In his piece, Mr. Pham “lays out recommended ways and means that Washington can regain and maintain the strategic initiative in the Indo-Pacific.” However many of his recommendations are based on false assumptions and if implemented are likely to be ineffective and counterproductive.
Mr. Pham fears that “years of American acquiescence and accommodation may have eroded the international rule of law and global norms; diminished the regional trust and confidence in U.S. preeminence, presence, and constancy; weakened some of the U.S. regional alliances and partnerships; undermined Washington’s traditional role as the guarantor of the global economy and provider of regional security, stability, and leadership; and perhaps even emboldened Beijing to expand its global power and influence and accelerate the pace of its deliberate march toward regional preeminence and ultimately global preeminence.” But the rapid decline of U.S. soft power in the region is not due as much to “American acquiescence and accommodation” to China as it is to American political arrogance, cultural chauvinism, and a general lack of respect for its allies and ‘friends’ in the region and their peoples. Its hypocrisy, interference in domestic politics, and support of brutal dictators did not help. It is now beginning to experience the inevitable blowback from this attitude and behavior and its reign as regional hegemon may be coming to an end. It may well eventually be replaced by China in the region, but for Mr. Pham to assert that China will attain “global preeminence” is premature at best. Indeed, if China does not learn from the American experience, it may well repeat its mistakes and suffer a similar fate.
Regarding freedom of navigation, Mr. Pham and I have debated this before. I will only reiterate here that the two countries – one a ratifier of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea – which elaborates the concept – and one not – differ on what activities are and are not encompassed by the term. China has not threatened commercial freedom of navigation nor is it likely to do so in peacetime. But the U.S. and Mr. Pham cleverly conflate the freedom of commercial navigation with the freedom to conduct provocative intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) probes and then argues that when China challenges these probes it is violating “freedom of navigation.” Mr. Pham ignores the problem that because the Convention was a “package deal,” non-ratifiers like the U.S. cannot credibly or legitimately pick and choose which provisions they wish to abide by, deem them customary law, and unilaterally interpret and enforce them to their benefit. This is especially so regarding the EEZ regime which UNCLOS introduces as sui generis, and which –contrary to U.S. military advice given to its naval officers – does have some restrictions on “freedom of navigation.” They include the duty to pay “due regard” to the rights of the coastal state including its marine scientific research consent and environmental protection regimes protecting as well as its national security. Moreover, China and the U.S. disagree on the meaning of key terms in UNCLOS relevant to the freedom of navigation and which are not defined in the Convention. Besides “due regard” these terms include “other internationally lawful uses of the sea”, “abuse of rights”, “peaceful use/purpose”, and “marine scientific research.” The point is that the UNCLOS “rules” regarding freedom of navigation are not “agreed.”
Another of Mr. Pham’s major assumptions is that “Washington has a moral and global obligation of leadership to further encourage and challenge China to become a more responsible global stakeholder…” The U.S. is no longer the world’s moral leader – if it ever was – certainly not from the perspective of China and much of Asia – if not the world. Moreover Mr. Pham’s statement reflects the cultural arrogance that has drawn the U.S. into endless wars—and should be disregarded on that basis alone.
These false assumptions are accompanied by several misleading statements. For example Mr. Pham alleges that China broke “a 2002 agreement with the ASEAN not to change any geographic features in the SCS”, and “…the 2015 agreement between Xi Jinping and Barack Obama to not militarize these Chinese-occupied features.”
First, the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) does not contain such language and Mr. Pham is apparently interpreting its language for his own purposes. His interpretation is not shared by China, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Taiwan. All have altered the features they occupy to some degree since the agreement on the DOC. Second, according to China, President Xi Jinping agreed to no such thing. This statement repeats a biased interpretation of China’s President Xi Jinping statement regarding the “militarization” of the features. The original quote in Chinese was translated into English as “Relevant construction activities that China are (sic) undertaking in the island of South (sic)–Nansha (Spratly) Islands do not target or impact any country, and China does not intend [emphasis added] to pursue militarization.” That is considerably more ambiguous than Mr. Pham’s interpretation. Chinese spokespersonshave since implied that if the U.S. continues its ISR probes, exercises, and Freedom of Navigation Operations challenging China’s claims there, China will prepare to defend itself. Given that the U.S. has continued these missions, it should come as no surprise that China has responded as it said it would.
Based on false assumptions, Mr. Pham essentially recommends U.S. military confrontation of China in the South China Sea. Such confrontation could lead to war—on behalf of others’ disputed claims to ownership of tiny features and resources there. That would not be in the core national security interest of the U.S.
Mark J. Valencia is an Adjunct Senior Scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies.
Featured Image: Vietnam’s flag flies over the fortified Da Tay Islands in the Spratlys Archipelago. (Reuters)
Last March, CIMSEC published an article titled “A Sign of the Times: China’s Recent Actions and the Undermining of Global Rules, Part 1” highlighting three troubling developments that oblige the United States to further encourage and challenge China to become a more responsible global stakeholder that contributes positively to the international system. The article noted Beijing is trying to convince others to accept the self-aggrandizing and self-serving term of “near-arctic state”; to fulfill its nationalistic promise to the Chinese people and reclaim the disputed and contested South China Sea (SCS) from ancient times; and to expand its “sharp power” activities across the globe.
