Built on Deception: China’s Claims in the South China Sea

Posted: Jun 10, 2017 12:01 AM

China’s open defiance of international rules and norms in the South China Sea is well known, as Beijing continues to stand by its sovereignty claims and aggressive militarization of reclaimed features. But in a continued effort to convince the international community that China’s claims are legitimate, Beijing has adopted a strategy that is built upon nothing but intimidation and deception. 

One of the ways Beijing has implemented this strategy is by trying to paint the picture that these “islands” have been constructed for peaceful purposes, something that was reiterated to me and other members of Congress when we met with China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi over a year ago. I recall being told that China only sought to build lighthouses and other structures to make maritime navigation in the region safer. The problem remains that China’s actions in the South China Sea have been anything but “peaceful,” as China has degraded the safety of the region by brazenly defending its sovereignty claims and continuing to militarize the region.

Time and again Beijing’s words have proven hollow, as satellite imagery shows that China has reclaimed over 3,200 acres of land in the Spratly Island chain and outfitted the resulting artificial islands with surface-to-air missile silos, anti-missile defense systems, advanced radar, and 10,000-foot-long airstrips that can accommodate Chinese fighter jets. In addition, the imagery shows that ports large enough to accommodate any Chinese vessel have been dredged, and reinforced aircraft hangers have been built to house military aircraft on a permanent basis.

Beijing is not building lemonade stands to service the local fisherman, but rather installations that enhance China’s ability to monitor, influence, and control events in the South China Sea. Hence, President Trump’s decision to conduct this administration’s first Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) was an important first step, as this administration needs to finally check China’s militarization of the South China Sea.

Beijing’s response to the recent FONOP only emphasizes China’s ongoing efforts to distort the truth about its provocative behavior in the South China Sea. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman stated that Beijing was “strongly dissatisfied” with the FONOP, with a senior Chinese military official adding that “[t]his behavior by the United States military is a show of force to promote the militarization in the region, and would very easily lead to accidents on the sea and in the air.” 

The irony in Beijing’s response is that growing tension in the South China Sea is a direct byproduct of China’s increasingly aggressive behavior. China’s dangerous intercept that came within 200 yards of a U.S. surveillance aircraft just days after the U.S. FONOP serves as a perfect example, as such incidents significantly increase the possibility of accidental conflict. Tensions have also risen as incidents such as this are not solely directed toward the United States; China has engaged in similar acts of maritime aggression towards vessels from other nations in the region as well.

Beijing’s decision to conduct these acts of intimidation continues to illustrate the need for the United States to conduct FONOPs and routine presence operations throughout the region. U.S. Defense Department spokesman Maj. Jamie Davis said it best when he stated that “FONOPS are not about any one country, nor are they about making political statements,” as the purpose of FONOPs is to “challenge excessive maritime claims in order to preserve the rights, freedoms, and uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all nations under international law.”

At a recent hearing I called before the Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, one witness testified that “FONOPs and routine presence operations should be executed on a regular basis in the South China Sea to demonstrate our resolve to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows.” This is advice that I hope the administration heeds as the recent Mischief Reef FONOP was especially effective in checking the legal rights that China claims it has over this disputed feature.

Keeping in mind Maj. Davis’ comment that “FONOPS are not about any one country,” the Trump administration also needs to look for opportunities to work with our partners and allies throughout the region. Experts who have testified before the Subcommittee have also provided an array of policy recommendations, from increasing the maritime domain awareness capabilities of our partners in the region through programs such as the Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative to conducting joint patrols in the disputed areas.

As we look forward one thing is clear: China’s strategy of intimidation and deception needs to be met with a firm and consistent response from the United States as Beijing’s hollow indignations and threats need to be checked. But then again, I guess we do owe China some credit as their artificial islands have finally fulfilled their “peaceful purposes” duty by acting as useful landmarks for U.S. FONOPs. For this, China, thank you for making Freedom of Navigation passage safer for all nations that transit through the international waters of the South China Sea.