China defends its controversial ambitions for the South China Sea

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China has for some years intensified its land reclamation, facility construction and defence installation in the South China Sea. Its contentious activities in the hotly disputed waters have unnerved rival claimant states and other countries such as the United States, Japan and Australia.

Yet, each time its island-building and militarization in the strategic seaway have been raised Beijing vehemently denied or downgraded the contentions.

For instance, in March this year, a spokesman for China’s defence ministry categorically stated there was “no such thing” as man-made islands in the South China Sea and denied the country’s military build-up in the area, saying any work was mainly for civilian purposes.

In the same month, during a visit to Australia Li Keqiang, China’s premier, also dismissed Beijing’s militarization of the islands, adding “if there is a certain amount of defence equipment or facilities it is for maintaining the freedom of navigation” for all.

Beijing admits its South China Sea ambitions

But after years of denials, it seems Beijing has now not only acknowledged but praised — albeit implicitly — its island-building and military build-up in the contested region.

Last week, Study Times, an official Chinese magazine, devoted its front page to an adulatory profile of President Xi Jinping, the 1.3-billion-people country’s “core” leader.

The weekly newspaper, published by the Central Party School, the ruling party’s top academy, praised Xi’s life, leadership and policies — including, notably, his tough stance on maritime and territorial issues. On the South China Sea issue, the profile revealed that Xi “personally made decisions on building islands and consolidating the reefs.”

“[Such decisions] fundamentally changed the strategic situation of the South China Sea” and “created a solid strategic foundation for the winning final victory in the struggle for upholding rights in the South China Sea,” the article stated.

Seven man-made islands built in the Spratlys

Indeed, China has aggressively expanded its presence in the resource-rich and strategically important waterway since Xi came to power in 2012. It has constructed seven large man-made islands in the highly contested Spratly archipelago, which it has equipped with airstrips and other military-purpose installations.

China’s territorial and military expansionism has dramatically shifted the balance of power in the region in its favor. Having built such huge military infrastructure on its artificial islands, “the equivalent of building a maritime Great Wall,” China is in the strongest position to control the strategic seaway and to project its power over regional countries. It can now deploy combat aircraft, missile launchers, and other military hardware on (and from) its newly built bases at any time.

With Xi seeking to increase his sweeping influence in and beyond his second-term that ends in 2023, it is likely that China will continue — and even harden — its tough line on maritime and territorial issues in the years to come.

Though he made no reference to any specific conflicts or disputes during his recent speech at an event marking the 90th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Beijing, the leader of China’s Communist Party, state, and military, vowed:  “We absolutely will not permit [anyone] — at any time, in any form — to separate any piece of Chinese territory from China.”

“No one should expect us to swallow the bitter fruit of damage to our sovereignty, security and development interests” — Xi Jinping

“No one should expect us to swallow the bitter fruit of damage to our sovereignty, security and development interests,” warned the 64-year-old, who is widely seen as China’s most powerful leader since Deng Xiaoping.

Such a hardline posture is, undoubtedly, a real concern for China’s neighbors, especially those who are locked in territorial disputes with the world’s second biggest economy and military.

China claims most of the 3.5-million-sq-km sea, through which about US$5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. However, its excessive claims to historic rights, other sovereign rights and jurisdiction within its so-called “nine-dash line” violate the economic exclusive zone of other countries, such as the Philippines and Vietnam.

Last July, a United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea tribunal decided that the nine-dash line — or the vast majority of its extensive claims to maritime rights and resources in the South China Sea — were incompatible with international law.

The arbitral tribunal also found that “China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights” and that its “recent large-scale land reclamation and construction of artificial islands was incompatible with the obligations on a state during dispute resolution proceedings.”

Beijing snubs landmark UN tribunal ruling

In fact, the five-judge tribunal ruled unanimously on almost all of the Philippines’ claims against China. Yet, Beijing has stringently rejected that landmark ruling.

Judging by China’s territorial and military expansion in the South China Sea during the last five years, the party’s public praise of Xi’s role in such maritime adventure, its show of military force at the 90th anniversary of its PLA and Xi’s combative remarks on this occasion, the Asian juggernaut is willing to use its power, including vast military means, to protect its “territory” and “sovereignty” in the South China Sea.

All of this also shows, when it comes to the maritime dispute, as widely acknowledged, China is not a benign and law-abiding power that respects other countries’ legitimate rights and treats its smaller neighbors as equals, as its leaders have preached.

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