Speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD) on Sunday, Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe made many bold, controversial remarks. One such statement was his assertion that since its founding in 1949, the People’s Republic of China “has never provoked a war or conflict, nor has it ever invaded another country or taken an inch of land from others.”
To portray the Asian behemoth as a benign, peace-loving country in his speech at the Singapore-based security conference, Wei also said: “History has proven and will continue to prove that China will not follow the beaten path of big powers seeking hegemony when it grows strong. Hegemony does not conform to China’s values and national interests.”
Such a portrayal of a benevolent, altruistic China has also been repeatedly painted by Xi Jinping in his international homilies. For instance, in his keynote speech at the United Nations Office in Geneva in 2017, Xi, China’s most powerful and authoritarian leader since Mao Zedong, pledged: “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.”
Alas, when it comes to the South China Sea, history has shown that the one-party PRC has not practiced what Wei and Xi preached. It has even done the opposite of what they said.
In 1974, China launched a brief but violent attack on the Paracel Islands, then under the control of US-backed South Vietnam. Defeating the South Vietnamese navy, which was by then very weak, China seized the Paracels and has hitherto occupied the islands.
Though Vietnam still – and strongly – claims sovereignty over the Paracels, called Hoàng Sa in Vietnamese, the PRC has in recent years undertaken massive reclamation work on the islands and deployed anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles as well as fighter jets to the disputed archipelago. In May 2018, China released footage of an H-6K long-range bomber landing on Woody Island, the biggest island in the area, leading to the US and other countries, including Vietnam, to condemn such an aggressive move.