Is Beijing being belligerent in the South China Sea? Or is it being assertive? And is there a difference between the two? Yes, there is — and China is being assertive, but not belligerent.
The world is convinced China is being belligerent. Pictures of new military landing strips, anti-aircraft missiles and massive reclamation works in the disputed Spratly Islands have given that impression. But Beijing did not initiate the reclamation. Other claimant states started it: Vietnam began building an airstrip on Spratly Island in 1976; the Philippines built one on Thitu Island in 1975; and Malaysia started building an airstrip and a resort on Swallow Reef in 1983. However, most of this construction took place before the 2002 Asean-China Declaration of Conduct on the South China Sea. Since then, other states have made only minor upgrades and repairs, while China’s extensive work began in 2013-14.
When China joined the reclamation game, it did so on a big scale. According to aPentagon report: “Since Chinese land reclamation efforts began in December 2013, China has reclaimed land at seven of its eight Spratly outposts and, as of June 2015, had reclaimed more than 2,900 acres of land. By comparison, Vietnam has reclaimed a total of approximately 80 acres; Malaysia, 70 acres; the Philippines, 14 acres; and Taiwan, 8 acres.” It says China has reclaimed 17 times more land in 20 months than the others combined over 40 years.