China’s sharp elbow
Diplomatic niceties and analytical nuances aside, there is really only one reason why China is brazenly conducting reclamation work in disputed parts of the Spratly Islands—and it took a diplomat to offer the clearest, most candid analysis. “We think China has a plan and they think they have the means to do it and they can actually do it. So that’s why they’re doing it,” Assistant Secretary Charles Jose, spokesperson of the Department of Foreign Affairs, told Agence France-Presse.
Beijing is reclaiming land in at least seven of the eight partially submerged reefs it now controls in the contested area, because it can. There are of course official or strategic objectives for reclamation, which has created at least five new “islands,” but these all flow from the primary reason: China has the means to do it.
Beijing’s official reason at first sounds positively benign. “We are building shelters, aids for navigation, search and rescue as well as marine meteorological forecasting services, fishery services and other administrative services,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said at a news briefing.
But the reclamation and construction work would, in the words of a Reuters report, “also meet the demands for China’s military defense, Hua said without elaborating.” And then came China’s familiar argument by mere assertion. “The relevant construction is a matter that is entirely within the scope of China’s sovereignty. It is fair, reasonable, lawful, it does not affect and is not targeted against any country. It is beyond reproach,” Hua said.
Nonsense. It is unfair, unreasonable, unlawful—and targeted against smaller countries with competing claims like Vietnam and the Philippines.
First, the reclamation and construction work goes directly against the letter and spirit of the Declaration of the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea negotiated in 2002 between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The declaration, especially provisions such as No. 5, where the parties pledged to “exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including, among others, refraining from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features,” was designed to create the conditions that would lead to a binding Code of Conduct.
Second, the reclamation and construction work is Beijing’s answer to the Philippines’ case pending before a United Nations arbitral tribunal. Last February, a leading Philippine expert on conflicting claims in the South China Sea directly linked the reclamation projects to the lawsuit. Jay Batongbacal, director of the UP Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, wrote: “While the legal status of the contested features as described and presented in the arbitration case are not affected, their physical alteration effectively ‘tampers with the evidence.’”
Third, the reclamation and construction work is a direct and final repudiation of Beijing’s former policy of a “peaceful rise.” That policy was meant to reassure China’s neighbors that its continuing transformation, first begun by Deng Xiaoping, posed no security threat. Under Xi Jinping, however, its most authoritarian leader since Mao Zedong, China has completely embraced a policy of expansionist nationalism—a new and powerful source of ruling ideology for a communist party running a massive capitalist economy.
Someone who was no stranger to powerful militaries and unilateral action objected to Beijing’s reclamation projects. In widely reported remarks, US President Barack Obama criticized China for using “sheer size and muscle” to get its way. “Where we get concerned with China is where it is not necessarily abiding by international norms and rules, and is using its sheer size and muscle to force countries into subordinate positions,” Obama said. “We think this can be solved diplomatically, but just because the Philippines or Vietnam are not as large as China doesn’t mean that they can just be elbowed aside.”
Beijing’s response was a nonanswer. “The US leader talked about China’s ‘sheer size and muscle,’ but one can also see clearly who has the biggest size and muscle in the world,” Hua said. The subtext was unmistakable: If the United States can elbow other countries aside, so can we. Because we can.
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