A month later, CIMSEC published a follow-on article underscoring that these undertakings continue to mature and advance apace. The article featured China possibly considering legislation to seemingly protect the fragile environment in Antarctica, but really to safeguard its growing interests in the southernmost continent; taking more active measures to reassert and preserve respectively its perceived sovereignty and territorial integrity in the SCS; and restructuring its public diplomacy (and influence operations) apparatuses to better convey Beijing’s strategic message and to better shape public opinion abroad. At the end of the article, the author commented that although the United States made progress last year calling out wayward and untoward Chinese behavior by pushing back on Chinese unilateralism and assertiveness, strengthening regional alliances and partnerships, increasing regional presence, reasserting regional influence, and most importantly, incrementally reversing years of ill-advised accommodation; there is still more America can do.
The following article lays out previously recommended ways and means that Washington can impose strategic costs to Beijing and regain and maintain the strategic initiative. Providentially, the Trump Administration has implemented many of them, but the real challenge remains in sustaining the efforts and making the costs enduring. Otherwise, Beijing will just wait out the current administration in the hopes that the next one will advance more favorable foreign policies. Alternatively, they could also step up their “sharp power” activities to influence extant U.S. foreign policies and/or undermine the current U.S. administration’s political agenda and diminish its re-election prospect in 2020.
What America Can Do in the Indo-Pacific
The new National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy call for embracing strategic great powers competition with rising China. They both make the case that when two powers, one dominant (United States) and one rising (China), with competing regional and global strategies extend into one’s another security and economic spheres, the geopolitical landscape is ripe for friction. However, this competition is not to be feared but to be expected and embraced. America must challenge China’s rise if it continues to not be peaceful and undermines the global rules that provide global peace and prosperity for all.
China will likely remain the economic partner of choice for the Indo-Pacific, while the United States will likely remain the security partner of choice. As this China-U.S. competition grows and intensifies, balancing these complex and dynamic relationships will become increasingly challenging as regional countries feel greater pressures to choose sides. The U.S. should continue to pursue stronger regional security ties and strive to be a more dependable and enduring partner in terms of policy constancy, resolve, and commitment. Strengthening old alliances and partnerships, and forging new ones with Hanoi, New Delhi, and others will be beneficial.
The “most effective counterbalance” to China’s campaign of tailored coercion against its weaker neighbors will still be U.S. persistent presence and attention (and focus) in the form of integrated and calibrated soft and hard deterrent powers – multilateral diplomacy, information dominance, military presence, and economic integration.
China is a signatory of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) but often violates its provisions, whereas the United States has not ratified UNCLOS but has been its foremost champion on behalf of freedom of navigation, global commerce, and international rule of law. The U.S. should consider ratifying UNCLOS if challenges are going to have more gravitas and be taken more seriously by the international community, otherwise, the status quo simply strengthens Beijing’s ability to call into question Washington’s sincerity to international norms.
The U.S. must keep reframing and countering when appropriate the narratives that China pushes with accusations of American containment and hypocrisy while promoting a perception of China’s global benevolence and benign rise. Washington’s message is more often than not reactive and defensive, not synchronized, or sometimes nothing at all. The U.S. can seize the messaging initiative like during the 2017 Shangri La Dialogue with the keynote speech by Australian Prime Minister Turnbull, remarks by American Secretary of Defense Mattis during the first plenary session (United States and Asia-Pacific Security), and comments by former Japanese Minister of Defense Inada during the second plenary session (Upholding the Rules-based Regional Order). The U.S. can continue to acknowledge that both countries have competing visions, highlight the flawed thinking of Beijing’s approach, champion its own approach as the better choice, and call out wayward and untoward Chinese behavior when warranted. This can include China’s expansive polar ambitions, intrusive sharp power activities, and destabilizing SCS militarization, but the U.S. should also give credit or commend when appropriate, such as China’s economic sanctions against North Korea. The U.S. cannot euphemize in its messaging, and whenever possible, should synchronize communication throughout the whole-of-government and international partners while reiterating at every opportunity. There can be no U.S. policy seams or diplomatic space for China to exploit.
The U.S. must take each opportunity to counter China’s public diplomacy point-for-point, and keep repeating stated U.S. diplomatic positions to unambiguously convey U.S. national interests and values such as:
The United States supports the principle that disputes between countries, including disputes in the ECS and SCS, should be resolved peacefully, without coercion, intimidation, threats, or the use of force, and in a manner consistent with international law.
The United States supports the principle of freedom of navigation, meaning the rights, freedoms, and uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all nations in international law. United States opposes claims that impinge on the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea that belong to all nations. United States takes no position on competing claims to sovereignty over disputed land features in the East China Sea (ECS) and SCS.
Claims of territorial waters and economic exclusive zones (EEZ) should be consistent with customary international law of the sea and must therefore, among other things, derive from land features. Claims that are not derived from land features are fundamentally flawed.
Parties should avoid taking provocative or unilateral actions that disrupt the status quo or jeopardize peace and security. United States does not believe that large-scale land reclamation with the intent to militarize outposts on disputed land features is consistent with the region’s desire for peace and stability.
United States, like most other countries, believes that coastal states under UNCLOS have the right to regulate economic activities in their EEZ, but do not have the right to regulate foreign military activities in their EEZ.
