Who causes the “dangerous” and “worrisome” situation in the South China Sea?

Who causes the dangerous and worrisome situation in the South China SeaOn July 7, 2020, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA)’s website, China Military Online, published an article by Mr. Wu Shicun, President of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies. In his article, this scholar stated that the recent changes in the South China Sea were “very dangerous” and “worrisome” because: 1/ The US provoked “militarization of the South China Sea”; 2/ ASEAN countries including Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia have “colluded” with the US to go “against China”. Judging from what is happening in the South China Sea at the moment, people who are knowledgeable of the current affairs find it true that the South China Sea situation is “very dangerous” and “worrisome”. But the reasons for such “very dangerous” and “worrisome” situation are definitely not what Mr. Wu Shicun said they are. This scholar is deliberately “distorting and bending the truth”. Hence, it is necessary that his arguments be challenged academically.

Back in 2012, at a conference, when he was questioned about the coordinates of China’s unreasonable “nine-dashed line” claim in the South China Sea, as sure as eggs is eggs, Mr. Wu said that specific evidence of such coordinates of the “nine-dashed line” would be available in one year. However, to this day, he has not been able to publish any evidence, while the government of his country has tried all “tricks” and every explanation to justify the “rationality” of this irrational claim.

The tricks include the establishment of the so-called “Sansha city” in the area under Vietnam’s sovereignty and the making of “Four Shas claim”; from releasing “evidence” of the “U-shaped line” map to the establishment of the so-called “Xisha and Nansha district” to manage the Paracel and Spratly archipelagos, as well as the “standard” naming exercise for entities in the South China Sea for longer term plans.

Recently, China has even gone as far as no longer call the waters bordering Hainan island and Paracel archipelago as “offshore waters” but “coastal area” instead. All that “tricks” did nothing but exposed more clearly China’s “deceitful and reversing” way in backing its irrational claim up, and no one bought that. Many countries have submitted notes verbales to the United Nations to protest China's irrational position on the South China Sea. It is suspected that Mr. Wu may also be the one who advised his government to perform these “tricks”, in order to override what he said so surely back in 2012. Therefore, it was ridiculous of him to say “The US provoked militarization of the South China Sea” as he was doing the trick again. No one but China is the author and promoter of “militarization” of the South China Sea.

As is known, in order to realize its ambition and goal of “monopolizing” the South China Sea, China has used a variety of measures, from political - diplomatic, legal, economic to military ones. Militarily, they stepped up activities to reclaim, expand and build new artificial islands; build and operate military and civil works on artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago with an “unprecedented” speed and scale to support sovereignty claims and expand control to the entire South China Sea. Along with that, Beijing also strengthened and expanded the scope of operations of its naval force in disputed waters to “deter” and intimidate others.

From 2013 to the end of 2016, after more than three years of construction, China has expanded an area of about 12 square kilometers across 7 illegally occupied geographical structures in the South China Sea; completed construction of seaport infrastructure; built a 3,000m long runway, a large aircraft hangar, concrete fuel and weapons depots... in Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef and Mischief Reef in the Spratly archipelago of Vietnam. Recently, they have deployed J-11B jet fighters and H-6K strategic jet bombers, installed YJ-12B anti-ship cruise missiles with a range of nearly 500km and surface-to-air missile HQ-9B with a range of 250km, arranged more than 30 radars with more than 50 high-frequency antennas for reconnaissance, aerial and sea search in both the Paracel and Spratly Islands. That is not to mention many long-range sensors, mobile or portable military equipment, communications systems or weapons deployed in these two archipelagos.

These actions by Beijing have clearly demonstrated that it is China who “militarizes” the South China Sea and started the “militarization” in the South China Sea. What “military bases” have the Americans built in the South China Sea? Yet Wu blamed the US for “provoking the militarization of the South China Sea”, which is obviously a false accusation. Along with the construction, expansion and transformation of artificial islands into “military bases” in the South China Sea, Beijing regularly conducts military exercises in this area. In the past, China would normally conducted 2-3 military exercises per year in the South China Sea, but from 2019 onwards, the frequency, scale and scenarios of the exercises has increased greatly.

In the second half of 2019 alone, China conducted 25 military drills, including a first large-scale exercise in the Spratlys (June 29 - July 3, 2019).

Most recently, in early July 2020, China simultaneously conducted drills from North to South in three seas: the Yellow Sea (facing the Korean peninsula), East China Sea (facing Japan) and the South China Sea. In the Yellow Sea and South China Sea, unlike any other time, China carried out live-fire drills, using a variety of modern weapons. What does it mean for Beijing to hold three exercises at the same time in three different seas?

Some Chinese newspapers call these three drills the “three great battlefields” which serve two goals: externally, to warn and deter countries; and internally, to distract public opinion when the country is faced with many tensions. But that is not really the case. As world superpowers are busy with responding to the raging COVID-19 pandemic, Beijing has taken advantage of the opportunity to assert its “power” across the globe and put things under their control.

