US and Chinese diplomats debate Chinese policy at IOC

South China Sea. Credit: Shutterstock

US ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris and China’s ambassador of Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs Wei Hongtian locked horns at the Indian Ocean Conference (IOC) held in Malé, Maldives, on 4 September 2019. The issue arose when Harris criticised China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative, its behaviour in the South China Sea, and its treatment of the Uyghur population.

Harris decried the Chinese military bases constructed in the South China Sea and termed them illegal. “You can see intimidation in China’s militarisation of the South China Sea and defiance of international law,” he said, emphasising that this “bullying” reflected a broader choice for nations in the region that affected “coercion and control of freedom and the rule of law”.

Over the last six years, China’s dredging and construction of artificial islands has sparked issues over sovereignty (such as the 2016 dispute with the Philippines over Mischief Reef), concerns regarding the impact of such construction on marine life, and the fact that they are now stocked with long-range sensor arrays, port facilities, runways, and reinforced bunkers for fuel and weapons. China has claimed these facilities are necessary for maritime safety and defence, as well as natural disaster support.

Wei responded by strongly reiterating China’s territorial claim and questioning who was bullying whom in this forum. He stated that when it came to militarisation or navigation in the South China Sea, China had indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha Islands (Spratly Islands) and their adjacent waters.

He noted that other countries enjoy the freedoms to traverse the waters and air in accordance with international law. “Everyone enjoys the freedom of navigation, nothing happened there,” he said. Wei and Harris shook hands after Harris left the stage.

The US has claimed escalating concerns over China’s acquisition of ports in OBOR, particularly as China expands the ports and airfields that have been deemed strategic. The US has previously alleged that Chinese control of these ports and sea lanes will create choke points by which China will exert control over the region. These include ports such as Ream in Cambodia; Djibouti; a new deepsea Kyaukpyu port in Myanmar; and Hambantota port in Sri Lanka. The US has also  claimed that China plans to militarise many of these ports while China continues to assert that these are merely diplomatic and economic trade points.