The United States, Philippines and other countries pushed for freedom of navigation in the South China Sea over the weekend, warning against Beijing’s moves to expand territories in the mineral-rich maritime region that straddles vital shipping lanes.
Washington is already investing money in technology to bolster defensive positions of its regional allies, Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told the Shangri-La Dialogue security forum in Singapore. He urged that continuing cooperation in the region include China.
But Shanahan emphasized that Beijing should also follow a “rules-based order” in the region, which has seen relative peace during the past half century.
“Behavior that erodes other nations’ sovereignty and sows distrust of China’s intentions must end,” he told the forum during his speech on Saturday. “Until it does, we stand against a myopic, narrow, and parochial vision of the future, and we stand for the free and open order that has benefited us all – including China.”
While the annual Shangri-La forum serves as the premiere regional venue to discuss defense strategies, it has evolved as a key springboard for powers to engage each other.
This year’s edition of the high-profile meeting, attended by officials from 40 countries, took place amid renewed concerns that Beijing has been bullying smaller South China Sea claimants, militarizing islands it claims and swarming the area with Chinese fishing boats.
Shanahan said it was not too late for China to have a “cooperative relationship” with the United States, which lately has been testing the freedom of navigation principle in the sea by sailing with smaller partners and holding joint exercises.
“We compete with China where we must. But competition does not mean conflict,” he said. “Competition is not to be feared. We should welcome it, provided that everyone plays by internationally established rules.”
Seismic geopolitical shifts
China insists it has “indisputable” rights in the sea region, which is also claimed in whole or in part by Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.
However in 2016, an international arbitration court invalidated China’s contention and ruled in favor of the Philippines. Manila had filed the complaint after Chinese ships were stationed near Scarborough Shoal three years earlier.
China has ignored that ruling, and recent intelligence reports have said that a fleet of Chinese fishing boats has been monitored once again in the area, a triangular-shape chain of reefs and rocks that lie about 198 km (123 miles) west of the main Philippine island of Luzon. The fleet was said to be harvesting clams and damaging coral reefs.
When it was his turn to address the forum on Sunday, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana agreed with the U.S. position. But, he also cautioned, the “power rivalry” between American and Chinese forces was distracting the region from addressing other crucial issues, such as climate change and global warning, which have led to rising sea levels that potentially threaten small territories in the Pacific.
A sudden “seismic geopolitical shift” in the region’s power balance could affect each country disastrously, he warned.
“If left unchecked, this new and perilous dynamic could potentially upset ‘globalization’ as we know it,” the Filipino defense chief said.
Should nations continue with their rhetoric and actions, he said it could lead to armed confrontation. While no one really wished it, it was likely that competing territorial claims could trigger conflict if misunderstandings were left to fester, Lorenzana said.
“Our greatest fear, therefore, is the possibility of sleepwalking into another international conflict like World War I,” he said. “If there is anything that modern history has taught us is that war can happen, even when no one desires it – or finds it undesirable.”
‘War benefits no one’
Lorenzana said it was important for all claimants to avoid escalating tensions in the strategic sea region, a vast shipping waterway through which more than U.S. $3 billion of trade passes annually.
“War benefits no one,” he said. “Avoiding it, is everyone’s shared responsibility.”
Freedom of navigation, he emphasized, was indispensable to regional peace and security.
“In our view, no single power should exercise unilateral control over vital arteries of global trade, such as the South China Sea,” Lorenzana said.
The United States, which has a defense treaty with the Philippines stretching back decades, has said it would protect the Southeast Asian nation in the event of “any armed attack” in the disputed sea region.
During the Singapore conference, Washington announced it was spending millions in new military hardware to maintain its superiority in defending its allies in the region.
Apart from the South China Sea, the U.S. was also taking an active role in keeping peace between the Koreas, as well as keeping its obligations to Taiwan, Shanahan said.
“The Indo-Pacific is our priority theater. We are where we belong. We are investing in the region,” he said, adding that Washington was eying more investments in regional defense in the next few years. “We want to ensure no adversary believes it can successfully achieve political objectives through military force.”
Stability in the region would depend on the dynamics between the United States and China, according to Malaysian Defense Minister Mohammad Sabu, who addressed the meeting on Saturday.
“The world also will suffer” should armed conflict break out in the region, he warned.
“We have to increase our defense diplomacy,” he said. “We love America, (but) we also love China.”
On Sunday, Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe told his counterparts from other countries during a speech at the Shangri-La forum that any war with the United States “would bring disaster.”
China, he warned, “would fight ’til the end” to defend its claims on Taiwan and the South China Sea.
“China will not attack, unless we are attacked,” said Wei, the first Chinese defense minister to attend the Singapore forum in six years. “The two sides realize that conflict, or a war between them, would bring disaster to both countries and the world.”
No attempts to split Taiwan from China would succeed, he said, noting that just as the United States was made of indivisible states, so too must China be reunited with Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade province.
Taiwan separated from the mainland at the end of a civil war 70 years ago. Since 1972, Washington has acknowledged Beijing’s “One-China” policy, which says there is only one country of China.
Washington has maintained diplomatic relations only with Beijing but, in 1979, the U.S. Congress enacted the Taiwan Relations Act, which allows the United States to provide Taipei with defense equipment.
Wei, in his speech, slammed that law as an interference in China’s internal affairs. “Is there any sense in that?” he said.
“China has never provoked a war or conflict, taken land or invaded another country,” the Chinese defense chief said. “China has never preyed on others. We shall not let others prey on or divide us either.”
Wei also hit back at the United States for war posturing, noting that the U.S. Navy had been sailing in the disputed sea region to “flex muscles in the name of freedom of navigation.”
As Washington and Beijing expressed differences on the South China Sea and Taiwan, Wei also justified a government crackdown that killed hundreds of protesters at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square 30 years ago, saying it occurred during political turmoil that the government “needed to quell.”
“The government was decisive in stopping the turbulence, that was the correct policy,” Wei told the security forum.
Reports said hundreds, if not thousands, were killed when Beijing unleashed the military on unarmed demonstrators at the massive plaza fronting the Forbidden City, after weeks of protests calling for freedom of speech and democracy.
No public commemoration ceremonies will be held to mark its 30th anniversary on Tuesday, reports said.
In addition, Wei defended Beijing’s policy over the detention of Uyghurs in the western Xinjiang region, where, according to a U.S. State Department official, more than 1 million Muslims have been detained in forced labor camps since April 2017.
Other Chinese officials had earlier dismissed the allegations of mass imprisonment as “completely untrue.”
“The policy of China in Xinjiang is absolutely right,” Wei said, “because over the past more than two years there is no single terrorist attack in Xinjiang.”