China’s top security official on June 2 articulated an uncompromising defense of his country’s stance on the contested South China Sea and threats to invade Taiwan in an anticipated address at a top security conference in Singapore.

“Building facilities on one’s own territories is not militarization,” Lieutenant General Wei Fenghe said, responding to accusations that China has militarized islands in the sea as a means of taking effective control of what the US and others regard as international waters.

Wei also warned of a “fight to the end” with the US in their escalating trade spat, and a “fight at all costs” for “reunification” with Taiwan, the island nation China considers a renegade province. The US has recently upped its strategic support for the democratically-run nation, much to Beijing’s chagrin.

“No attempts to split China will succeed. Any interference in the Taiwan question is doomed to failure,” said Wei, dressed in his uniform of a general in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

Wei was speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia’s premier defense summit staged annually in Singapore by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a British think tank.

On the South China Sea, the US claims China’s recent island enhancements are “an attempt to exert de facto control over disputed areas,” according to a new Department of Defense Indo-Pacific strategy paper published on Saturday.

U.S. Navy sailors move aircraft from an elevator into the hangar bay of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt in the South China Sea April 8, 2018. Picture taken April 8, 2018. U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Michael Hogan/Handout via REUTERS. ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY
US Navy sailors on the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt in the South China Sea April 8, 2018. Photo: US Navy/Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Michael Hogan/Handout

The new paper re-states US accusations that Chinese President Xi Jinping has reneged on promises not to militarize the sea, where Beijing’s sweeping territorial claims overlap with waters claimed by neighboring countries including the Philippines and Vietnam.

The US sees China’s growing militarization of the maritime area as a threat to a vital trade conduit through which an estimated third of global shipping passes each year.

Since mid-2016, the US has carried out 15 freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the sea, sailing close to Chinese-claimed but disputed features in the contested Spratly and Paracel island chains, as well as so-called “reclaimed” land around the strategic Mischief Reef.

On Saturday, acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said in an address that the US would no longer “tiptoe” around Chinese behavior in maritime areas and inveighed that China’s provocative activities must end.

Tit-for tat, Wei said “it is the legitimate rights of a sovereign state to carry out construction,” describing the island facilities as “self-defense” against US naval operations, which Beijing sees as illegitimate and a violation of its sovereignty.

“Some countries from outside the region come to the South China Sea to flex muscles in the name of freedom of navigation,” Wei said, in a thinly-veiled dig at the US.

Acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan speaks with Chinese defense officials at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, May 31, 2019. Photo: Simon Roughneen

Shanahan made a similarly thinly veiled dig at China on Saturday, mentioning that unnamed countries were “deploying advanced weapons systems to militarize disputed areas” and warning that some countries would be “unable to make use of natural resources within their exclusive economic zones.”

Vietnam and the Philippines were likely among the claimant countries Shanahan was highlighting. Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana described freedom of navigation as “indispensable” and said that the Philippines, which has so far refused to follow up on a 2016 arbitral ruling at The Hague in its favor against China, supports the US-led FONOPs in the sea.

“No single power should exercise unilateral control over vital international waterways,” he said.

But China views supporting FONOPs as taking sides. “China didn’t force parties in the South China Sea to choose sides, it is the US forcing them to do so by pressing them to join freedom of navigation,” said Senior Colonel Bo Zhou, a Chinese defense ministry official, at the dialogue meeting.

While both the Philippines and Vietnam have come close to conflict with China over claims to the sea, both are likely “wary of being seen to take sides” as US-China disputes over trade and technology spill over into military affairs, said Le Hong Hiep of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

The concern for the Philippines and Vietnam is that as China-US rivalry deepens “the South China Sea dispute could be turned into a “theater” forcing smaller countries to take sides, Le said. Such a situation, he said, would ”make it difficult for small and medium claimant states to manage the issue.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping reviews a military display of Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy in the South China Sea on April 12, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Li Gang/Xinhua
Chinese President Xi Jinping reviews a military display of the People’s Liberation Army Navy in the South China Sea on April 12, 2018. Photo: Xinhua

With two heavily armed and increasingly antagonistic great powers at odds over the sea, seemingly to the point of talking past each other, there is the risk, according to Lorenzana, of “sleepwalking into a conflict like World War I.”

China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a 10-country regional grouping to which the Philippines and Vietnam belong, are negotiating a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea with China.

Hanoi’s Defense Minister General Ngo Xuan Lich, said on Sunday, June 2, that he met his Chinese counterpart in Singapore, and that both sides “agreed that Vietnam and China have differences over East Sea,” using the Vietnamese term for the South China Sea.

Nonetheless, Vietnam hopes for “an early conclusion of a meaningful COC,” said Lich.

But, hinting at the seemingly irreconcilable positions of the antagonists and the prospect that claimant countries might find a deal difficult to reach, Lich said “China needs to make a bigger effort” in negotiations over the code.

Lich’s exhortation echoed remarks made by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in Tokyo on Friday, in which he questioned China’s claim to the South China Sea and urged Beijing to help with finalizing the code.

“The longer it takes,” Duterte said, the greater the chance the sea could become a “flashpoint of troubles.”