The South China Sea dispute has deepened as a flashpoint in U.S.-China relations with China’s installation of a new anti-aircraft missile system on Woody Island, known as Yongxin Island to the Chinese and Phu Lam Island to the Vietnamese, in the Paracel group. Jin Kai, formerly a PLA officer and now a lecturer at Yonsei Unversity in South Korea, criticized the American outcry over this Chinese deployment in a recent article in The Diplomat. Jin Kai makes several points that are useful for understanding the Chinese point of view, but which also call for a response, which I will offer. This exchange points up some of the fundamental strategic disputes between China and the United States.
Jin’s first point is that “The United States seems to intentionally be confusing the Spratlys and the Paracels so as to better denounce China.” In support of this point Jin Kai argues that up to now “militarization” has not been an issue in the Paracel Islands, where China has previously “deployed limited defense measures.” Therefore there is no “change to China’s defense posture” with the installation of the new missiles on Woody Island. Since Jin speaks sweepingly of “the United States” without distinguishing between government spokespeople, private media companies, or individual bloggers, some U.S. commentators may indeed not know the Paracels from the Spratlys, or the newly completed artificial “islands” from Woody Island.
Nevertheless, the point avoids the larger issue. China’s shocking construction of several sizeable artificial islands in the Spratlys group over the past two years sent a powerful message to the region that China intends to unilaterally impose its own agenda on the weaker claimants. There was never any question these would become in effect PRC military bases. The Chinese government made clear from the beginning the islands would have “defensive” capabilities. Against this successful Chinese change of the status quo, the United States and other countries sought the modest concession that the islands would not be “militarized,” and Xi Jinping agreed. This was never more than a face-saving diplomatic word game. But by choosing this moment to add a new military system to a disputed island group in the South China Sea – even if that group is the Paracels rather than the Spratlys – Beijing sends an additional signal that it will continue to augment its position regardless of what the other Asia-Pacific countries think. This is a departure from the past pattern in which the Chinese would follow an improvement of its position with a period of conciliation and damage control with the region. The installation of anti-aircraft missiles suggests the Chinese government is preparing to declare an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea and wants to scare off even the very mild U.S. response of freedom of navigation overflights.
Second, Jin says it’s unfair for Americans to criticize China for “deploying defense capabilities on its own territory” while the United States has military bases in Asia, sells military equipment to Asian countries, holds “more and more frequent joint military drills in the region,” and carries out close surveillance of China territory. Jin conflates several issues here. We all know that China generally dislikes the United States continuing to hold the position of strongest strategic player in the Asia-Pacific region when most Chinese believe the United States is in at least some ways an obstruction to China’s own aspirations. For historical reasons, the United States is a self-appointed regional cop. If Jin takes the typical Chinese view that the cop is unwanted and causes more harm than good, then he can argue that U.S. policy is so flagrantly outrageous that Washington has no standing to criticize China over virtually any security policy.
If, however, other countries in the region value U.S. strategic engagement, and indeed welcome it as an assurance in the face of Chinese foreign policies that so many regional governments find disturbing, then Jin is failing to mention that the overbearing U.S. presence he complains of may be on balance beneficial in the eyes of many of China’s neighbors. Indeed, Jin’s own observations raise the question of why regional governments are willing to host U.S. bases, buy U.S. equipment, and join in exercises with U.S. forces, a question that undercuts his point.
Jin of course glosses over the problem that the Paracels are disputed territory. Vietnam claims the islands also, and China occupies them only because Chinese soldiers forcibly seized them. He also fails to mention that the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, of which China is a signatory, allows for U.S. ships and aircraft to surveil the Chinese coast from within China’s exclusive economic zone.
Oddly, Jin uses a statement from the Chinese foreign minister as evidence to support his position. Wang Yi recently said “necessary defense facilities on the Nansha Islands of the South China Sea . . . . have nothing to do with militarization.” First, it’s Orwellian to say that installing weapons has nothing to do with militarization. Second, considering a public statement by a senior political figure (whether Chinese or American) as anything other than regime-serving rhetoric is insulting to the readership.
The hypocrisy of Jin claiming that China has the right to add military equipment to disputed territory it occupies in the South China Sea without being criticized, while the Chinese government demands that South Korea not deploy the THAAD system against an imminent threat posed by North Korea, is striking.
Third, Jin argues that criticism of the Chinese missile system as a threat to both military and civilian aircraft is a cheap shot. On this point I mostly agree with him. As he says, there is no basis for suspecting that China would intentionally fire on a civilian aircraft. Still, this new weapon system creates the possibility of an accidental downing of an airliner flying the route between Taipei and Singapore or Ho Chi Minh City, either through misunderstanding or equipment malfunction. The tragedy of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17, shot down over the Ukraine in 2014, is still fresh in our minds.
Jin’s fourth point is that Americans exhibit a double standard when they call Chinese actions “provocations” but refrain from criticizing the Philippines or Vietnam. Chinese commentators rarely acknowledge that the United States has been carrying out freedom of navigation operations for decades in sea and airspace claimed by many countries other than China, including countries generally friendly to the United States. But let’s get to the real point: Neither Vietnam nor the Philippines has the intention or capability to become the dominant power in Asia. China does. China’s recent construction of artificial islands, for example, was on a scale vastly larger than anything done by the other claimants. China is far outpacing the capabilities of the other Southeast Asian countries to project force into the South China Sea. When China challenges an aspect of the regional order that most Asian states support and expect the United States to defend, the implications are multiplied. Chinese security policies will draw additional attention from the United States because China is a major power. Beijing frequently demands increased international respect as recognition of China’s rise. Increased fear by outsiders is part of the same package.
Finally, Jin argues that the “freedom of navigation” issue is fake because China has never interfered with civilian and commercial activities in the South China Sea, but only objects to U.S. military activities there. This is not quite accurate. While the Chinese military has not obstructed cargo ships passing through the sea lanes, China has a long and growing record of restricting the vessels of other countries attempting to take resources from the South China Sea (fishing and hydrocarbon extraction). I see no attempt by the U.S. government to “confuse” observers about freedom of navigation, as Jin alleges. U.S. military spokespeople are quick to emphasize that their main interest is in ensuring that U.S. units are always unimpeded in their use of international airspace and waterways.
But again, Jin misses the real point. Past Chinese policy is not necessarily predictive because China is in the midst of a gradual campaign to gain international recognition of Chinese ownership over the great majority of an entire sea. Minimizing foreign resistance to this campaign during this period of consolidation is crucial to the campaign’s success. The question is whether the other Asia-Pacific countries are confident that acceding to Beijing’s claim over the South China Sea will not eventually harm their interests. If they fear this outcome, and if they believe U.S. intervention is essential in forestalling it, then the distinction between commercial freedom of navigation and U.S. military freedom of navigation disappears.
Denny Roy is a Senior Fellow at East-West Center.