Military surveillance flights in international airspace above another country’s EEZ are lawful under international law, and the United States plans to continue conducting these flights as it has in the past. Other countries are free to do the same.
What America Can Do in the SCS
Since the start of 2018, China appears embarked on a calculated campaign to determinedly reassert and preserve its perceived sovereignty and territorial integrity in the SCS through words and deeds. Beijing believes that sharp and emphatic “grey zone” operations and activities will once again compel Washington to back down in the SCS. Washington did little when Beijing illegally seized Scarborough Shoal in 2012; brazenly reclaimed over 3200 acres of land over the next five years despite a 2002 agreement with the ASEAN not to change any geographic features in the SCS; barefacedly broke the 2015 agreement between Xi Jinping and Barack Obama to not militarize these Chinese-occupied geographic features; and blatantly disregarded the landmark 2016 Arbitral Tribunal ruling.
The U.S. can continue to reframe the SCS as a strategic problem (and not a regional issue) that directly involves the United States and obliges China to act accordingly. Explicitly conveying to Beijing that the SCS is a U.S. national interest and making the SCS a “bilateral” U.S.-China issue may induce Beijing to rethink and recalibrate its revisionist strategy. The U.S. can turn the tables and make Beijing decides which is more important to its national interests – the SCS or its strategic relationship with Washington (trade, military-military, etc.). Stay firm and consistent to stated SCS positions:
No additional island-building and no further militarization
No use of force or coercion by any of the claimants to resolve sovereignty disputes or change the status-quo of disputed SCS features
Substantive and legally binding Code of Conduct that would promote a rules-based framework for managing and regulating the behavior of relevant countries in the SCS and permissibility of military activities in the EEZ in accordance with UNCLOS.
Otherwise, deferring to Beijing on aforesaid issues will only reinforce the perception in Beijing that Washington can be influenced and maneuvered with little effort.
Beijing undermined the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea by drawing red lines around the reclaimed and disputed geographic features. Washington and the international community must therefore buttress the Tribunal’s authority and legitimacy through words and deeds. There is value in continuing to challenge Beijing’s excessive and contested maritime claims in the SCS through a deliberate, calibrated, and enhanced campaign of presence operations – transits, exercises, and freedom of navigation operations (FONOP). Otherwise, failing to conduct these routine operations in the aftermath of the landmark 2016 ruling, particularly FONOPs, sends the wrong strategic signal and further emboldens Beijing to continue its brazen and destabilizing militarization of the SCS. Combined, multi-national exercises can underscore the universal maritime right of all nations to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law permits.
China pursues a very broad, long-term maritime strategy and will view any perceived U.S. force posture reduction as a reward (tacit acknowledgement and consent) for its unilateral rejection of the Tribunal ruling, a win for its strategy and preferred security framework, and another opportunity to reset the regional norms in its favor. Reduction may also increase Beijing’s confidence in its ability to shape and influence Washington’s decisions and encourage China to press the United States for additional concessions, in return for vague and passing promises of “restraint.”
Although Manila and Washington did not capitalize on the hard-fought legal victory over China’s excessive and contested maritime claims in the SCS, it is still not too late to do so. The U.S. can encourage and support Hanoi, Kuala Lumpur, and other Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries to put additional pressures such as legal challenges, public diplomacy, and collective maritime activities on Beijing to curb its assertiveness and unilateralism, stop its land reclamation and militarization activities, and come in good faith to the multilateral (not bilateral) negotiating table for a peaceful and enduring resolution of the competing and contested maritime claims.
Now is Not the Time to Back Down in the SCS
All told, years of American acquiescence and accommodation may have “unintentionally and transitorily” eroded international rule of law and global norms while diminishing the regional trust and confidence in U.S. preeminence. Furthermore, this accommodation may have weakened some of the U.S. regional alliances and partnerships, undermined Washington’s traditional role as the guarantor of the global economy and provider of regional security. These accommodations have accelerated the pace of China’s deliberate march toward regional preeminence and ultimately global preeminence.
So, as to not further give ground to Beijing in the strategic waterway, Washington cannot back down now in the SCS. To do so would further embolden Beijing to expand and accelerate its deliberate campaign to control the disputed and contested strategic waterway through which trillions of dollars of global trade flows each year and reinforce Beijing’s growing belief in itself as an unstoppable rising power and Washington as an inevitable declining power that can be intimidated out of the SCS and perhaps eventually the greater Indo-Pacific in accordance with its grand strategic design for national rejuvenation (the Chinese Dream). For Beijing, controlling the SCS is a step toward regional preeminence and eventually global preeminence.
Beijing’s strategic actions and activities are unwisely and dangerously undermining the current global order that it itself has benefited from. Hence, Washington has a moral and global obligation of leadership to further encourage and challenge China to become a more responsible global stakeholder that contributes positively to the international system. Otherwise, Beijing will continue to view U.S. acquiescence and accommodation as tacit acknowledgement and consent to execute its strategic ambitions and strategies unhindered and unchallenged. The U.S. window of opportunity to regain and maintain the strategic high ground and initiative will not remain open forever.
Tuan Pham serves on the executive committee of the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies and is widely published in national security affairs and international relations. The views expressed therein are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Government.
