Navy staged its first freedom of navigation patrol within 12 nautical miles of a Chinese artificial island, drawing an angry response from Beijing.
Liu’s remarks don’t signal a shift in Chinese rhetoric. China has issued several statements in the past from both its foreign and defense ministries cautioning the United States from pursuing “activities to militarize the South China Sea region.” If anything, as reports have noted, it is notable that Liu would make these statements at the East Asia Summit, with Obama present. Ahead of Obama’s trip to Asia, the United States announced a major bid to boost maritime security assistance for its Southeast Asian partners as well. China sees growing U.S. support for the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia as threatening to its position in the South China Sea.
The White House justified this increase in maritime security assistance by noting that it will help U.S. partners deal with the “evolving dynamics of the region.” From the Chinese perspective, this is militarization in the South China Sea—not its artificial islands.