By Albert Wai
June 1 2015
SINGAPORE — Coming at the end of a week where China’s assertion of sovereignty in disputed waters of the South China Sea has drawn much concern and debate in the region, a top Chinese military official yesterday defended Beijing’s “indisputable” right to undertake massive reclamation work there, saying the move is to meet its defence needs and is part of China’s “international public service” to boost maritime safety and security.
“China has always kept in mind the larger interest of maritime security despite sufficient historical, legal evidence and its indisputable claim of right and interest,” said Admiral Sun Jianguo, vice-chief of staff of China’s People’s Liberation Army, who added that Beijing has exercised “enormous restraint” to keep tensions in check. “China strives to play a constructive role in international affairs with an objective and impartial position, and will never depend on or subjugate itself to any external forces,” Adm Sun said at the Shangri-La Dialogue.
The South China Sea conflict has taken centre stage at the three-day gathering of defence ministers and top officials that began on Friday and ended yesterday. On Saturday, United States Defence Secretary Ashton Carter blamed China as the “source of tension” in the region and called for the latter to immediately halt reclamation work which he said is “out of step” with international rules.
He warned that the US “will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, as US forces do all around the world” to “protect” freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, where more than US$5 trillion (S$6.7 trillion) of global trade transits annually.
Adm Sun, however, rejected Mr Carter’s contention that its activities in the contested waters are affecting freedom of navigation. “China has exercised enormous restraint, making a positive contribution to peace and stability in the region and the world at large. At present, the situation in the South China Sea is peaceful and stable. There has never been an issue of freedom of navigation. There is no reason for people to play up the issue.”
Adm Sun said apart from meeting China’s defence needs, the construction work on the Spratly Islands was geared to help China better perform its international responsibility and obligation regarding maritime search and rescue, disaster prevention and relief as well as environmental protection. “The construction is for the purpose of providing an international public service as a major country,” he said.
“The construction falls within China’s sovereignty and is justified, legitimate and reasonable,” he added.
About a month ago, the US military spotted a pair of mobile artillery vehicles on one of the new islands, sparking fears of militarisation in the disputed territories. In recent months, satellite imagery has shown China’s rapid expansion of artificial islands in the South China Sea, which is also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam.
In his keynote address on Friday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong called on China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to conclude a Code of Conduct on the South China Sea “as soon as possible, so as to break the vicious cycle and not let the disputes sour the broader relationship”.
Adm Sun focused a large part of his speech yesterday on setting out China’s collaboration in the region, calling the country a “reliable friend and sincere partner” of developing countries and speaking of a shift away from the “zero sum” game of the Cold War era of great power relations, with conflict replaced by cooperation. “We will not want to see chaos in this region, even less will we create trouble in this region.”
Rhetoric at the Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia’s biggest security forum, was more measured than that of last year, when the Chinese, Japanese and US delegations exchanged sharp words. “This year, it was more reserved and carefully calibrated,” said Dr Tim Huxley, Asia director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies which organises the forum.
Dr Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies , noted a shift in China’s strategy this year. “I think they came in with a strategy to not be confrontational,” she said.
The Chinese delegation held 13 bilateral meetings with their foreign counterparts on the sidelines of the forum and many attendees said they had aired concerns with China.
“Since this is an international conference, I think China will have heard the honest opinions of various countries,” Japan’s Defence Minister Gen Nakatani said. “I think it should take firm steps from now as a state in the global community to gain the trust of various countries, so the region’s peace and stability won’t be broken.”