Beijing’s exchange of allegations with Manila over the South China Sea became increasingly nasty this week when the Chinese Foreign Ministry, on May 5th, accused the Philippines of “malicious hyping and provocation.” China accused its island neighbor of illegally seizing its possessions in that body of water. China claims almost all the islands, shoals, rocks, and reefs there as sovereign territory.
Beijing’s undiplomatic language accompanies its contention that the Philippines and other nations had, by building facilities, violated the nonbinding Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, signed November 2002 by ASEAN states and China.
Although Manila has engaged in some work on features it occupies, it has undertaken nothing nearly as ambitious as Beijing’s recent reclamation program. Beginningsometime in the middle of last year, China, on an accelerated basis, dredged, filled, and cemented over coral in the Spratly Island chain in the South China Sea, adding about four square kilometers of land. Its work continues.
At the end of March, Harry Harris, commander of the US Pacific Fleet, called China’s “unprecedented land reclamation” the “great wall of sand.” “The speed, scale, intensity, and remoteness of China’s ongoing manufacture of land and infrastructure within the South China Sea have few or no parallels in history outside of wartime,”notes Victor Robert Lee, a reporter. The BBC called it “China’s Island Factory.”
Many analysts think China will use the new land for military purposes. Specifically, there are worries the new facilities will support the enforcement of a South China Sea air-defense identification zone, which would complement the one it imposed over the East China Sea in November 2013.
Whether or not China goes ahead with a new air zone, its reclamation alarms many of its neighbors to its south and east. China’s claim to the Spratlys, which it calls the Nansha chain, is disputed by Taiwan and ASEAN members Brunei, Vietnam, Philippines, and Malaysia.
The 10 members of ASEAN, at their Kuala Lumpur meeting late last month, were not able to come up with a firm response to Beijing on the reclamation work, largely because the organization has split into a northern tier, in Beijing’s camp, and a southern group, which feels threatened by China’s aggressive actions. Chalk up the weak ASEAN response as a win for Beijing.
China, despite its successful effort to block ASEAN at its summit, could not let the matter rest. “The Chinese side is firmly opposed to a few countries’ oblique charges against China as well as the pursuit of their private ends at the expense of the overall China-ASEAN relations,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei, at the time of the Kuala Lumpur meeting last month.
Hong’s sour comments were specifically directed not only against attempts to get ASEAN to condemn China’s island-building but also in response to longtime foe Benigno Aquino. The Philippine presidentsaid Beijing’s reclamations “pose a threat to the freedom of global commerce and navigation.”
The global champion of freedom of navigation, the US, has done less than many expected, and the lack of a response has apparently encouraged China to proceed. Yet America is not the only large nation with a stake. One ASEAN state, Singapore, is now publicly calling on New Delhi to take a more active role in the region.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not have to be asked. This year, New Delhi has quietly made comments apparently directed against China’s reclamation activities. And recently, the Modi government has publicly issued three joint statements on freedom of navigation, one in connection with the prime minister’s October meeting with his Vietnamese counterpart, Nguyen Tan Dung, and the other two with President Obama, one in September and the other in January.
In 2006, Taro Aso, when he was Japan’s foreign minister, proposed an “arc of freedom and prosperity” for Asia. The concept was soon forgotten as regional diplomats thought they could maintain cooperative relations with China.
Now, countries are less optimistic. And as questions about China turn into doubts that have become fears, some in East Asia are looking to India, which anchors the southern end of Aso’s arc.
China’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea are pushing countries in the region to seek support from each other. Those waters just may be where East Asia, along with great powers, determines its future.