Commentary November 30, 2020

Beijing’s Line on the South China Sea: “Nothing to See Here”

China’s official denials of growing military capability in the region look a lot like gaslighting.
Battleships patrolling in the open ocean.
Battleships patrol in the open ocean. Getty Images

This analysis by Oriana Skylar Mastro originally appeared in The Interpreter, by the Lowy Institute.


China’s strategy in responding to concerns about its intentions in the South China Sea is to claim that none of the activities, statements or behaviours that concern other countries are actually happening.

China claims it has not militarised the South China Sea, but that the United States “is the real pusher of militarisation” in these waters. Its leaders often argue that China is a peace-loving country only interested in defending itself. As the China’s General Wei Fenghe stated at the Shangri-La Dialogue in 2018, “China has never provoked a war or conflict, nor has it ever invaded another country or taken an inch of land from others. In the future, no matter how strong it becomes, China shall never threaten anyone.”

China has similarly brushed off concerns of other claimants, such as Vietnam, about its intensifying military exercises in the South China Sea and largely ignored Australia’s assertion at the United Nations that China’s claims have no legal backing.

So apparently it is all one big misunderstanding.

On 24 November, former Chinese ambassador Fu Ying criticised the United States in a New York Times op-ed for raising multiple issues that in her mind do not exist. Thus, the way to resolve the growing bilateral tensions is for the two countries “to have candid talks to better understand each other’s intentions and cultivate trust”.

So, in the Chinese communist spirit of 实事求是, or “seeking truth from facts”, I have charted the military capabilities China has deployed to the South China Sea, which are displayed with references on the map below. The Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands are under dispute; Hainan Island is a recognised part of China, but I include it because the military capabilities in situ have implications for Chinese military options in the South China Sea writ large.

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