Chinese defense chief Wei Fenghe reasserted his nation’s position in the South China Sea and vowed a ‘fight at all costs’ over Taiwan in a combative address in Singapore
SINGAPORE — China’s top security official articulated today (June 2) an uncompromising defense of his country’s stance on the contested South China Sea and threats to invade Taiwan in an much-anticipated address at a top security conference in Singapore.
“Building facilities on one’s own territories is not militarization,” Lieutenant General Wei Fenghe said, responding to accusations that China has militarized islands in the sea as a means of taking effective control of what the US and others regard as international waters
Wei also warned of a “fight to the end” with the US in their escalating trade spat, and a “fight at all costs” for “reunification” with Taiwan, the island country China considers a renegade province. The US has recently upped its strategic support for the democratically-run Taiwan, much to Beijing’s chagrin. “No attempts to split China will succeed. Any interference in the Taiwan question is doomed to failure,” said Wei, dressed in his People’s Liberation Army (PLA) uniform.
Wei was speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia’s premier defense summit, which is staged annually in Singapore by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a British think tank.
On the South China Sea, the US claims China’s recent island enhancements are “an attempt to exert de facto control over disputed areas,” according to a new Department of Defense Indo-Pacific strategy paper published on Saturday.
The new paper re-states US accusations that Chinese President Xi Jinping has reneged on promises not to militarize the sea, where Beijing’s sweeping territorial claims overlap with waters claimed by neighboring countries including the Philippines and Vietnam.
The US sees China’s growing militarization of the maritime area as a threat to a vital trade conduit through which an estimated third of global shipping passes each year.
Since mid-2016, the US has carried out 15 freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the sea, sailing close to Chinese-claimed but disputed features in the contested Spratly and Paracel island chains, as well as so-called “reclaimed” land around the strategic Mischief Reef.
Acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said in an address on Saturday (June 1) that the US would no longer “tiptoe” around Chinese behavior in maritime areas and inveighed that China’s provocative activities must end.
Tit-for tat, Wei said “it is the legitimate rights of a sovereign state to carry out construction,” describing the island facilities as “self-defense” against US naval operations, which Beijing sees as illegitimate and a violation of its sovereignty.
“Some countries from outside the region come to the South China Sea to flex muscles in the name of freedom of navigation,” Wei said, in a thinly-veiled dig at the US.
Shanahan made a similarly barely-hidden jibe at China on Saturday, mentioning that unnamed countries were “deploying advanced weapons systems to militarize disputed areas” and warning that some countries would be “unable to make use of natural resources within their exclusive economic zones.”
Vietnam and the Philippines were likely among the claimant countries Shanahan was highlighting. Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana described freedom of navigation as “indispensable” and said that the Philippines, which has so far refused to follow up on a 2016 arbitral ruling at The Hague in its favor against China, supports the US-led FONOPs in the sea.
“No single power should exercise unilateral control over vital international waterways,” he said.
But China views supporting FONOPs as taking sides. “China didn’t force parties in the South China Sea to choose sides, it is the US forcing them to do so by pressing them to join freedom of navigation,” said Senior Colonel Bo Zhou, a Chinese defense ministry official, speaking at the dialogue.
While both the Philippines and Vietnam have come close to conflict with China over claims to the sea, both are likely “wary of being seen to take sides” as US-China disputes over trade and technology spill over into military affairs, said Le Hong Hiep of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.
The concern for the Philippines and Vietnam is that as China-US rivalry deepens “the South China Sea dispute could be turned into a “theatre” forcing smaller countries to take sides, Le said. Such a situation, he said, would ”make it difficult for small and medium claimant states to manage the issue.”
With two heavily armed and increasingly antagonistic great powers at odds over a range of issues, seemingly to the point of talking past each other, the South China Sea could see countries “sleepwalking into a conflict like World War I,” according to Lorenzana.
China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a ten country regional grouping to which the Philippines and Vietnam belong, are negotiating a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea.
Hanoi’s Defense Minister General Ngo Xuan Lich, said on Sunday (June 2) that he met his Chinese counterpart in Singapore, and that both sides “agreed that Vietnam and China have differences over East Sea,” using the Vietnamese term for the South China Sea.
Nonetheless Vietnam hopes for “an early conclusion of a meaningful COC,” said Lich.
But, hinting at the seemingly irreconcilable positions of the antagonists and the prospect that claimant countries might find a deal difficult to reach, Lich said “China needs to make a bigger effort” in negotiations over the code.
Lich’s exhortation echoed remarks made by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in Tokyo on Friday, in which he questioned China’s claim to the South China Sea and urged Beijing to help with finalizing the code.
“The longer it takes,” Duterte said, the greater the chance the sea could become a “flashpoint of troubles.”