Since Beijing began to assert what its so-called sovereignty over large swaths of the East Sea -- the Vietnamese term for the South China Sea -- it has always cocked a snook at any protest from Washington, dismissing it as hypocritical.
Now China appears to be able to find new targets: Vietnam and the Philippines. Facing diplomatic barbs from the US and Southeast Asian leaders for its massive ongoing reclamation work in the Spratly Islands in the East Sea, China has bitten back, pointing the finger at Vietnam and the Philippines and others by accusing them of carrying out their own “illegal” construction work.
"For a long time, the Philippines, Vietnam and other countries have been carrying out reclamations on the Chinese islands they are illegally occupying in the Nansha Islands, building airports and other fixed infrastructure, even deploying missiles and other military equipment," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said last week, using the Chinese term for the Spratlys.
In a statement just before midnight on May 4, China's Foreign Ministry urged the Philippines to stop its "malicious hyping and provocation" on the dispute, whose basis, it said, was Manila's illegal occupation of certain Chinese islands.
"The Philippines side has conducted large-scale construction of military and civil facilities, including airports, ports and barracks on those islands for many years," Reuters quoted the ministry as saying.
Recent satellite images show China has made rapid progress in building an airstrip suitable for military use in the Spratly Islands and may be planning another, Reuters said. Satellite photos released earlier last month provided fresh evidence of the scale of the Chinese program, depicting a flotilla of vessels dredging sand onto a feature known as Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands, according to AFP.
Airstrip construction on the Fiery Cross Reef in the East Sea is pictured in this April 2, 2015 handout satellite image obtained by Reuters on April 16, 2015.
China routinely outlines the scope of its territorial claims through maps featuring “nine-dash line”, a demarcation that includes about 90 percent of the 3.5-million-square-kilometer resource- and oil-rich East Sea. But these maps have been emphatically rejected by international experts and fly in the face of competing claims by four members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) -- Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei.
Analysts say although the Southeast Asian claimants have indeed engaged in reclamation activities in the Spratlys the bottom line is they are on a far smaller scale than China.
“Beijing is the only one building islands where previously only submerged features existed,” Gregory Poling, a Southeast Asia analyst at the Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Thanh Nien News.
“It is true that other claimants have engaged in limited reclamation work to expand the size of features or prevent erosion … but those are of a fundamentally different nature because they are cases of expanding an island as opposed to creating one from nothing.”
In the making
Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper reported this week that a Chinese boat had allegedly prevented a Vietnamese fishing boat with engine failure from docking on May 4 in Gaven Reef, one of the land features in the Spratlys that has undergone significant construction or land reclamation work in the past year.
"China has justified the reclamation in terms of search and rescue facilities and other 'public goods' from which other countries can benefit, but there can be little doubt that this is fundamentally a [China's People Liberation Army]-driven development," Euan Graham, director of International Security at the Sydney-based Lowy Institute, said.
Vietnam-China ties have remained rocky since May 2014 when China's deployment of a giant oil rig in Vietnamese waters triggered two months of skirmishes between coast guard and fishing vessels of the two countries.
China withdrew the rig in mid-July. Since then the two countries have sought to patch up ties by exchanging high-ranking bilateral visits.
But tensions are appearing to flare up again, with Vietnam and the Philippines, in the past few months, repeatedly lambasting China’s reclamation work in the Spratlys.
In the latest sign of friction between China and its smaller neighbors, the 10-member ASEAN issued a statement after a summit last week in Kuala Lumpur that reclamation work had "eroded trust and confidence and may undermine peace, security and stability in the South China Sea".
The statement was criticized by China, which said it was “extremely concerned” by the statement and that the East Sea issue was not a problem between Beijing and ASEAN.
Before the summit opened, China had already castigated the Philippines for bringing up the issue at ASEAN.
"Manila's recent finger-pointing over China's island reclamation in South China Sea is just thief shouting thief," China's official Xinhua news agency said in a commentary.
Ahead of the ASEAN summit, skeptics had said no one in ASEAN besides Vietnam and the Philippines would take up the gauntlet to confront China. Even host Malaysia, which has overlapping claims, was expected not to make the issue a priority at the meeting.
