U.S. officials pushed back Tuesday against China’s attempt to justify its construction of artificial islands and naval bases in the contested South China Sea — and expressed wariness over a new Chinese Defense Ministry policy paper that analysts say is the most assertive military document issued to date by Beijing.
Calling for an expanded role for China’s military in projecting power in the years ahead, the white paper blames China’s neighbors for taking “provocative actions” in sovereignty disputes playing out over the region’s many reefs and island chains.
It calls on the Chinese navy to increase its “open seas protection” operations in the face of such provocation and says the Chinese air force should shift its focus “from territorial air defense to both defense and offense.”
The document was released at a rare news conference held in Beijing on Tuesday by uniformed Chinese military officers — one of whom made headlines by asserting that there is nothing unusual about an aggressive Chinese land reclamation project that has been underway for the past year in a disputed corner of the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest and most economically critical shipping lanes.
Satellite images published last month by IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly showed Chinese vessels building a 1,600-foot-long runway in the Spratly Islands, an archipelago of reefs, islets and atolls at the center of mounting territorial fights between China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun on Tuesday described China’s runway construction as perfectly natural, asserting that it is comparable to the building of ordinary homes and roads on the Chinese mainland. “From the perspective of sovereignty, there is absolutely no difference,” he said.
The comments triggered unease in Washington, where State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke said U.S. officials “take a different view” of China’s activities in the Spratlys. “China’s extensive land-reclamation efforts,” Mr. Rathke said, “have contributed to rising tensions” in the region.
China has bristled at what it sees as U.S. interference in the region and says it is within its sovereign rights in developing islands made from sand piled on top of reefs and atolls. The U.S. and many of China’s neighbors see the island-building as an upending of the status quo by China to bolster its claims to the region and possibly pave the way for military installations far from the mainland.
The Chinese policy paper was made available in both Chinese and English, suggesting that Beijing wanted Washington to take note of the document.
In an apparently veiled reference to the U.S., the document said that “some external countries are also busy meddling in South China Sea affairs” and that “a tiny few maintain constant close-in air and sea surveillance and reconnaissance against China.”
The release of Tuesday’s policy paper in Beijing followed a formal Chinese protest over an incident last week in which a Chinese navy dispatcher warned off a U.S. Navy P8-A Poseidon surveillance aircraft as it flew over Fiery Cross Reef — the actual site of China’s runway construction project.
The incident, documented by a CNN news crew on board the U.S. plane, prompted a biting editorial Monday in the official Communist Party newspaper Global Times, which warned Washington not to test Beijing’s restraint or China would have “no choice but to engage.”
Not taking sides
While analysts downplayed the threat as hollow bluster, the Obama administration appears to have little appetite for diplomatically confronting China over its sovereignty claims in the South China Sea.
Mr. Rathke on Tuesday suggested that the administration is not taking sides in the sovereignty disputes playing out in the region, which is said to be traversed by an estimated $5 trillion in shipborne trade annually.
Washington has a “strong interest in peace and security, and in the manner in which claimants address their disputes,” Mr. Rathke said. But beyond asserting that “maritime claims must accord with the Law of the Sea,” the State Department spokesman offered little detail on how such disputes might be resolved.
He also declined to make a specific comment on the Chinese policy paper, saying only that the Obama administration continued “to urge China to exhibit greater transparency with respect to its capabilities and its intentions” and “to use its military capabilities in a manner that is conducive to maintaining peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region.”
At the Pentagon, officials said the Chinese had privately made them aware of the policy paper’s existence nearly a year ago. According to Reuters, Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren said the document’s publication was “a step in the right direction” in terms of transparency and “exactly the type of thing that we’ve been calling for” in that respect.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest, meanwhile, said President Obama considered the security situation in the South China Sea “critically important” to U.S. national security and the global economy and said Washington was committed to working with other Asia-Pacific states to protect the free flow of commerce there.
The broad-stroke comments follow a pattern in which the Obama administration has appeared to struggle to take a clear policy stand on China’s growing military muscle-flexing.
Prior to China’s construction in the Spratlys, the administration spent years attempting to cajole Beijing into agreeing to a formalized “code of conduct” for resolving territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
But the initiative ultimately sputtered in the face of Chinese moves to resolve the disputes unilaterally on a case-by-case basis with its neighbors.
“China is pursuing slow-motion hegemony over the South China Sea,” said Patrick M. Cronin, who heads the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington. “If allowed to do so, it will continue to consolidate its hold over Southeast Asia.”
Mr. Cronin said the Defense Ministry policy statement is “the most assertive by far” of the various military white papers that Chinese officials have issued during recent years.
But he cautioned against reading the document as a kind of declaration of war.
“It’s not saying China is looking for war, it’s more of a positioning strategy,” Mr. Cronin said. “China is using its military to position itself and to dominate its neighborhood and beyond, and this document is emphasizing the centrality of military power to achieve China’s national interests.
“They’re looking to advance their position in the region by using military might as a veiled threat,” he said. “We need to recognize that when they say there could be war, what they mean is that they want to scare people into backing off while they pursue their enlargement or self-aggrandizement.”
In an interview, Mr. Cronin argued that Washington should respond by expanding its regional military coordination with such big-power allies as Australia and Japan, while also “doubling down” on its support for smaller allies, such as the Philippines and Vietnam. The most effective response to Beijing’s posturing, he said, would be for Washington to continue forth with U.S. military traversing and patrolling of international waters in Asia, regardless of China’s protests.
“By increasing surveillance and freedom of navigation operations over disputed areas like the Spratlys and these artificial islands, we can demonstrate our commitment to keeping open access to the global commons,” Mr. Cronin said. “These are international waters and airspace we’re flying over, and we’re contributing to the global public good of open access for trade and cooperation.”