By Mark J Valencia

Criticizing China for its actions in the South China Sea has become quite common in U.S. foreign policy commentary over the past few years. Recently, the criticism has become ever more strident and dangerous. In some instances it even borders on ‘yellow journalism’ – namely journalism that is based on sensationalism and crude exaggeration – which is something that has prodded the United States into war in the past.

Some commentators in Washington trumpet the China threat. They use information about Chinese construction on features in the South China Sea to bolster their campaigns to convince the Trump administration that China presents an imminent threat to U.S. interests there, particularly freedom of navigation. Accompanying these concerns are a spate of proposals for aggressive U.S. military action to challenge China’s claims and actions in the South China Sea.

Those in the U.S. foreign policy community who warn of a China threat are finding resonance with some members of Congress and the Trump administration. On May 3, 2018, the White House announced that there would be "near-term and long-term consequences" for China’s so-called ‘militarization’ of the South China Sea.

Sure enough, a flurry of anti-China actions followed. On May 23, the Pentagon announced that it had withdrawn an invitation to China to participate in the 2018 Rim of the Pacific Exercise – the world’s largest multinational military exercise.


Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG

A US Marine stands near a Multi-Utility Tactical Transport (MUTT) during a patrol as part of Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2016 an exercise held at Camp Pendleton, California United States, July 13, 2016.

The Pentagon followed this four days later with a two-ship freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) within 12 nautical miles of the Paracel Islands. The exercise violated China’s regime of required prior permission for warships to enter waters that China claims as its own.

U.S. commentators and empathetic politicians are throwing every accusation they can at China to encourage and justify the need for a U.S. response. They accuse China of being assertive and aggressive, violating the 2002 ASEAN–China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), not conforming to international rules and norms, militarizing the features in the South China Sea, generating instability and threatening freedom of navigation.

Let’s examine the strength of these allegations.

China’s efforts to protect what it sees as its sovereign territory and resources against rival claimants in the South China Sea have indeed been both assertive and aggressive. But so have the actions of Vietnam as well as U.S. naval activity in response to China’s actions. China has demonstrated relative restraint vis-a-vis provocative U.S. FONOPs and U.S. intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) probes in the South China Sea.

In other claimants’ eyes China has violated the DOC. But other claimants like Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have also violated the self-restraint provision of the DOC by continuing their own reclamation and construction activities after the 2002 agreement. The Philippines, by filing its complaint against China under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), also violated what China considers to be the most important DOC provision of all – the commitment to resolve territorial and jurisdictional disputes through friendly consultations and negotiations involving only the countries directly concerned.


Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG

Soldiers of China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy patrol near a sign in the Spratly Islands, known in China as the Nansha Islands, February 9, 2016. The sign reads 'Nansha is our national land, sacred and inviolable.'

China and the United States do not agree on what many of the international rules and norms are or should be. The United States wants to strengthen the status quo in which it is the dominant actor and patron. China believes it is being constrained by the existing U.S.-led international order that favors a system developed and sustained by the West. China wants respect for its status and interests, and seeks to bend the system to its benefit just as the United States did during its rise.

‘Militarization’ also means different things to China and the United States. To China, its placement in the South China Sea of what it perceives to be defensive weapons does not constitute militarization, while the United States is clearly militarizing the region with its forward-deployed troops, assets and patrols.

The United States maintains that its FONOPs in the South China Sea are intended to preserve and protect freedom of commercial navigation in the region for itself and others. But China has not threatened commercial freedom of navigation and is unlikely to do so during peacetime.

China objects to what it perceives as US abuse of ‘freedom of navigation’ to its military advantage, and its use of intimidation and coercion to enforce its interpretation.

The United States conflates freedom of commercial navigation with freedom of navigation for its ISR vessels and aircraft. In so doing it makes frequent reference to UNCLOS, which it has not ratified and thus has little credibility interpreting to its own benefit. China objects to what it perceives as U.S. abuse of ‘freedom of navigation’ to its military advantage, and its use of intimidation and coercion to enforce its interpretation.

The United States is overreacting in the South China Sea and this response is likely to be counterproductive. If the United States steps up its naval confrontation in the South China Sea, China may well respond by denying future U.S. Navy port visits, further enhancing its military assets on the features it occupies and increasing its close-in observation of future U.S. FONOPs and ISR probes.

Some U.S. analysts and politicians appear to be trying to goad the United States into military action in the South China Sea even though there is no threat to U.S. core interests there. It is indeed the job of the US defense and intelligence community to plan for worst-case scenarios. But objectivity, fairness and balance – the supposed ethics of independent analysts – are increasingly hard to find in analysis of China’s actions in the South China Sea.

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The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article from East Asia Forum. East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics, economics, business, law, security, international relations and society relevant to public policy, centered on the Asia Pacific region.

TNL Editor: David Green