After years of aggressive expansion throughout the South China Sea, government-owned media outlets within China are now working to establish a new narrative to justify the building and militarization of islands within contested waters. China’s waterway enveloping claims have long been associated with the massive amounts of commercial travel and extremely valuable natural resources held within the South China Sea, but following a freedom of navigation voyage of a U.S. vessel last week, China is now trying to present their militarization of international waters as a response to American provocations instead.
According to an editorial published in the government-owned Global Times and authored under a pen-name that translates to “Voice of China,” the newspaper accused the U.S. Navy of provoking the Chinese military with their voyages through areas the international community recognized as international waters.
“Against this backdrop of peace and cooperation, a U.S. ship wantonly provoking trouble is singleminded to the point of recklessness,” the paper said.
“If the relevant party once more makes trouble out of nothing and causes tensions, then it will only cause China to reach this conclusion: in order to earnestly protect peace in the South China Sea, China must strengthen and speed up the building of its abilities there,” it said.
“As China’s military size and quality improve, so does its control of the South China Sea,” it said. “China is able to send more naval vessels as a response and can take steps like militarizing islands.”
This narrative, which suggests that China’s expansion and militarization of contested portions of the South China Sea are being done in response to American freedom of navigation voyages is not, however, supported by historical precedent. In August of last year, for instance, Vietnam was forced to suspend off shore oil drilling in their own territorial waters as a result of pressure from Beijing. According to the Chinese government, those oil rigs, which were within Vietnam’s economic zone, are actually situated within Chinese waters, hundreds of miles from China’s nearest shore.
That interaction resulted in Vietnam establishing warmer relations with the United States, including plans for an American aircraft carrier to visit Vietnam, marking the first such visit of American military assets to the nation since the conclusion of the Vietnam War.
“This relationship is based on mutual respect and common interests, including the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and globally; respect for international law; and recognition of national sovereignty.” A Defense Department press release stated at the time.
A number of other nations have voiced similar concerns regarding China’s expansion throughout the waterway. In fact, the island the USS Hopper came within 12 nautical miles of last week that elicited both formal and media responses from the Chinese, is also contested: as far as the Philippine government is concerned, it actually belongs to them.
Image courtesy of the Department of Defense