In the South China Sea, it’s China versus everyone:
On June 6, responding to a recent U.S. freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea, Hua Chunying, spokesperson for the People’s Republic of China (PRC) Foreign Ministry said, “[i]f someone armed to [the] teeth comes to your doorstep every now and then, poking around and showing off muscles, aren't you justified in sharpening vigilance, taking precautions, and increasing defense capacities?”
As odd as this statement is, it’s basically in line with the PRC’s other attempts to explain its militarization of disputed waterways off its southern coast. Official statements on the topic tend to veer wildly between outright denials that China is militarizing the artificial islands it has built, simple assertions that militarizing these facilities is the PRC’s sovereign right, and hyperbolic blame games like the above, which attempt to cast the United States as a newly-arrived militant outsider to Asia who seeks to stir up trouble. The PRC’s various ministries and officials have never appeared to settle on one authoritative justification for the PRC’s maritime belligerence—probably because there isn’t one.
The PRC’s rhetoric about the South China Sea is so blatantly false that it must be designed for a domestic audience, because the rest of the world isn’t buying it. Led by democracies, the countries of the Indo-Pacific and the world at large are converging towards a shared vision of free and open future for these water, and it’s not the one China is pushing.
The United States has adopted a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy for Asia that emphasizes freedom from coercion, and open sea lanes, airspace, and trade—an implicit rebuke of China’s desire for a balkanized region. At the Shangri La defense dialogue in Singapore [last week], Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India delivered the keynote address, making it clear that India’s vision for the “Indo-Pacific” is consistent with the “free and open” U.S. strategy.
Japan has also adopted a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy, and Australia has begun to approach Asia as the “Indo-Pacific” as well. Other regional democracies have adopted similar, compatible strategies, including Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy, and South Korea’s New Southern Policy, both of which focus on ASEAN.
Pacific democracies aren’t just agreeing on what the region should be in principle—they’re working together to bring it about. The United States plays a leading role in conducting freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) that ensure disputed waterways remain open, but Australia has also conducted FONOPs, and the United Kingdom and France, each with a long history in Asia, have also conducted or planned FONOPs in the South China Sea. Japan has also joined the United States for naval drills in the Sea.
The consensus of nations on a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” is growing, and its proponents are beginning to work together to see it realized. This consensus puts the lie to Hua Chunying’s colorful metaphor about the armed stranger “showing off muscles.” Let’s not forget, China’s 9-dash line claims have been totally invalidated before the Permanent Court of Arbitration, and the activities of the United States and our partners to uphold the freedom of navigation are consistent with that judgment. When it comes to the South China Sea, it’s China who is the disruptor, and China who is crosswise with everyone else.