Featured Image: Chinese dragon statute (Wikimedia Commons)
In the Western world, the freedoms of press, speech, assembly, and petition are considered vital to the functioning of a healthy democracy. Free media acts as the fourth estate by providing information to the masses, while citizens under a democratic government can expect to have their speech heard through assembly and petition. In the People’s Republic of China, the freedoms of press, speech, assembly, and petition intersect as the government uses the media – rather than brute force – to repress and silence democratic movements. Media control in China affords the government a one-two punch when countering pro-democracy protests: censorship silences social movements from the bottom, and those that succeed into physical demonstrations are oppressed and marginalized via the state media’s protest paradigm.
According to Freedom House, China is home to one of the world’s most restrictive media environments.1 The Central Propaganda Department (CPD) and State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) ensure media content is consistent with the goals of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).2 In regard to pro-democratic protests, the government’s media approach consists of two prongs: repression and silence. State media coverage of protests falls under the protest paradigm, a phenomenon in which news outlets spotlight the appearance and behaviors of protesters – rather than their mission – in an attempt to marginalize them.3 The protest paradigm is a powerful tool for the Chinese media, which often portray protesters as violent and lawless, yet do not provide much content on the social movements themselves. Online, the Chinese government uses censorship to silence citizens, both leading up to and during demonstrations. Nationwide technical filtering, or “the Great Firewall,” blocks international news outlets.4 Furthermore, it blocks major social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, and Chinese alternatives such as Sina Weibo and WeChat are heavily monitored.5 Censorship is used to eliminate potential pro-democracy movements before they blossom into full-scale physical demonstrations; if large social uprisings do occur, the government censors terms and images associated with them. These tactics create a sophisticated strategy that enables the CCP to not only silence protesters, but systematically oppress them.
Media coverage of pro-democracy protests in China can be traced back to 1989, when government troops fired on thousands of Chinese citizens in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. During the protests, state television networks fell into the protest paradigm as they broadcasted endless condemnations of the “hooligans” and “counterrevolutionaries” responsible for the demonstrations.6 Radio stations carried out announcements of local arrests to further marginalize participants.7 Since the Internet was not widely utilized at this time, the government did not have to resort to pure censorship; instead, state media was able to suppress the spread of the movement by depicting it as violent and criminal. Tiananmen Square’s protest paradigm has also extended past its original coverage. On the 25th anniversary of the demonstrations, the Chinese government censored any and all mentions of the massacre. Even the most indirect references to June 4th – the date when the Chinese military opened fire on protesters – were blocked or deleted.8 The sole mention of the 25th anniversary in state media was in an unsigned op-ed piece in The Global Times, in which the author ridiculed those seeking to mark the anniversary as a day of remembrance: “The mendacious impression is made by anti-China forces in the West and Chinese exiles who have been marginalized there. They hope it will deal a heavy blow to the stability of Chinese society but they will end up failing.”9 Media outlets in Hong Kong, in contrast to mainland organizations, actively covered the anniversary. The South China Morning Post created a special multimedia project featuring video footage and photos from Tiananmen Square.10 Even on Hong Kong media websites, however, comments from Chinese users were removed.11
Indeed, media outlets from Hong Kong and mainland China have vastly different coverage of pro-democracy protests, due to the “one country, two systems” policy implemented after Hong Kong was reverted to Chinese rule in 1997.12 The former British territory maintained its social and economic systems, allowing media organizations in Hong Kong to be free from the same kind of state control as mainland news outlets; however, online censorship still occurs on a widespread scale. Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella Revolution illustrated the differences in pro-democracy protest coverage. Mainland media organizations aligned with the protest paradigm, reporting on the negative impacts that the protests had on “life in Hong Kong.”13 State media portrayed the demonstrations as disorganized, immature, and not to be taken seriously.14The People’s Daily, a major state-controlled newspaper, called the Umbrella Revolution “illegal” and described the protesters as being selfish: “They incite people, paralyze traffic, impede businesses, cause conflict and seriously disturb the normal life of the people of Hong Kong, and even pose a threat to life and property.”15 Over the course of the demonstrations, images of the protests did not appear in any of China’s state-run media.16 In contrast, media from Hong Kong amplified the voices of citizens partaking in the Umbrella Revolution, who were protesting an election reform that would mandate Beijing’s approval of candidates for Hong Kong’s chief executive position.17 Hong Kong broadcasters such as NOW and Cable TV provided extensive coverage of the demonstrations, including footage of student leaders storming government headquarters and clashing with the police.18Apple Daily, a pro-democracy newspaper in Hong Kong, ran its own live online feed that featured aerial imagery of crowds captured by a drone.19 Despite Hong Kong’s relative institutional independence from the CCP, censors still aggressively scoured Sina Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, to crack down on the protests; the rate of censorship was more than double that seen on the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen Square.20 Instagram was shut down in China during the Umbrella Revolution protests, and users reported posts being deleted from their social media platforms, even those in private chats.21
But censorship on pro-democracy protests is not limited to uprisings in China or its territories. When countries abroad faced their own pro-democracy movements, the Chinese government took swift action to prevent such revolutions from having a domino-like effect. Searches for the Chinese name for Egypt were blocked on Sina Weibo, resulting in an error message stating, “Due to relevant laws, regulations and policies, the search returns cannot be shown.”22 The Chinese government is wary of democratic uprising around the world influencing politics at home, and treat such social movements – whether in territories such as Hong Kong or on another continent – as “a matter of life or death…a fuse that can take down their world.”23
Free media has a profound impact on democratic movements, perhaps more than any other social institution. A free and independent press is a catalyst to free speech, assembly and petition. Understanding this, the Chinese government has taken a comprehensive approach toward the media in an effort to suppress pro-democracy uprisings. The state media’s protest paradigm approach and the government’s online censorship tactics make an effective system in oppressing the freedoms essential to democracy. As long as state media continues to vilify political changemakers and the government maintains strict online censorship and surveillance, China will continue to succeed in countering any kind of pro-democracy movement, whether in territories such as Hong Kong or on the mainland.
