The Debate

Who Is Militarizing the South China Sea?

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The Debate

Who Is Militarizing the South China Sea?

Those making accusations should begin by defining exactly what they mean by “militarization.”

Who Is Militarizing the South China Sea?
Credit: Victor Robert Lee and Digital Globe

U.S. President Barack Obama and his Defense Secretary Ashton Carter have repeatedly warned China not to militarize the Spratly islands in the South China Sea. But China claims that it is the United States that is militarizing the region and the South China Sea disputes. Who is doing what, is it “militarization,” and why does it matter?

On November 21, Obama appealed to the region’s leaders gathered at the East Asia Summit. declaring that “For the sake of regional stability, the claimants should halt reclamation, construction and militarization in disputed areas.” He was trying to build on the hint of progress manifest in an impromptu public statement by China’s President Xi Jinping at the conclusion of his visit to Washington, in which he assured all that “China does not intend to pursue militarization” of the Spratly Islands. Unfortunately Xi did not elaborate in public or private. But it is clear that the U.S. intends to hold him to its interpretation of the term. However, in a subsequent confusing twist, China’s Deputy Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin said at the East Asia Summit “One should never link the military facilities with efforts to militarize the South China Sea. This is a false argument. It is a consistent Chinese position to firmly oppose the militarization of the South China Sea.”

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “militarization” as “to give a military character to or to adapt for military use.” This is pretty clear. Under 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.

So what specifically does the U.S. mean by “militarization” when it accuses China of it and demands that it refrain from doing so? Is occasional military use all right? But what is “occasional” military use?  What if that military use is for humanitarian purposes such as search and rescue or disaster response? Does the intent of the use matter – and who decides? How about if it is “for defensive purposes only” – an argument that the U.S. uses frequently to justify its forward deployment of military forces and assets in Asia?

What about the bigger picture regarding the meaning of the term “militarization”? The U.S. – unlike China – already has military “places” if not bases 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. With the pivot, the U.S. has clearly increased its military presence in the region. This is the context of its frequent ISR probes of China’s mainland defenses along its South China Sea coast, and more recently its muddled – some say bungled – Freedom of Navigation (FON) exercises in and over the Spratlys themselves. The U.S intends to follow up with more such FON challenges, which essentially are a form of gunboat diplomacy.

In China’s view – as well as in the perspective of several Southeast Asian countries – the U.S. has militarized the situation by provocatively “projecting power.” Indeed, as a senior U.S. naval officer put it, the FON exercises are “an in your face, rub your nose in it operation that lets people know who is the boss.” As China’s Deputy Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin has said, “This has gone beyond the scope of freedom of navigation. It is a political provocation.” The new U.S. program of military assistance to claimant countries for maritime security confirms this interpretation. And if there were any lingering doubt, analysts can point to the loud and clear message of Carter giving a speech on the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt as it cruised through the South China Sea, only a fortnight after the USS Lassen’s FON exercise near China-claimed and occupied Subi reef. To top it off Obama declared during his November visit to the Philippines that “you can count on the United States to help protect  the security of the waters of this region.”

So what is China doing that has the U.S. so agitated and apparently willing to chance another military conflict in Asia? China has constructed new features in the area and built airstrips and ports that can accommodate military aircraft and naval vessels. It does not deny that its military will utilize the facilities on the features it has built up and upon. Indeed, Liu has said that “as those islands and reefs are far from China’s mainland, it is necessary to build and maintain military facilities.” But no other claimant and occupier has denied that their military uses their features. If U.S. ally Japan deploys troops and missiles to the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyutai area – is it militarizing the East China Sea? Has China already done so by sharply increasing its air and sea patrols of the area?

Perhaps the U.S. is only “crying wolf” to scare the Southeast Asian countries into its political and military embrace. If so, this is a dangerous tactic that could backfire and become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Nevertheless, there are indeed a lot of scary things China might or could do with the features they occupy. It could use them as bases for gathering intelligence and projecting force. Perhaps most worrying, it could use its military occupation of them to project its psychological dominance of the region – as the U.S. is now doing through its sea and air patrols.

Let’s face it. Both China and the U.S. are “militarizing” the South China Sea – at least in each others’ eyes. Other claimants have done so, and have contributed to the U.S effort as well, whil other outside powers like Japan are contemplating doing so. This is the reality. Moreover, the U.S. and China are accusing each other of “militarizing” the situation. In short, the pots are calling each other black.

What is clear is that “militarization” means different things to different nations. Countries that accuse others of it should define specifically what they mean. The U.S. should specify what it is that China is doing – not what it may do – that others have not. Or is it like China’s “reclamation” and construction activities: only a matter of degree and of concern basically because it is China that is doing it?

Mark J. Valencia is an Adjunct Senior Scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.