Just who is militarising the South China Sea?

The US has repeatedly warned China not to militarise the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. But China denies that it is doing or will do so and argues that it is the United States that is militarising the region and the South China Sea disputes.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said after his meeting last week with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi that "we had a good discussion about what is the definition of militarisation and what began first, who began what".

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines "militarisation" as "to give a military character to or to adapt for military use". Under this definition, all the other claimants to and occupiers of Spratly features - Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam - "militarised" them years ago.

Indeed, all have stationed military personnel there and built airstrips and harbours that can be and have been used by their military aircraft and vessels.

So what is it that China is doing that has the US so agitated and apparently even willing to risk yet another military conflict in Asia? China has constructed artificial features in the area and built airstrips and ports that can accommodate military aircraft and naval vessels. It does not deny that its military will use the facilities on the features it has built up and upon. However it emphasises that their main use will be for humanitarian purposes.

The US accusations and the implicit dispute over what constitutes "militarisation" raise vexing questions. Is occasional military use all right? What is "occasional" military use? What if that military use is for humanitarian purposes such as search and rescue or disaster response?

A Vietnam Coast Guard ship (foreground) and a Chinese Coast Guard ship in the South China Sea, in 2014. The US has warned China not to militarise the Spratly Islands, while China accuses the US of doing the same. Under the dictionary definition of "militarisation", all the other claimants to and occupiers of Spratly features - Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam - "militarised" them years ago. PHOTO: REUTERS

What about the bigger picture regarding the meaning of the term "militarisation"? The US - unlike China - already has military "places" if not bases in South-east Asia, in its military allies the Philippines and Thailand, and is or soon will be using airfields in Malaysia and Singapore for its Poseidon sub-hunters and electronic warfare platforms.

With the "rebalance", the US has clearly increased its military presence in the region, including its "freedom of navigation" exercises. In China's view, the US has militarised the situation by provocatively "projecting power". The new US programme of military assistance to claimant countries for maritime security encourages this interpretation. So did the image of US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter giving a speech on the US aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt in November last year as it cruised through the South China Sea.

According to US Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel speaking on Jan 22 in Singapore: "You can't claim to uphold freedom of navigation and then block access to international waters ..."

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, there is no such thing as "international waters". The Convention provides for internal waters, archipelagic waters, territorial waters, the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and the High Seas, each with their own rules and regulations regarding navigation. "International waters" is a term used by the US Navy to indicate waters in which it believes its warships can operate with very few if any restrictions.

The focus of this dispute is on the EEZ. In this zone, the coastal state has sovereign rights regarding the natural resources and activities related to their exploration and exploitation. Moreover, it has jurisdiction with regard to the establishment and use of artificial islands, installations and structures; marine scientific research; and the protection and preservation of the marine environment. Other states using a country's EEZ must give "due regard" to these rights and jurisdiction; however , this term is not defined and is thus open to interpretation.

Similarly the coastal state must give "due regard" to the rights of user states, including "freedom of navigation", but, again, "due regard" is not defined. China claims sovereignty over all features in the South China Sea, including likely legal islands which would be entitled to an EEZ and continental shelf.

The primary US concern is Chinese restrictions on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) activities in China's EEZ.

Their dispute is whether or not the US ISR activities pay due regard to China's rights.

For others, the concern is access to resources they claim. China has tried to limit other countries' resource-related activities in waters it claims. It should not do so because the waters are disputed and it should not undertake resource-related activities there for the same reason. But other countries should also not be undertaking such activities in disputed waters.

It is also not the case that an impending Permanent Court of Arbitration decision will help settle the disputes and bring stability and security to the South China Sea.

If the decision is in favour of China, that is, that at least some of the features specified by the Philippines as rocks are considered legal islands entitled to 200-nautical-mile EEZs and a continental shelf, then the Philippines and other claimants to the features and maritime zones in the area will have to negotiate with China over sovereignty and maritime boundaries.

But if, as many expect, the decision is in favour of the Philippines, that is, that none of the features specified in its complaints are legal islands and that China's nine-dash line claim is illegitimate, that will not be the end of the dispute. China's claim to sovereignty over all other features - including some likely legal islands - will still exist. That means that negotiations between China and other claimants on sovereignty and maritime boundaries will still be necessary.

Moreover, if the court rules against China's position, it is likely to ignore the decision. As hyped by other claimants and the US, it may indeed proceed to "militarise" the features and expand military patrols. Then legal and political uncertainty would dominate the South China Sea and violent incidents would be likely to proliferate. China would also probably increase economic and political pressure on the Philippines and any other claimant that joins it in supporting the verdict.

The South China Sea issues would then surely become a major irritant in US-China relations, thwarting cooperation on other more important matters. The region would be tense and riven for some time to come.

  • The writer is Adjunct Senior Scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 04, 2016, with the headline Just who is militarising the South China Sea?. Subscribe