China, you want peace? Act like it


Bei­jing must be feel­ing the pres­sure from the United States to stop its cam­paign of turn­ing tiny reefs that it con­trols in the South China Sea into ar­ti­fi­cial is­lands ca­pa­ble of ac­com­mo­dat­ing mil­i­tary air­craft and ves­sels. The Mon­day edi­tion of the Peo­ple’s Daily on­line car­ried not one but two commentaries crit­i­ciz­ing the United States for its ac­cu­sa­tions against China.

Last week, Pres­i­dent Barack Obama said he was con­cerned that China was us­ing its “sheer size and mus­cle” to bully smaller neigh­bors, such as the Philip­pines and Viet­nam, which are em­broiled in mar­itime dis­putes with Bei­jing. And U.S. De­fense Sec­re­tary Ash­ton Carter, on his first trip to Asia since be­com­ing U.S. de­fense sec­re­tary, warned that mil­i­ta­riza­tion of ter­ri­to­rial dis­putes in the South China Sea could lead to “danger­ous in­ci­dents.”

Their state­ments stem from the lat­est ev­i­dence of China en­gag­ing in wide-rang­ing recla­ma­tion of land in the South China Sea by scoop­ing up sand from the seabed and pour­ing it, plus loads of ce­ment, onto sub­merged reefs and turn­ing them into ar­ti­fi­cial is­lands which are ca­pa­ble of host­ing he­li­pads, airstrips and har­bors.

Last Novem­ber, IHS Jane’s, a provider of mil­i­tary in­for­ma­tion and anal­y­sis, re­leased satel­lite im­agery show­ing that the Chi­nese had cre­ated an is­land al­most 10,000 feet long and 1,000 feet wide on Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Is­lands of the South China Sea. The reef, con­trolled by China, was also claimed by the Philip­pines and Viet­nam.

About 200 miles away is Mis­chief Reef, claimed by the Philip­pines but oc­cu­pied by China since 1995. In the early years put up flimsy struc­tures on stilts but, last month, the Cen­ter for Strate­gic and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies in Wash­ing­ton pub­lished images show­ing land for­ma­tions and struc­tures, in­clud­ing for­ti­fied sea walls, which did not ex­ist six months pre­vi­ously.

Such recla­ma­tion and con­struc­tion are part of a drive by China to turn the fea­tures that it con­trols — in­clud­ing Gavens Reefs, Hughes Reef and John­son South Reef — into ar­ti­fi­cial is­lands. None of the reefs qual­i­fied as is­lands un­der the United Na­tions Con­ven­tion on the Law of the Sea,

While the law of the sea also does not rec­og­nize the le­gal­ity of ar­ti­fi­cial is­lands and does not ac­cord them a ter­ri­to­rial sea or an ex­clu­sive eco­nomic zone, their ex­is­tence changes the re­al­ity on the ground.

China has brushed off all crit­i­cism of its recla­ma­tion and con­struc­tion ac­tiv­i­ties. For­eign Min­is­ter Wang Yi, asked about this at a press con­fer­ence, said: “China is car­ry­ing out nec­es­sary con­struc­tion on its own is­lands and reefs. The con­struc­tion does not tar­get or af­fect any­one.”

He crit­i­cized other coun­tries that put up struc­tures in the Spratly Is­lands as en­gag­ing in “il­le­gal con­struc­tion in an­other per­son’s house” — China claims vir­tu­ally all land fea­tures in the South China Sea.

Other coun­tries, how­ever, dis­agree. Philip­pine De­fense Min­istry spokesman, Peter Paul Galvez, urged China to dis­man­tle the struc­tures it has put up on Mis­chief Reef, say­ing that they af­fect his coun­try’s na­tional se­cu­rity.

Ac­cord­ing to Law

The Com­mu­nist Party, at the lat­est ple­nary ses­sion of its Cen­tral Com­mit­tee six months ago, fo­cused on rule of law as the theme, in­sist­ing that ev­ery­thing must be done ac­cord­ing to law.

On Oct. 24, United Na­tions Day, For­eign Min­is­ter Wang pub­lished an ar­ti­cle call­ing on the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity to “reaf­firm their com­mit­ment to main­tain­ing world peace and in­ter­na­tional rule of law.”

The in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity, he said, must “re­ject the law of the jun­gle where the strong do what they want and the weak suf­fer what they must.”

In the con­text of dis­putes in the South China Sea, how­ever, the for­eign min­is­ter did not ex­plain why, when there is a dis­pute over terri- to­rial sovereignty, the world should al­ways ac­cept China’s claims as be­ing be­yond dis­pute while other coun­tries are pre­sumed to be act­ing il­le­gally. More­over, China re­fuses to ac­cept mech­a­nisms pro­vided by the United Na­tions Con­ven­tion on the Law of the Sea for ju­di­cial ar­bi­tra­tion.

China is clearly by far the strong­est claimant mil­i­tar­ily. The other claimants — the Philip­pines, Viet­nam, Malaysia and Brunei — are by com­par­i­son small and weak.

Mr. Wang and the gov­ern­ment that he rep­re­sents in­sists that the only choice the small, weak, mil­i­tar­ily in­signif­i­cant coun­tries of Southeast Asia have is to hold one-on-one ne­go­ti­a­tions with the China, whose mil­i­tary bud­get is the sec­ond big­gest in the world and which has the world’s largest Coast Guard fleet, with more pa­trol ves­sels than Ja­pan, Viet­nam, the Philip­pines, In­done­sia and Malaysia com­bined.

Surely, China does not want the world in 2015 to be a place where, in the for­eign min­is­ter’s words, the law of the jun­gle holds sway and “the strong do what they want and the weak suf­fer what they must.” Twit­ter: @FrankChing1

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