Preparing for China’s Next Move in the South China Sea

  July 18, 2016   Op-Ed Columns

Op-ed column originally published at

By Dean Cheng

On July 12th, The Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration issued one of the most widely anticipated decisions in its history. After nearly four years of deliberation, the Court issued findings regarding several South China Sea issues, based on a case filed by the Philippines against the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The Court’s findings were overwhelmingly in favor of the Philippine position on issue after issue.

Perhaps most centrally, the Court concluded that China’s “9-dash line,” which Beijing has regularly referenced with regards to its claims in the South China Sea, does not grant it rights and resources in those waters. In addition, the Court also ruled on the legal status of every terrain feature in the Spratly islands area that the Philippines had incorporated in its case. In doing so, it concluded that none of them are, in fact, ‘islands,” in the legal sense, and therefore none are entitled to 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zones (EEZ)—at most, some merit a 12 nautical mile territorial sea zone.

It is essential to note that at no point did the Court make findings on sovereignty, which is beyond the purview of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, and was not made subject to the case by the Philippines in any regard. But as various features were found not to be islands, or were situated on the Philippine continental shelf, the effect on various sovereignty claims remains to be seen.

What does the Court’s decision mean?

We are likely to see a significant amping of China’s public opinion warfare and legal warfare operations, in order for China to wrest control of the narrative. Already, CCTV (China Central Television) and other key Chinese media outlets are trying to influence global audiences with the message that the very fact that the tribunal found in favor of the Philippines on most issues delegitimizes its findings. That China refused to participate in the proceedings, and that China’s claims were expansive and over-reaching, of course is left unmentioned.

Indeed, China’s assiduous efforts to establish footholds in various mass media outlets will likely come into play as this issue grinds on. China is prepared to exploit a network of radio stations it controls in other nations, including the United States and Europe, to spread its message challenging the validity of the findings and impartiality of the court. China is also trying to influence other forms of mass media, including movies (China’s Dalian Wanda Group is trying to become the world’s largest movie-theater company as it buys Europe’s largest theater chain), to promote China’s position.

This is consistent with broader, longstanding Chinese efforts at “political warfare.” As Chinese military writings have observed, the ability to conduct the “three warfares”—legal, public opinion, and psychological—are an essential part of setting the stage for future conflicts. The “three warfares” are the hardest form of “soft power.” This loss in the courtroom is likely to spur the Chinese to redouble their efforts in the “three warfares,” to ensure that the next case will turn out differently.

The Chinese effort is in the longer term. For the United States, the essential point and immediate challenge is to ensure regional stability. Chinese decision-makers must be under no illusion that they can militarily overturn the Court’s rulings, such as by declaring a South China Sea air defense identification zone (ADIZ) and compelling air traffic to submit to Chinese control. Should Beijing increase its military presence (China has built 3,000 meter runways on several of its artificial islands, which can support advanced combat aircraft operations), this would pose a threat to sea lanes that carry $5.3 trillion in trade and shipping.

No member of the global economy can view such a threat with equanimity.

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