Yena Seo is a student at Ithaca College studying Journalism and Politics, with a concentration in International Studies. She plans to pursue a career in national security.
Shahin, Saif, Pei Zheng, Heloisa Aruth Sturm, and Deepa Fadnis, “Protesting the Paradigm: A Comparative Study of News Coverage of Protests in Brazil, China, and India,” The International Journal of Press/Politics 21, no. 2 (2016), 143-164. Accessed March 31, 2018. doi: 10.1177/1940161216631114
 Saif Shahin, Pei Zheng, Heloisa Aruth Sturm, and Deepa Fadnis, “Protesting the Paradigm: A Comparative Study of News Coverage of Protests in Brazil, China, and India,” The International Journal of Press/Politics 21, no. 2 (2016), 145, accessed March 31, 2018, doi: 10.1177/1940161216631114.
Last month, CIMSEC published an article titled “A Sign of the Times: China’s Recent Actions and the Undermining of Global Rules, Part 1” highlighting three troubling developments that oblige the United States to further encourage and also challenge China to become a more responsible global stakeholder that contributes positively to the international system. The article noted Beijing trying to convince others to accept the self-aggrandizing and self-serving term of “near-arctic state”; to fulfill its nationalistic promise to the Chinese people and reclaim the disputed and contested South China Sea (SCS) from ancient times; and to expand its “sharp power” activities across the globe.
A month later, these undertakings continue to mature and advance apace. China considers legislation seemingly to protect the environment in Antarctica, but really to safeguard its growing interests in the southernmost continent. Beijing takes more active measures to reassert its sovereignty and preserve its territorial integrity in the SCS. China restructures its public diplomacy (and influence operations) apparatus to better convey Beijing’s strategic message and to better shape public opinion abroad.
Left unchallenged and unhindered, Beijing may become even more emboldened and determined to expand its global power and influence and accelerate the pace of its deliberate march toward regional preeminence and ultimately global preeminence. If so, Washington would be prudent to consider that it is much easier to slow or stop a large boulder rolling down a steep hill near the top than wait until it gains speed and momentum near the bottom.
A leading Chinese international maritime law expert recently called for exigent legislation to promote and safeguard China’s increasing activities and growing interests in Antarctica, particularly as they relate to scientific research, tourism, and environmental protection. China spends more than any other Antarctic state on infrastructure such as bases and icebreakers. Beijing maintains three bases (Great Wall, Zhongshan, and Kunlun) on the southernmost continent. Chinese polar research icebreakers make annual scientific research expeditions and periodic re-supply trips to those bases. And last year, the number of Chinese tourists to Antarctica grew to 5,300 from just 100 13 years ago. Altogether, the expanding presence, operations, and activities are embraced by Beijing as ways and means to build the necessary physical fundamentals for China’s evolving Antarctic resource and governance rights.
The legislative clarion call is not new. Beijing has been deliberately and incrementally paving the way for Antarctic legislation with government-sponsored studies dating back to the 1990s. A draft law has been listed on the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress’ (NPC) legislative agenda since last year, while the State Oceanic Administration (SOA) – the principal governmental body overseeing Antarctic issues – has drafted departmental rules to regulate Chinese activities on the continent since 2007. The latest of these rules – Environmental Protection Regulation on Activities in Antarctica – was issued last February. Contained therein, Beijing benevolently asserts that “with these rules, the SOA has been organizing activities in the southernmost continent in strict accordance with the Antarctic Treaty and the Protocol on Environmental Protection of the Antarctic Treaty, which provides comprehensive protection for the Antarctic environment.” In other words, a law with specific criminal and civil liabilities is urgently needed to keep visitors from unlawful actions, which may damage the fragile Antarctic eco-system.
Beijing’s actions in Antarctica should be linked and taken in context with other actions in the Arctic. For years, China has pushed to be designated a member of the Arctic Council, whose membership is restricted to nations bordering the Arctic. In 2013, Beijing finally gained observer status, and continues to seek membership to the very exclusive and potentially lucrative club.
On January 26, Beijing followed up last year’s policy paper “Vision for Maritime Cooperation Under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)” that outlined its ambitious plan to advance its developing global sea corridors (blue economic passages connected to the greater Belt and Road network) – with its first white paper on the Arctic. The white paper boldly proclaimed China’s strategic intent to actively partake in Arctic activities as a “near-Arctic state.”Activities include but are not limited to the development of Arctic shipping routes (Polar Silk Road); exploration for and exploitation of oil, gas, mineral, and other natural resources; utilization and conservation of fisheries; and promotion of Arctic tourism. Of note, there is no legal or international definition of “near-Arctic state.” China is the sole originator of the term. Beijing is clearly attempting to inject itself into the substance of Arctic dialogue and convince others to accept the self-aggrandizing and self-serving term.