Even though the closing statement of the summit was stronger than the original Malaysian draft, it was hardly a show of unanimity to concern China enough that it halts what it is doing, analysts say.
“[China] is hell-bent on changing the status quo and facts on the ground. It wants a fait accompli before the [United Nations] tribunal can make a ruling,” Zachary Abuza, a US-based analyst, said.
The Philippines has dismissed China’s “massive” reclamation works as efforts aimed at sabotaging a UN tribunal that is due to rule early next year on a Philippine challenge to its claims in the East Sea. China has refused to participate in the case. The tribunal's ruling will not be legally binding and China is widely expected to snub any verdict against it.
"China is…changing the status quo to actualize its nine-dash line claim before the handing down of a decision of the arbitral tribunal on the Philippine submission," Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario had said in March.
Despite an avalanche of criticism against its activities, analysts do not expect a cessation of China’s island-building, which will be largely finished in a matter of months.
“The time for international action on that front was over a year ago when it first came to light, not now,” Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said.
“ASEAN and others should be worried about preventing further deterioration of the status quo and seek to lay the groundwork for a long-term solution.”
‘Two wrongs don’t make a right’
Tran Cong Truc, former chief of the Vietnamese government’s border committee, said the placement of the oil rig in Vietnamese waters last year and the ongoing reclamation works in the Spratlys last year were all part of a well-calibrated, well-orchestrated expansionist agenda by China to gradually take control of almost the entire East Sea.
“It cannot be ruled out that China may tow another oil rig to the waters of any country in the future,” Truc told Thanh Nien News.
Le Hai Binh, spokesman for the Vietnamese foreign affairs ministry, said in a statement Friday that Hanoi has sufficient legal and historical proof for its indisputable sovereignty over the Spratly island chains.
Meanwhile, in the latest gesture that risks ruffling some feathers in Beijing, the US and its Asia’s major ally Japan are looking to carry out maritime air patrols in the East Sea in response to what they perceive as China's increasingly assertive pursuit of territorial claims.
News of the deliberations came as Japan and the US unveiled new defense guidelines during a recent visit to Washington by Japanese Prime Minster Shinzo Abe, Reuters reported.
The newswire said further that defense officials in Tokyo worry that doing nothing would allow China to eventually impose its authority over a region through which $5 trillion of sea-borne trade passes ever year, much of it heading to and from Japan.
"We have to show China that it doesn't own the sea," Reuters quoted a Japanese source as saying.
US soldiers of 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team take up position as a U.S. military CH-47 Chinook helicopter takes off during the annual "Balikatan" (shoulder-to-shoulder) war games with Filipino soldiers at a military camp, Fort Magsaysay, Nueva Ecija in northern Philippines April 20, 2015. Photo: Reuters
But for some, a US-led anti-China alliance would only further antagonize China.
In the eyes of Beijing, by chiding China for its behavior in the East Sea, the US has proved itself to be nothing but a hypocrite.
“Washington often urges Beijing to obey ‘international law’ but has itself not joined some 166 countries that have ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea [UNCLOS] and several other popular international treaties,” Mark Valencia, a US-based analyst, said.
Both Vietnam and China are signatories to this convention, a treaty that is meant to govern nations' maritime actions.
Referring to the East Sea situation, top American officials including President Barack Obama have claimed that "bigger nations cannot bully the small.”
Valencia was scathing: “Perhaps [they have] forgotten the history of US relations vis-à-vis Cuba, Nicaragua, and many others.”
But analysts concur that though it is surely a disgrace that the US has not ratified UNCLOS because of the short-sighted objections of a small group of lawmakers, that gives China’s position no legitimacy.
“For one thing, China’s obligations under UNCLOS are not dependent on whether or not the US has ratified the treaty,” Poling said. “You don’t get to violate a contract you signed just because someone else has not also signed it."
“For another thing, the core of UNCLOS that Beijing is violating—the rights of states to exclusive economic zones and continental shelves, and the definition and entitlements of islands, rocks, and low-tide elevations—have all been declared matters of customary international law by the courts, and therefore apply to all countries, including the US, regardless of whether they have ratified UNCLOS," he said.
“That has no bearing, moral or legal, on the right of China to violate its neighbors’ rights. As the old English saying goes, ‘two wrongs don’t make a right’.”