Is Beijing using ‘law of the jungle’ in South China Sea?

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In one of his international homilies last year, Xi Jinping said that in our world today, “the law of the jungle where the strong prey on the weak and the zero-sum game are rejected.” But China’s recent landing of an H-6K bomber on a disputed island in the South China Sea is another signal that the Asian giant is not practicing what its leader preached.

Reading the Chinese president’s addresses to international audiences, one may get the impression that China is the world’s most benign, altruistic, peaceful and international-law-abiding nation.

Take his keynote speech at the United Nations Office in Geneva in January 2017, for example. In that address, Xi solemnly stated: “China’s proposition is: Build a community of shared future for mankind and achieve shared and win-win development.”

He recalled the Peace of Westphalia’s principles of equality and sovereignty, the UN Charter’s four purposes and seven principles, the Bandung Conference’s five principles of peaceful coexistence and many widely accepted principles in international relations and expounded: “These principles should guide us in building a community of shared future for mankind.”

With regard to sovereign equality, he orated, it “is the most important norm governing state-to-state relations over the past centuries and the cardinal principle observed by the [UN] and all other international organizations.”

“The essence of sovereign equality is that the sovereignty and dignity of all countries, whether big or small, strong or weak, rich or poor, must be respected,” the authoritarian leader further lectured.

He then declared: “China remains unchanged in its commitment to uphold world peace,” stating that “amity with neighbors … and peace are values cherished in the Chinese culture.”

He noted that The Art of War, “a Chinese classic, begins with this observation: The art of war is of vital importance to the state. It is a matter of life and death, a road to either survival or ruin. Hence it demands careful study.” Xi explained: “What it means is that every effort should be made to prevent a war and great caution must be exercised when it comes to fighting a war.”

In an apparent effort to assure those who are wary of his country’s rapid rise and long-term ambitions, he stressed: “No matter how strong its economy grows, China will never seek hegemony, expansion or sphere of influence. History has borne this out and will continue to do so.”

But, alas, what the Communist-ruled country has done in the South China Sea, especially since Xi came to power in 2012, tells a completely different story. It’s no longer a secret that over the past six years China has massively expanded in and militarized the 3.5-million-square-kilometer sea.

What is evident – and worrying for other smaller claimant states – is that as it has grown stronger, China has become more willing to resort to what then US president Barack Obama described in 2016 as ‘the old style of might makes right’

What is evident – and worrying for other smaller claimant states – is that as it has grown stronger, China has become more willing to resort to what then US president Barack Obama described in 2016 as “the old style of might makes right, as opposed to working through international law and international norms to establish claims, and to resolve disputes.”

To challenge such a realpolitik approach, the Philippines launched an arbitration case against China. In arguing for his country’s case in 2015, the Philippines’ then foreign secretary, Albert del Rosario, said that Manila had turned to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and its arbitral tribunal because it believed in “the equalizing power of international law … which allows the weak to challenge the powerful on an equal footing, confident in the conviction that principles trump power; that law triumphs over force; and that right prevails over might.”

Such a strong conviction in the “equalizing power of international law” and a firm belief that “no state, no matter how powerful, should be allowed to claim an entire sea as its own and to use force or the threat of force in asserting that claim” helped the Philippines achieve a resounding legal victory over its neighboring behemoth.

In a landmark verdict in July 2016, the five-judge international tribunal unanimously invalidated many of Beijing’s contentious statements and unlawful actions. These included The Hague-based court’s findings that “there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources” within its so-called “nine-dash line,” which covers almost all the South China Sea, and that it “violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights in its exclusive economic zone.”

Yet for all Xi’s eloquent oratories – that all countries’ sovereignty “must be respected,” that “law is the very foundation of governance” or that the “relevance of law lies in its enforcement” and thereby “it is thus incumbent on all countries to uphold the authority of the international rule of law, exercise their rights in accordance with law and fulfill their obligations in good faith” – his China forcefully ignored the legally binding ruling. What’s more, it used its huge economic, political and military might to compel other countries and organizations to sideline the verdict.

Perhaps because the verdict dealt a huge and humiliating blow to China, for more than a year after its release, Beijing apparently kept a relatively low profile in the South China Sea and even sought to conclude a code of conduct in the contested waters with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Over the past few months, however, it has resumed its aggressiveness in the area. Just last month, Beijing installed anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missile systems on three of its huge man-made outposts in the Spratly Islands that sparked protests from the United States and Vietnam, China’s communist neighbor and one of the claimant states.

Last week, China landed, for the first time, several long-range bombers – including the nuclear-capable H-6K – on an airbase in the disputed waters.

As reported by both Chinese and international media, a military expert was quoted in a statement published by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force last Friday as saying that the purpose of this exercise was to hone the PLAAF’s war-preparation skills and its “real combat ability against all kinds of marine security threats.”

Though China’s military officials and state media, which announced the military maneuvers, didn’t specify where it took place, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) of the Center for Strategic and International Studies identified the location as Woody Island in the Paracel Islands.

According to the AMTI, “the base H-6 aircraft’s combat radius of nearly 1,000 nautical miles means even China’s basic bombers taking off from Woody Island could cover the entire South China Sea,” with nearly all of the Philippines falling within the Chinese bombers’ radius.

What’s even more terrifying is that “with a combat radius of nearly 1,900 nautical miles, the H-6K bombers would put all of Southeast Asia in its range from Woody Island,” the Washington-based think-tank said.

That’s why it isn’t surprising that this Monday the Philippine government of President Rodrigo Duterte, who has been very cozy with Beijing since he came to power in 2016, expressed its “serious concern” over the presence of the Chinese bombers in the area. It also said it was “taking the appropriate diplomatic action necessary to protect our claims” and  reiterated its “commitment to protect every single inch of our territory and areas which we have sovereign rights over.”

Vietnam had an even stronger response. In a statement on Monday, its Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said the recent activities by China’s strategic bombers “seriously violated Vietnam’s sovereignty” and “increase tensions, cause regional instabilities and are not good for maintaining a peaceful, stable and cooperative environment in the East Sea” – Vietnam’s name for the South China Sea.

That’s why she stated, “Vietnam demands that China stop these activities, cease militarization of the area, and strictly respect Vietnam’s sovereignty over the Hoang Sa [Paracel] islands.”

Such a strong and firm reaction is understandable. Unlike the Philippines, Vietnam claims sovereignty over the Paracel Islands. In fact, until 1974, the Paracels were under Vietnam’s control. In that year, as it sensed that US-backed South Vietnam, which hitherto controlled the islands, was weakened and dreadfully fighting for its survival because of the reduced US military assistance after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1973, China launched an attack and seized the islands.

Like the statement on May 8, which demanded that China withdraw its missile systems from the Spratlys (Truong Sa), the spokeswoman reiterated that “Vietnam has full legal basis and historical evidence to assert its sovereignty over the Spratly and Paracel Islands.”

In fact, not only Vietnam and the Philippines but also other regional countries should be concerned over Beijing’s latest muscle-flexing move as this is more strong evidence that Beijing is prepared and willing to use force to control the resource-rich and strategically vital region.

But perhaps more disturbing is that far from rejecting “the law of the jungle,” the Asian giant is apparently applying it. And when a powerful and forceful nation such as China applies such a strategy, its smaller neighbors inevitably suffer.

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