With US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, commander of the US Pacific Command Harry Harris and former Chief of Naval Operations Gary Roughead all mentioning it in 2015, militarization has since become the focus of China-US debate over the South China Sea.
Judging from the arguments of Carter, Harris and Roughead, they have actually constructed a logical chain for China’s allegedly militarizing the South China Sea. Roughead defined “militarization” as “as long as the characteristics and nature of infrastructures can be used for military purposes”; Harris argued China’s construction on South China Sea islands and reefs was “for military purposes”; Carter summed it up and concluded Chinese construction works on South China Sea features “escalated militarization” there. Their arguments thus constitute a simple syllogism regarding the alleged militarization of the South China Sea. Analysis of China’s explanation of the purpose of its construction projects on South China Sea features, therefore, is the basis for revealing its stance on the so-called militarization of the South China Sea.
Chinese President Xi Jinping told the press on Sept 25 during his visit to the US, after talking with US President Barack Obama: “We are dedicated to preserving peace and stability in the South China Sea, adhere to managing and controlling disputes through dialogue, insist on resolving disputes peacefully through negotiations and consultations, actively explore realizing mutually beneficial, win-win outcomes through cooperation, persist in respecting and protecting freedom of navigation and over-flight countries are entitled to under international law. Chinese construction activities on the Nansha Archipelago do not target or affect any country, and the country has no intention to engage in militarization”.
State Counselor Yang Jiechi, while meeting Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop on Feb 18, made two points regarding the South China Sea. First, Chinese construction projects are mainly for civilian purposes, for providing the international community with better public service. Second, China is practicing the right to self defense bestowed by international law by deploying limited defense facilities, which has nothing to do with militarization.
At an ASEAN regional forum in August, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said, Chinese construction on South China Sea islands and reefs has two purposes – to improve living conditions for the people stationed there, and provide public service to countries in the region. While talking with visiting US State Secretary John Kerry on Jan 27, Wang said China’s deployment of necessary defense facilities on the islands and reefs is completely for defense purposes, is practicing a sovereignty country’s rights to self-protection and self-defense, and has nothing to do with so-called militarization. Talking with Kerry again on Feb 23, Wang pointed out that the security environment for Chinese islands and reefs in the South China Sea allows for little optimism, because neighboring countries have installed a large number of military facilities on the islands they had illicitly occupied over the past decades; meanwhile, Chinese islands and reefs face such military provocations as close-in surveillance.
Vice foreign minister Liu Zhenmin of China made three points on May 19 while meeting an American media delegation: First, China does not accept the media claim that China’s construction projects have resulted in escalation of tensions in the South China Sea; second, China refuses the claim because it has been the last to carry out construction in the South China Sea, and it was forced to do so; third, China is conducting construction on its own territory, other countries have been building facilities on Chinese islands and reefs they had illicitly occupied.
China’s position on “South China Sea militarization” can be summed up in two parts, namely how China defines “militarization of the South China Sea”, and how it evaluates the corresponding situation.
(1) Chinese definition of “militarization of the South China Sea”
China does not accept the US definition of “militarization of the South China Sea”. The US holds that as long as islands and reefs in the South China Sea are used for military purposes, it is “militarization”. Which means as long as there is any military facility on the features, or facilities there, such as airstrips or docks, can be used for military purpose, it is “militarization”.
But China insists such definition is inconsistent with corresponding reality in the South China Sea. First, installing military facilities on the islands is a basic right China enjoys under international law, its deployment of necessary defense facilities conforms with international law and practice, and is a necessary precaution against military threat. Basic safety of the people stationed on the islands will have no guarantee in the absence of necessary defense facilities. Second, the definition will be too expansive if “militarization” means as long as facilities on the features can be used for military purposes. The US side’s oversensitive claims regarding construction in the South China Sea is against common sense.
(2) Chinese views on “militarization of the South China Sea”
China’s opinions on its construction projects and deployment of defense facilities on South China Sea features can be summed up in the following points:
First, there are two main purposes for the Chinese construction projects: One is to improve living conditions of people stationed there; the other is to fulfill its own international responsibilities and provide public service for countries in the region as well as the rest of the world.
Second, other countries in the region have deployed a large number of offensive weapons on Chinese features they have stolen, meanwhile the US has imposed tremendous security pressures on China with its military vessels and planes frequently entering waters off the Chinese features in the South China Sea and conducting provocations, seriously threatening safety of people stationed there as well as Chinese territorial sovereignty.
Third, based on point two, China has had to deploy limited defense facilities on the features for self-protection, which conforms to not only stipulations in international law on countries’ right to self-defense, but also international practice.
Fourth, considering that security conditions in the South China Sea may continue worsening, China is entitled to adjusting the quantity of defense facilities deployed on the features according to the degree of the military threats it faces, and increase such deployment when necessary. This is not only a practical imperative, but also consistent with international law and practice.
Fifth, the US definition of “militarization of the South China Sea” is inconsistent with facts. The reality in the South China Sea is the defense facilities China has deployed there are extremely limited in number, and do not affect the civilian nature of the infrastructures on the islands and reefs. On the other hand, the US and its allies in the area have deployed a large number of offensive military forces in the South China Sea.
Sixth, based on the five points above, it is the US, instead of China, that has been promoting “militarization of the South China Sea”.