The bully in the South China Sea


Preaching is one of the things that Chinese leaders and officials do –and do brilliantly – on the international stage. Wherever they go, they always preach about how international relations should be conducted and paint their country as a responsible, benign and altruistic power.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has used speeches at international forums such as the Asia-Pacific Cooperation summits in 2016, 2017 and 2018 or the World Economic Forum in early 2017 to highlight a number of points that the countries of the world or the international community as a whole should – or should not – do in order to achieve stability, harmony, equality, amity or prosperity.

Xi’s homilies often feature denunciations of power politics and urge powerful nations to treat smaller ones as equals instead of acting as a hegemon imposing their will on others. But above all, he always portrays China as a good, peace-loving country. For instance, in his keynote speech at the United Nations Office in Geneva in 2017, he vowed, “China remains unchanged in its commitment to uphold world peace”.

In quoting Confucius, who said, “What you do not want others to do to you, do not do unto others,” he then firmly pledged, “No matter how strong its economy grows, China will never seek hegemony, expansion or sphere of influence.” He added, “History has borne this out and will continue to do so.”

Speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD) early last month, Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe also vehemently asserted 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.”

While painting a picture of the Asian behemoth as a benign power, China’s top defense official repeated Xi’s words, claiming, “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.”

Alas, when it comes to its international actions, in particular in the South China Sea, Beijing has not always practiced what Xi and Wei preach. In fact, it has often done the opposite. China’s attacks and seizures of the Paracel Islands and Johnson Reef of Vietnam in 1974 and 1988, respectively, and of the Philippines’ Scarborough Shoal in 2012 are examples that contradict its leaders’ claims.

Since Xi came to power in 2012, the PRC has become more aggressive in the South China Sea. It has carried out massive reclamation and militarization of disputed outposts in these resource-rich and strategically vital waters. China has also violated the sovereignty and jurisdiction of its smaller neighbors, such as the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia, and coerced them to stop these nations’ lawful activities in their own territorial waters.

As reported by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), in recent months, China has harassed offshore oil and gas operations belonging to Malaysia and Vietnam, including the undertaking of a seismic survey of oil and gas blocks in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The Chinese survey ship Haiyang Dizhi 8, accompanied by armed coastguard ships, arrived in an area less than 200 nautical miles off Vietnam’s coast on July 3 and, as of July 21, it was continuing to conduct operations in Vietnam’s EEZ.

After two weeks of silence, during which the Vietnamese government had privately and without success “contacted the Chinese side many times via different channels (and) handed over diplomatic notes to protest the violations”, it eventually publicly demanded Beijing “to immediately end violations and withdraw all vessels from Vietnamese waters, respect Vietnam’s sovereign right and jurisdiction, for the sake of the bilateral relations and for peace and stability in the region.”

The presence of the Chinese survey ship and its escort ships in the area reportedly led to a week-long standoff between the two communist neighbors’ heavily armed coastguard vessels.

In a meeting earlier this month during an official visit to China by Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, chairwoman of the Vietnamese National Assembly, Xi Jinping called the two neighbors “comrades and brothers” and urged them to “carry forward their friendship and enhance their cooperation so as to lift their ties to a new high from a new starting point.”

This is just another example of China’s – or more correctly Xi’s – hypocrisy. In receiving Vietnamese leaders and officials in Beijing, he invariably hails his country’s “friendship” and “comradeship” with the Southeast Asian nation, even while in the South China Sea, China acts belligerently toward its neighbor.

In its July 16 report, entitled “China risks flare-up over Malaysian, Vietnamese gas resources,” the AMTI concluded, “No matter how these incidents develop, China’s actions off both the Malaysian and Vietnamese coasts since May show that Beijing is increasingly willing to employ coercion and the threat of force to block oil and gas operations by its neighbors, even while pursuing its own energy exploration in disputed waters.”

In a statement on July 20, the United States said it “is concerned by reports of China’s interference with oil and gas activities in the South China Sea, including Vietnam’s long-standing exploration and production activities.”

The statement by the State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus stressed, “China’s repeated provocative actions aimed at the offshore oil and gas development of other claimant states threaten regional energy security and undermine the free and open Indo-Pacific energy market.”

It also stated, “China’s reclamation and militarization of disputed outposts in the South China Sea, along with other efforts to assert its unlawful South China Sea maritime claims, including the use of maritime militia to intimidate, coerce, and threaten other nations, undermine the peace and security of the region.”

The statement called on Beijing to “cease its bullying behavior and refrain from engaging in this type of provocative and destabilizing activity.”

It was not the first time that US officials had used such strong language to describe the Asian juggernaut’s behavior in contested waters. In a speech in May 2017, John McCain, the influential senator who died last year, called China a “bully” who “is asserting vast territorial claims [in the South China Sea] that have no basis in international law.”

Despite all its kindly rhetoric, China is indeed acting like a bully in the South China Sea.