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South China Sea Issue Heats up 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue

Updated on December 21, 2018

The dialogue

Defense ministers and top-level officials from 40 countries convened in Singapore from 1-3 June to attend the Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia's largest annual security symposium. The three-day security and defense conference has been held every year at the Shangri-La hotel since 2002. Hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the Dialogue accomodates an unparalleled comfort to call an image to the mind of regional states’ strategic priorities and concerns.

This year’s dialogue witnessed well-known themes domination, including concern about the future of the rules-based structure in Asia, countering terrorism, and predictably, widespread interest in the Korean Peninsula issue. This year’s Dialogue convened with just about one week to go before Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un talk planned in Singapore.

A day of pointing fingers at the Dialogue

Both China and the West came to Singapore prepared to defend their positions: The Western delegates on “freedom of navigation for all nations” and the Chinese delegate maintaining that the South China Sea has historically been their territory.

What ensued was plenty of shade hurled between the Chinese and Western delegations, with neither side pulling their punches on the cattiness of their comments.

US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis set the tone by accusing China of engaging in “intimidation and coercion” in the South China Sea and took the high road by stressing:

“We do not do freedom of navigation for America alone, we do freedom of navigation for all nations… we do not see it as a militarisation by going through what has traditionally been international water space. We see it as affirmation of the rules-based international order.”

Mattis also took a swipe, supposedly, at China’s One Belt, One Road initiative, with the following comment: “I believe there are much larger consequences in the future when nations lose the rapport of their neighbors, when they believe that piling mountainous debts on their neighbors and somehow removing the freedom of political action is the way to engage with them.”

China did not miss the beat and fired back.

US Defense Secretary James Mattis speak at the Dialogue
US Defense Secretary James Mattis speak at the Dialogue | Source

Lieutenant-General He Lei, who is deputy president at the People's Liberation Army's Academy of Military Science, said Washington had hyped up militarisation and that the move was not constructive.

At a discussion titled Strategic Implications Of Military Capability Development In The Asia-Pacific, chaired by IISS-Asia executive director Tim Huxley, Lt-Gen He also strongly defended China's moves in the disputed waters. He asserted that the islands belonged to China and that Beijing was acting to defend the country's sovereignty.

In another move, General Yao Yunzhu, a retired PLA major, countered:

“The US has created a grand narrative consisting of keywords including ‘rule-based order’, ‘freedom of navigation and overflight’, and ‘militarisation’ – once you hear these words, you know it’s a criticism targeting China.”

Senior Colonel Zhao Xiaozhuo, from China’s Academy of Military Science, addedthat “it was inevitable that China had to hit back at Mattis’ accusations.” “But engaging in a fight does not help to solve the problems,” he said.

China dispatched warships to challenge two US Navy vessels that sailed through waters in the South China Sea last week, saying the US had "gravely violated Chinese sovereignty". The US, in turn, said it was simply conducting routine Freedom of Navigation exercises.


The Dialogue also manifested how China has made irrational demands in the South China Sea and its situation. After being rebuked by US Defense Secretary James Mattis for military action in the South China Sea, Lieutenant General He Lei, deputy director of the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences, led the delegation. It went to the Shangri-La forum, claiming that the United States was the military side of the South China Sea by way of warships carrying out maritime freedoms. Ha Li said that the deployment of soldiers and weapons on the South China Sea islands was “in China's sovereignty and approbated by international law”. General Ha even compared the deployment of troops to outstations in the South China Sea just as China deployed its garrison after taking over in 1997, in order to indicate the so-called “sovereignty” of the Beijing in the area.

According to international specialist, this is the first time China has publicly made no bones about its plans to deploy forces and military equipment to natural and man-made islands which were illegally impinged on Paracel and Spratly islands. General Ha's statement is contrary to the promise made by President Xi in 2015 that Beijing has no plans to establish military bases in the South China Sea. China's betrayal of its commitment to non-militarization of the South China Sea has been vigorously condemned by many of the participants in the Shangri-La Regional Security Forum Which bear the attendance of ministers of national defense and military officials from more than 50 countries. Behind the battle in the hall, Chinese delegates complained that they were facing many drawbacks at the forum and felt detached from the Dialogue when their voices were not noticed.

Militarization in the South China Sea

According to several trust-worthy sources, Beijing has deployed a range of military hardware including anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missiles and electronic jammers across the South China Sea, where it has built islets and other maritime features into hardened military facilities. China has also landed heavy bombers on Woody Island in the Paracel Islands.

China’s deployment of weapons in the illegally built structures in the South China Sea and its large-scale military moves in the waters intelligibly run counter to commitments the country made. This is also contrary to the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), signed by China and the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2002, which requires the countries to maintain the status quo and not complicate the South China Sea situation.

Besides, China made these moves when it and the ASEAN countries reached an important common perception of building a Code of Conduct (COC) of parties in the South China Sea towards a transparent and rule-based regional architecture and a South China Sea of peace and stability. The Chinese moves undermine and hamper negotiation efforts to finalize the COC, which aims to create prerequisites for the settlement of the South China Sea tensions and maintain peace, stability, security and safety of navigation and overflight in the region.

Make South China Sea “a sea of peace”

As a participant of Dialogue, Vietnamese Defense Minister Ngo Xuan Lich has called for all concerned parties to act responsibility to maintain order and make the South China Sea “a sea of peace, cooperation and friendship”. Addressing the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on Saturday, Minister Lich said: “The peaceful means of dialogue, instead of confrontation or the threat to use force or unilateral action, is really the best solution, which can resolve multiple issues on the basis of common interest, respect for international laws and regional institutions.” He also reckoned that militarizing acts on disputed areas in the South China Sea is deem to be a serious breach of the sovereignty of another country and a serious violation of international laws. “Vietnam pursues a defensive and peaceful defense policy, does not ally itself with one country against another country; does not use force or threaten the use of force” he said.

Regarding this, Mattis addressing last week's freedom of navigation operation directly: “Despite China's claims to the contrary, the placement of these weapon systems is tied directly to military use for the purposes of intimidation and coercion” . “I think it goes to a fundamental disconnect between the way the international tribunals have looked at these waters -- these waters look to us as free and open waters”. “We do not do freedom of navigation for America alone, we do freedom of navigation for all nations ... we do not see it as a militarization by going through what has traditionally been international water space. We see it as affirmation of the rules-based international order”.

“China should and does have a voice in shaping the international system, and all of China's neighbors have a voice in shaping China's role”, said Mattis, adding that he would travel to Beijing soon “at China's invitation”.

© 2018 Justin Blake


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