On March 17, Beijing announced the building of its first polar expedition cruise ship, as China looks to extend the BRI into the Arctic through shipping lanes opened up by global warming. Beijing and Helsinki have agreed to build a double-acting polar research vessel equipped with icebreaking capabilities, usable while the vessel is moving forward and backward. The new vessel is expected to be built in the Shanghai Shipyard later this year.
Greenland is actively courting Chinese investors to help expand three extant airports, raising concerns in Copenhagen. Chinese interest in Greenland comes after Beijing in late January laid out its strategic plan to establish the Polar Silk Road by developing shipping lanes and promoting infrastructure in the Arctic.
Working with Moscow, Beijing is now exporting liquefied natural gas using the Northern Sea Route through Arctic waters and has stepped up monitoring of oceanographic conditions in the Far North from Svalbard, a Norwegian island that is open to international scientific research.
Reasserting Sovereignty in the South “China” Sea
On March 23, USS Mustin (DDG-89) purportedly conducted a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) during which it reportedly passed within 12nm of Mischief Reef – one of seven occupied geographic features in the Spratly archipelago that China has transformed into a large military outpost in a bid to dominate the contested surrounding waters. If so, this may have been the second U.S. FONOP of the year and the sixth U.S. naval operation in the last 10 months to challenge Beijing’s excessive maritime claims in the SCS.
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) responded the next day with mostly the same recycled talking points from past U.S. FONOPs, but with some noteworthy additions (bolded below) and in a noticeably more assertive and harsher tone:
“The United States has violated the Chinese law and relevant international law, infringed upon China’s sovereignty, undermined peace, security, and order of the relevant waters, and put in jeopardy the facilities and personnel on the Chinese islands, and thus constitutes a serious political and military provocation. China has indisputable sovereignty over Nansha Qundao (Spratly Islands) and its adjacent waters. China always respects and safeguards the freedom of navigation and overflight in the SCS all countries are entitled to under international law, but firmly opposes any country or person undermining the sovereignty and security of littoral countries under the pretext of ‘freedom of navigation and overflight. At present, the situation in the SCS has been improving thanks to the concerted efforts of China and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states. Under such circumstance, the United States, who deliberately stirs up troubles and creates tension in the SCS to disrupt peace and stability there, is running against the will of regional countries who aspire for stability, cooperation, and development, and thus unpopular at all. The Chinese side strongly urges the U.S. side to immediately stop provocative operations that violate China’s sovereignty and threaten China’s security and faithfully respect the regional countries’ concerted efforts to uphold peace and stability in the SCS. The Chinese side will continue to take all necessary measures to defend its national sovereignty and security and safeguard peace and stability in the SCS.”
The notable extras were remarks characterizing the United States as an uninvited and destabilizing interloper to the region and ASEAN interests; and statements warning Washington that FONOPs and the increased naval presence in the SCS may no longer be tolerated as evidenced by assertive language more forceful than in the past – “take all necessary measures to defend its national sovereignty and security” vice the previous softer language of “take necessary measures to firmly safeguard its sovereignty.” The new language and tone is in step with President Xi Jinping’s recent policy remarks on sovereignty and territorial integrity at the 13th NPC – “The Chinese people and the Chinese nation have a shared conviction: not one single inch of our land will be or can be seceded from China.”
The first add-on was intended for the other ASEAN members, shaping and influencing the ongoing negotiations of the Code of Conduct (CoC) for the management of contested claims in the strategic waterway. Beijing will undoubtedly try to insert favorable language into the CoC, like excluding non-ASEAN states from the SCS and regulating military activities in the SCS. The latter is consistent with Chinese comments made at the 54th Munich Security Conference – “the problem now is that some countries unilaterally and wrongly interpreted the freedom of navigation of UNCLOS as the freedom of military operations, which is not the principle set by the UNCLOS.” The second add-on was meant for Washington, signaling Beijing’s intent to increasingly challenge greater American naval presence and operations in their perceived home waters.
Chinese media largely echoed the MFA’s rhetoric, and further asserted that Washington had deliberately timed the FONOP to challenge Beijing on the same day China decided to hit back at America’s punitive tariffs. The destabilizing FONOP was a calculated gesture and part of a U.S. combined economic and military pressure campaign against China.
