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Recent Opinion Pieces By Analysts On The South China Sea Perpetuate Misunderstandings

2019-07-16 15:45:09       source:NISCSS

July 5, 2019

The South China Sea issues have become one of the most popular topics of oped pieces in the Asian press and beyond. The media and journals are full of such pieces written by neophytes and veterans alike. Some present new information or a new twist on old conundrums. But most are tired, trite, redundant and unhelpful. Some analyses are just plain misinformed, misleading, biased or wrong. What is really worrisome is that some outlets consistently will not publish letters correcting the more dangerous of these analyses. I know this because I have frequently submitted such letters but they never saw the light of day—even when they were responses to direct criticism of my own views. Below I review a handful of what I call the ‘most one-sided pieces of the month’ and provide an alternative perspective.


Two recent articles in the South China Morning Post by Ricard Heydarian illustrate the point.


Heydarian seems to perceive any foreign warship presence in the South China Sea as a demonstration of freedom of navigation (FONOP). They may be a political signal but most are not FONOPs. US FONOPS are carried out under an official program demonstrating U.S. interpretation of international law and it acknowledges them as such. 


The difference is important. Although China has never specified the exact content of what it claims within its nine dash line, it has never objected to routine passage of warships outside its claimed territorial sea. To state, as Heydarian does, that a particular joint naval exercise was a “freedom of navigation exercise” implies that China objects to normal passage of warships through or exercises in the area. This plays into the U.S. narrative that China is a threat to all navigation including commercial navigation.


Heydarian’s second misunderstanding is the conflation of freedom of navigation for commercial and military vessels. China and several nations in Southeast Asia distinguish between commercial vessels and warships, requiring the latter to obtain prior permission to enter their territorial sea – or for Malaysia and Thailand, even to exercise in their 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ). China maintains that U.S. as a non-ratifier of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea has no legitimacy or credibility to choose which provisions it will abide by, or to interpret them in its favor. Moreover, while some like Singapore may agree with the U.S.’s legal interpretation, they do not support its use of warships to demonstrate it.


The U.S. has for some time pressured its friends and allies in and outside the region but all except the U.K. have declined. They each have their own reasons for doing so but a common one is that they do not see China’s claims as a threat to commercial traffic or their security despite U.S. dire warnings to the contrary. 


Writing in the Strait Times, Bonnie Glaser argues that the choice for Southeast Asian countries is not between the U.S. and China but between the “rules based system” and power politics.


Glaser’s piece emits a whiff of surprise and fear that some Southeast Asian countries are realizing and publicly stating that the U.S. shares blame for the deteriorating US-China situation in the South China Sea. This is a fact and Glaser and other like-minded analysts are going to have to get used to it.


Yes, China has behaved badly in the South China Sea. So have other claimants, although not as frequently and egregiously. But so far all these transgressions pale in comparison to US military depredations and interference in domestic political affairs in the region over many years. Even today the U.S. continues to engage in unnecessarily provocative behavior such as its FONOPs using warships- – not just against China’s claims– but those of Southeast Asian states as well. 


Glaser’s assertion that FONOPs are conducted “to preserve unrestricted access to airspace and waterways for all seafaring nations as governed by international law” is misleading. The U.S. conflates the issue of freedom of navigation for commercial vessels with that for military vessels. China has never threatened freedom of commercial navigation and is highly unlikely to do so in peace time.


The most amazing statement in Glaser’s piece is that it is “incorrect” that the U.S. is trying to contain China. This flies in the face of the facts including US policy documents and statements and its attempt to stop countries from dealing with Huawei.


The framing of the “choice” as that between the existing rules based order and power politics is false. During its rise and hegemonic reign, the U.S. has disproportionately built, led, interpreted and benefited from the current rules-based order. It is only natural that as China approaches power parity with the current hegemon that it will want to alter the existing system more to its benefit.


In a piece in Foreign Policy, Gregory Poling accuses me of “simply ignoring the facts and attacking the motives of those presenting evidence of militia activities”. 


As I pointed out in my article, it is a fact that the Philippines government has become skeptical of the objectivity of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative’s (AMTI’s) analyses. In August 2017, then Philippines Foreign Minister Alan Peter Cayetano scolded those who criticized the presence of Chinese ships near Sandy Cay based on AMTI reports, but did not criticize the presence of US warships in the disputed waters. He said “You have to realize that their [AMTI] reason for being is to pursue the interests of the American people. We have to pursue Philippine interests”.


On 6 February the AMTI published and heavily promoted a report that documented Philippines construction on Thitu and alleged that China had attempted to intimidate the Philippines into ceasing that work. But at the time, Philippines Armed Forces Chief Benjamin Madrigal Jr. said that there were no reports of Chinese ships interfering with the Philippine government’s upgrading of the facilities on [Thitu].


This seemed to contradict AMTI’s allegations that China was intimidating the Philippines to stop the construction. The construction has continued.


The AMTI report had the rare distinction of being criticized by the country it was trying to alert to nefarious activity against it —the Philippines –-and the country it was warning against—China. AMTI purports to “generate opportunities for cooperation and confidence building…”. This motive is admiral but in this case it exacerbated the situation.


Poling does raise good questions regarding alternative explanations for the massing of Chinese fishing boats near Thitu. According to Poling, most of these vessels are part of China’s maritime militia that ‘serves as a logistics and surveillance arm of the PLA, ferries supplies to Chinese outposts, and engages in joint training exercises with the military and law enforcement.’


But if so, why does China have 200-300 such units mostly riding at anchor near Thitu? Like some of the alternative explanations, this doesn’t make sense.


A piece by Nguyen Minh Quang in the Diplomat blames China for the delay in finalizing a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea and pushes a leadership role for Vietnam in ASEAN regarding the negotiations. Nguyen claims that “China refuses to join a binding COC that could challenge Beijing’s aim of turning the South China Sea into its own private lake.” But one of the stumbling blocks to an agreement is the geographic scope of the Code. Vietnam insists that it must include the Chinese occupied Paracels which it also claims. This is purely a dispute between China and Vietnam. But Vietnam is trying to use ASEAN to support it in its bilateral dispute with China. Nguyen’s proposal supports Vietnam’s narrative and strategy. 


He also encourages external players [the U.S.] “to support ASEAN’s self-reliant security building and show their determination to curb China’s gray zone coercion”. But it is not at all clear that many ASEAN members support a confrontational security role for the U.S. in the region. At the recent Shangri-La Dialogue, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warned that a US-China clash would be disastrous for Southeast Asia. He challenged both the U.S. and China to do better – calling on the U.S. to preserve the multilateral order and make the ‘difficult’ but necessary adjustments to China’s rise and aspirations, while exhorting China to ‘convince other countries through its actions that it does not take a transactional and mercantilist approach.’


These are just a few examples of problematic oped pieces on the South China Sea issues. The lesson is ‘do not believe all that you read or hear about the South China Sea’-–even from “experts”. Many have their own peculiar biases and as a result their analyses are imbalanced and misleading. 

Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China



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