China’s hegemony and expansion in SCS
Last Sept. 22, 2020, China’s President Xi Jinping spoke before the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) via video broadcast and declared, “We will never seek hegemony, expansion, or sphere of influence.”
Forty-six years earlier on April 10, 1974, China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping declared before the UNGA, “If one day China should change her color and turn into a superpower, if she too should play the tyrant in the world, and everywhere subject others to her bullying, aggression and exploitation, the people of the world should identify her as social-imperialism, expose it, oppose it and work together with the Chinese people to overthrow it.”
What happened in the South China Sea between Deng Xiaoping’s famous 1974 UNGA speech and Xi Jinping’s recent UNGA speech starkly illustrates how China has actually transformed into the expansionist hegemon, bully, and tyrant that it promised the world it would never become. Under its infamous nine-dash line, China is claiming 85.7 percent of all the geologic features, waters, fish, oil, gas, and other natural resources in the South China Sea, encroaching on the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of five Asean coastal states, including the Philippines. In 1974, China started to aggressively enforce its nine-dash line, a graphic symbol of China’s drive for hegemony and expansion in the South China Sea.
First, just four months before Deng Xiaoping delivered his UNGA speech, China had seized in January 1974 the Crescent Group of the Paracels from the South Vietnamese in the Battle of the Paracels, resulting in the death of 75 Vietnamese sailors. Even as Deng Xiaoping was promising to the world that China would never be a bully or aggressor, China was consolidating the island territories it had taken by force from Vietnam barely a few months earlier.
Second, on March 14, 1988, Chinese naval forces forcibly ejected Vietnamese troops from Johnson South Reef in the Spratlys. Sixty-four Vietnamese soldiers died in what is known as the Johnson South Reef Skirmish. It was also in 1988 that China seized Subi Reef from the Philippines. The July 12, 2016 arbitral Award in the South China Sea Arbitration ruled that Subi Reef is within the territorial sea of Pagasa Island, which the Philippines has occupied since 1971.
Third, in 1995 China seized from the Philippines the atoll Mischief Reef in the Spratlys. Mischief Reef is submerged at high tide and lies just 125 nautical miles from Palawan. At that time China told the Philippines that some local government officials in Hainan Province, without approval from the central government, authorized the erection of stilt structures on Mischief Reef as fishermen’s shelter. Today, after massive dredging, Mischief Reef is a 558-hectare artificial island, hosting China’s largest air and naval base in the Spratlys. The Chinese call Mischief Reef their Pearl Harbor in the South China Sea. The arbitral Award ruled that Mischief Reef is part of the EEZ of the Philippines.
Fourth, China seized Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in 2012 after almost a two-month stand-off between Chinese and Philippine vessels from April 10, 2012 to June 15, 2012. In late November 2012, just days after Xi Jinping assumed office as secretary general of the Chinese Communist Party on Nov. 15, 2012, China informed the Philippines that Chinese coast guard vessels would remain in Scarborough Shoal permanently. Scarborough Shoal has appeared as part of Philippine territory since the 1734 Velarde-Bagay-Suarez map. Scarborough Shoal first appeared, as a nameless geologic feature, in a Chinese map in the 1947 nine-dash line map of China.
Xi Jinping has publicly taken credit for China’s accelerated expansion in the South China Sea and for building the artificial islands in the Spratlys that host China’s air and naval bases. These huge air and naval bases are intended to bully and intimidate the Philippines and other Asean coastal states into accepting the nine-dash line as China’s national boundary in the South China Sea.
Finally, in the ongoing Code of Conduct negotiations, China wants Asean coastal states barred from joining the naval exercises in the South China Sea of naval powers from outside the region, such as the US, UK, and France. China wants the South China Sea to be its exclusive sphere of influence, contradicting its claim that it seeks no sphere of influence.
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