In a press conference “five days after” the MFA press conference, the Chinese Ministry of National Defense (MND) curiously did not adopt the MFA’s more assertive rhetoric and instead kept to its previous talking points on U.S. FONOPs. The relatively subdued narrative and tone suggest a possible change of tack from Beijing’s initial public diplomacy approach, but the coming months will tell if that is truly the case:
“The spokesperson of the MND has released a statement lately to emphasize China’s principles and positions in response to the U.S. Navy ship’s entering the neighboring waters of relevant islands and reefs of China’s Nansha Qundao (Spratly Islands). China has indisputable sovereignty over relevant islands and their adjacent waters in the SCS. China always respects and safeguards the freedom of navigation and overflight in the SCS all countries are entitled to under International Law, but firmly opposes any act of showing-off forces, aggravating regional tensions, threatening and undermining other countries’ sovereignty and security interests. The Chinese military will strengthen its defense capability according to the degree of the threat to its sovereignty and security, firmly safeguard national sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, and firmly safeguard regional peace and stability.” (Chinese Defense Ministry Press Conference, March 29)
Following the FONOP, China announced and carried out combat exercises in the disputed waters to include a large-scale show-of-forcedemonstration; and then stated that it may conduct similar monthly combat drills in the future. Beijing characterized these combat drills as routine, part of the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) annual training plan to hone combat capability, and not aimed at any specific country or target (interestingly mimicking U.S. talking points):
“The live-force naval exercise conducted by the PLAN in the SCS is the measure to implement the important instruction of President Xi at the opening ceremony of the new year training session of the PLA and encourage the combat-oriented training of the PLA naval troops. It is a routine arrangement in accordance with the annual training program of the PLAN. The purpose of the training is to test and enhance the training level of the PLAN, and promote the capabilities of the troops to win wars. It is not targeted at any specific country or target.” (Chinese Defense Ministry Press Conference, March 29)
On April 2, the Global Times (subsidiary of the People’s Liberation Army’s Daily) published an article expounding various motives for the naval maneuvers. The cited reasons were more expansive and somewhat inconsistent with those provided at the Chinese Defense Ministry’s press conference three days before:
“First, China needs to safeguard its national interests in the region and the routine exercises are in line with China’s defensive military policy. Second, they are related to the changing international situation as some countries have made moves that strategically target China. The guided missile destroyer USS Mustin recently entered the waters around China’s islands and reefs in the SCS. The United States, Japan, Australia, and India are promoting cooperation through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue; and the United Kingdom was reportedly considering sending a warship to conduct FONOPs in the SCS in 2018. And it is also partly because of the changing Taiwan situation as the U.S. President Trump has recently signed the Taiwan Travel Act into law, allowing senior-level official exchanges between the United States and Taiwan. This goes against the one-China policy. These shifts are vital and relevant to China’s security. Beijing needs to make some practical preparations to confront the changes in the international situation. Third, with China’s military strength growing, we need more large drills to test and improve military combat ability. This is the normal action of any country that wants to develop its military power.”
On April 12, Xi personally attended a naval review in the SCS, one of the largest of its kind in China since its founding in 1949. He viewed 48 vessels, 76 aircraft, and more than 10,000 service personnel to include the aircraft carrier Liaoning. Xi made a speech after the review, reaffirming Beijing’s aspiration to have a strong navy and pledging to speed up PLAN modernization…“A mighty navy is an important pillar of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” On April 17, the PLA Daily elaborated on Xi’s statements five days before. Xi has resolutely set Beijing on an unyielding course for achieving the Chinese Dream, thus making it imperative for China to have a strong and modern navy. This is because having a capable navy doesn’t simply protect one’s shores, but also to protect one’s interests beyond those shores. 90 percent of the world’s trade is still carried through the maritime domain, and it is, by far, the most cost-effective way to transport goods and raw materials around the globe. This is why Xi reviewed the PLAN in the SCS on April 12.
It will be interesting to see how Beijing further responds in the next few months, a period with the most favorable weather conditions for reclamation and infrastructure building operations in the SCS. Besides the naval maneuvers, China claims to have deploy additional troops and set up territorial defense equipment; and justifies the opportunistic deployment as Beijing having every right to deploy necessary military equipment on its military outposts in the Spratly archipelago:
“The Nansha Islands are China’s territory. It is the natural right of a sovereign state for China to station troops and deploy necessary territory defense facilities on the relevant islands and reefs of the Nansha Islands. It is conducive to safeguarding the state’s sovereignty and security, ensuring the freedom and security of navigation channels in the SCS, and maintaining regional peace and stability. It is not directed against any country. China will unswervingly follow the path of peaceful development, pursue a national defense policy that is defensive in nature and a military strategy of active defense.”
It will also be telling to see how Beijing reacts to other related regional developments – French Navy frigate Vendémiaire “allegedly” conducted a FONOP in the SCS (some would say that it was not a FONOP, but just a transit); Hanoi welcomed a U.S. nuclear aircraft carrier for a port visit; Jakarta lobbies other Southeast Asian countries to carry out maritime patrols in the disputed waters; Canberra increases its maritime presence and considers conducting FONOPs in the strategic waterway; Manila plans to include again Japan and Australia into its annual bilateral exercise with the United States (Balikatan); SCS claimant states continue to buy more naval arms (Kuala Lumpur will equip its new littoral combat ships with advanced naval strike missiles from Norway and Jakarta will buy three modern submarines from South Korea); and Tokyo tries to link the Mekong and ASEAN into a broader Indo-Pacific Strategy, allied with India, United States, and Australia. When China does decide to react, it will do so bilaterally and quietly like it dealt with Vietnam (intimidatedHanoi to halt its oil drilling project off its southeast coast and called Hanoi to settle maritime disputes through talks and to jointly exploit the contested waters), Philippines (encouraged Manila to jointly explore for oil and gas in the disputed waters), and Brunei (brokered an unspoken arrangement whereby Bandar Seri Begawan remains silent on the SCS issue in order to secure Chinese investment); and surreptitiously like when Chinese cyberspace hackers supposedly attacked corporate firms linked to the SCS.
