Who is the real ‘thief crying stop thief’ in South China Sea?

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On Monday and Tuesday, China’s state-run media used very strong language to attack Vietnam, its communist neighbor and a key South China Sea rival. This reproach came after the foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) endorsed a joint communiqué that indirectly criticized Beijing’s territorial and military expansion in the disputed area.

China, which claims nearly all of the 3.5-million-square-kilometer sea, was believed to have gotten an easy ride from the regional bloc on the maritime disputes at its recent ministerial meetings in Manila.

Yet, reportedly pushed by Vietnam, instead of avoiding tackling their hulking neighbor’s contentious activities, the 10 ASEAN foreign ministers “discussed extensively the matters” and eventually issued the final statement on Sunday night. In it, they “took note of the concerns expressed by some ministers on the land reclamations and activities” and “emphasized the importance of non-militarization and self-restraint” in the area.

Arguably upset by the communiqué’s wording and particularly Vietnam’s posture, state-run newspaper China Daily accused Hanoi of hyping up the South China Sea issue and acting as a “thief crying ‘stop thief’” in the hotly contested waters. In its view, it is not China but Vietnam that has been working on land reclamation and boosting its military deployment there in recent years.

Xinhua claimed that “Vietnam is the very country [that] has vigorously seized islands, reclaimed lands and pushed for militarization in the South China Sea”.

While it did not cite which figures it referred to, China’s official news agency asserted: “Figures show that since 2007, Vietnam has increased the pace of its large-scale land reclamation … and even built a number of new military facilities in the South China Sea.”

But from observing Beijing’s claims and actions relating to the South China Sea disputes in recent years, many would agree that the contrary is true. Indeed, Beijing’s massive land reclamation and militarization in the world’s most disputed waters has been well documented and widely recognized.

For instance, a study by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and Australia’s Strategic Forum published last year concluded that China had alarmingly increased its expansionism in the South China Sea since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012.

The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), a US think-tank that monitors developments in maritime-security issues in the region, also found that “since 2013, China has engaged in unprecedented and ecologically devastating dredging and island-building at all seven of the features it occupies in the Spratly Islands”, creating nearly 1,300 hectares of new land.

In contrast, by the AMTI’s estimation, Vietnam has reclaimed about 49 hectares at the reefs and islets it occupies, amounting to less than 4% of the scale of Beijing’s work. The methods employed by Hanoi are also far less destructive.

In terms of facility construction and military installation, Vietnam’s work likewise pales in comparison with China’s.

According to the Washington-based group, and as widely reported, several of China’s man-made islands, including its three largest, are now equipped with kilometer-long runways, weapons – including surface-to-air missiles and anti-missile systems – or storage facilities for military equipment.

In contrast, Vietnam has built only one airstrip and some hangars at one of its bases. Moreover, as noted by the think-tank, Hanoi’s modest work is a response to its giant neighbor’s construction of military facilities on artificial islands in the region.

It is also worth noting that after years of public denial, an official Chinese magazine has finally not only acknowledged but hailed Xi Jinping’s leading role in “building islands and consolidating the reefs”, praising the fact that his decisions “fundamentally changed the strategic situation of the South China Sea”.

Beijing’s vehement opposition to, and furious anger at, the inclusion of the contentious activities in the area in the drafted or endorsed joint communiqués by ASEAN or other groupings, such as the Group of 7, even though they do not mention China by name, can also speak volumes about its maritime conduct.

If it were a benign and responsible country, which did not engage in any unlawful and aggressive activity in the sea, there would be no need for it to react in such a negative, resentful way. Instead, it should wholeheartedly welcome ASEAN’s latest joint communiqué because the agreed statement called for “non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities by claimants and all other states” in the area.

Its rejection of the statement, which was adopted by consensus, is mainly because, though China is not directly named, the world – and even perhaps Beijing itself – knows, it is mainly aimed at its contentious behavior in the region.

After all, it is China’s extensive claims, large-scale island-building and huge military buildup – not Vietnam’s behavior – in the region that have raised widespread attention, denunciation and apprehension.

Thus by accusing its smaller neighbor of acting as a “thief crying ‘stop thief’”, it is not Vietnam, but rather China, that behaves hypocritically.

In the same vein, it could be argued, instead of presenting itself as a benign, responsible and peaceful power and calling “for Vietnam to readjust [its] attitude and promote peace” in the South China Sea, China should perhaps reconsider its own behavior.

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