It is the exercises initiated by the world's most populous superpower in the South China Sea that are endangering the region more than ever. And it is also because of such “danger”, Americans have been “forced” to act. The US military has been forced to send more aircraft and warships to the South China Sea, increase patrols and exercises which cost a lot of money while the United States has already had enough “headaches” coping with the COVID-19 pandemic. They actually have no other choice.

In this regard, Mr. Wu Shicun should also know that the US military activities with countries in the region are always publicly announced in advance and clearly said to be “in accordance with the principles of international law”. Moreover, the presence of the US and countries such as Australia, India or Japan in the region who are no claimants would further promote objectivity and the “rule of law”. They are doing only what is allowed by international law. In contrast, Chinese military drills are often conducted in waters under the sovereignty of other countries, including Vietnam. Exercises like that cannot be considered as under “the rule of law”. The essence of the problem here is that Beijing sees the South China Sea as a “gateway” for them to realize their ambitions of becoming a regional and world superpower. If that ambition of China becomes reality, the position, role, especially the interests of the US will be threatened, not only in the region but also across the world. Therefore, while China is determined to open this “gateway”, the US is trying to seal that, or at least preventing China from freely opening that “gateway”. The “dangerous” and “worrisome” situation that Mr. Wu dared not say out loud is actually this.

By now, perhaps people have seen too clearly who has “militarized” the South China Sea. As for Mr. Wu Shicun, if he insists on blaming the US, shouldn’t he be more moderate and stop accusing everyone? I do not know about China expelling the US, but they clearly “pulled” the US into this, further complicating the South China Sea situation.

The second reason mentioned by Mr. Wu Shicun was that “ASEAN countries, including Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia have colluded with the US to go against China” which led to “very dangerous and worrisome” situation in the South China Sea.

Here I must say that the first reason leads to the second one but Mr. Wu was being ill-founded. First, he failed to give any evidence of the said “collusion” of the four ASEAN countries with the US. Say there is a collusion, that means there must be a handshake, a contract, or at least a deal of some kinds. Meanwhile, does any of the four countries above tell the US that they will “shake hands” with the US so that the US will help them go “against China” in the South China Sea? Is there any country calling on the US to go “against China”? As for Vietnam, although its sovereignty and security in the South China Sea are threatened, Vietnam has always been consistent with the “Three Noes” policy. May I ask Mr. Wu Shicun if that is a “collusion”?

Second, he does not understand, or to be exact, deliberately “ignores” the fact that, from the end of 2019, especially from March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic was spreading in China, his country has stepped up activities at sea, violating the sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction of coastal states in the South China Sea. Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia, all four countries were victims of China’s unruly and law-less “wolf warrior” diplomacy.

The ROK press rarely mentions the South China Sea disputes, but in an issue dated August 27, 2019, the online Korea Times commented that while Beijing had always boasted loudly about being a peace lover, in reality they used force to bully their neighbors. How do you explain that, Mr. Wu?

The fact that China has been ignoring international law in the South China Sea has raised profound concerns among the four above-mentioned countries in particular and the international community in general.

As they all shared this common uneasiness, all these four countries have “concurrently” sent notes verbales to the United Nations, expressing concern about China's actions in the South China Sea; directly or indirectly supporting the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal's ruling, supporting UNCLOS 1982, and asking Beijing to comply with its obligations in accordance with the UNCLOS 1982.

Following Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia, the United States also sent a note verbal to the United Nations, opposing and rejecting China's irrational sovereignty claims in the South China Sea.

Perhaps Mr. Wu Shicun made his judgment of “collusion” out of this. If so, then he was wrong. Even the ASEAN bloc which is often seen as “amiable” has voiced its concern. At the 36th ASEAN Summit, this Association issued a Declaration emphasizing the importance of resolving disputes through peaceful means, refraining from using force or the threat of force, while reaffirming the importance of UNCLOS 1982. According to Mr. Wu’s logic, the ASEAN must have “colluded” with the US as well!

My final words to scholar Wu Shicun is that, if Beijing continues its “big fish eats small fish” behavior as it recently has displayed, it will only put to risks relations between China and other neighboring countries in Southeast Asia, forcing these countries to act more decisively and in solidarity; providing the US with “legit” reasons to be present in the South China Sea, to enjoy more support from allies and partners in forming a “new front” in its strategy of encircling and containing China. The “dream” that Mr. Wu chased and chased may very well become a “nightmare”.

May I suggest that Mr. Wu and his country’s leadership change both their mindsets and actions in the South China Sea to become a “responsible” superpower for the development of the whole community as Chinese leaders once declared. As for Mr. Wu himself, if he writes an article, he should follow this manner, looking closely but also looking far, knowing himself but also knowing people, only then will he “deserve” the title of a research scholar specializing in the South China Sea./.