The wildcard will be Singapore, who assumed the ASEAN chairmanship last January. Singapore’s fair and balanced approach and predisposition toward global rules and norms may moderate (and possibly even check) Beijing within ASEAN in 2018. Chinese leaders may have anticipated this unwelcome prospect and are taking proactive steps to mitigate. On March 8, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang told visiting Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong that China will work with ASEAN: “China is willing to bring benefits to surrounding countries through its own development and build a community of both shared interest and shared destiny with countries in the ASEAN countries.” On April 12, Beijing launched a joint laboratory program with ASEAN to promote and enhance technological innovation, as part of the greater BRI’s efforts to build a community with a shared future for China and ASEAN. The joint program was organized by China’s Ministry of Science and Technology, Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the ASEAN Secretariat.
Coming Sharp Power Offensive
China recently restructured its state media to better control domestic content and create a bigger public diplomacy (propaganda) machine to better convey Beijing’s strategic message and to better shape public opinion abroad. Both objectives align with Xi’s goals of ensuring that the domestic and international audiences hear the messages that he wants them to hear, see the images that he wants them to see, and believe the narratives that he wants them to believe. In his eyes, all messages are political and thus subject to state and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) control.
In mid-March, Beijing announced the Beijing announced the merger of three national radio and television entities – China Central Television, China Radio International, and China National Radio – to create a single Voice of China (VoC) to “guide hot social issues, strengthen and improve public opinion, push multimedia integration, strengthen international communication, and tell good China stories.” The VoC will employ 15,000 employees across dozens of bureaus around the globe, producing media programs in more than 60 languages to provide a reassuring and benevolent image of China, one that blunts any concern about Beijing’s growing power and influence in the world.
The VoC will complement similar “sharp power” activities by the Confucian Institutes and United Front (UF). The former is a network of more than 1500 teaching centers established in over 140 countries that provides Chinese language and culture lessons to more than 1.5 million students from around the world. The latter is a CCP organization designed to build broad-based domestic and international political coalitions to achieve party’s objectives, advance the party’s political agenda, counter political foes, and help realize broader geo-economic ambitions such as the BRI. The UF will reportedly take over the functions of the State Council Overseas Office, National Ethnic Affairs Commission, and State Administration for Religious Affairs to exercise tighter control over religion and ethnic issues and to further carry out its efforts on exercising influence overseas. Altogether, these influence organs are intended to promote the Chinese political agenda and explain Chinese ideas and values, and in a way that wins the country supporters abroad.
On February 17, Xi issued a directive to cultivate greater support amongst the estimated 60 million-strong Chinese diaspora. He called for “closely uniting” with overseas Chinese in support of the Chinese Dream, and underscored that “to realize the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, we must work together with our sons and daughters at home and abroad…it is an important task for the party and the state to unite the vast number of overseas Chinese and returned overseas Chinese and their families in the country and play their positive role in the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”
The new influence campaign has apparently begun in earnest with a March 22Xinhua article titled “Overseas Chinese Confident China’s new Leadership Will Lead to National Rejuvenation.” The following is a sampling of endorsements of newly re-elected Xi (President and Chairman of the Central Military Commission) from the worldwide Chinese diaspora:
“The new leadership will lead China to greater prosperity and called on Chinese in Canada to work as a bridge in bilateral non-governmental exchanges.” (Wang Dianqi, Head of the Joint Committee of Chinese Associations in Canada)
“Chinese in France will help boost China-France exchanges, contributing to the implementation of the BRI proposed by Xi and the notion of building a community with a shared future for mankind.” (Wu Wuhua, Honorary Chair of the Chaozhou Guild Hall in France)
“Urge the Chinese in Peru to help boost exchanges and mutual trust between their host country and China.” (Liang Shun, Head of the Central Association of Chinese in Peru).
“Xi would be able to lead the Chinese to national rejuvenation, and bring overseas Chinese more benefits and pride.” (Zhou Ying, Head of the Federation of Chinese Associations in Cyprus)
“For overseas Chinese, the development of China, most importantly, makes them more respected, and second, brings them new business opportunities.” (Fang Tianxing, Head of the Federation of Chinese Associations in Malaysia)
The United States made progress last year calling out wayward and untoward Chinese behavior, pushing back on Chinese unilateralism and assertiveness, strengthening regional alliances and partnerships, increasing regional presence, reasserting regional influence, and most importantly, incrementally reversing years of ill-advised accommodation. But there is much more Washington can and should do. If not, passivity and acquiescence undermine the new U.S. National Security Strategy, reinforce Beijing’s growing belief that Washington is a declining power, and may further embolden China – a self-perceived rising power – to execute unchallenged and unhindered its strategic roadmap (grand strategy) for national rejuvenation (Chinese Dream). Hence, the new strategy, calling for America to embrace the strategic great power competition with China and plan and act accordingly, is a step in the right direction, for decline is a deliberate choice, not an imposed reality.
Tuan Pham serves on the executive committee of the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies and is widely published in national security affairs and international relations. The views expressed therein are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Government.
Featured Image: Nine Dragon Wall in the Forbidden City in Beijing, China. (Wikimedia Commons)