[Updated] Defining the post-arbitration nine-dash line: more clarity and more complication

The Central Party School's article, headlined, "China does not accept the jurisprudential legitimacy of the SCS arbitral tribunal's decision," PLA Daily, p.6, July 18

The Central Party School’s article, headlined, “China does not accept the jurisprudential legitimacy of the SCS arbitral tribunal’s decision,” PLA Daily, July 18, p.6

One week on from the UNCLOS arbitration ruling on the South China Sea, the PRC’s response continues to somehow both clarify and complicate the issue at the same time. The latest episode in the unfolding mystery of the nine-dash line seems to diminish the line’s linkage with oil and gas claims designated unlawful by the Tribunal, while ramping up its associations with “historic title” over large sweeps of archipelagic waters [but seemingly not the entire Spratly archipelago – see update at the bottom]. 

On Monday an article published on p.6 of the PLA’s official newspaper offered a clear and detailed post-ruling definition of the nine-dash line from authors at the Central Party School. One of its main purposes was to refute the Tribunal’s inferred reading of the nine-dash line as a blanket claim to historic rights within the area it encloses. (Grateful HTs to Bill Bishop for digging it up and Bonnie Glaser for drawing attention to its significance.)

The article offers a more complex clarification of the line’s meaning than my optimistic reading of last week’s PRC Government Statement: whereas i read the Statement as implicitly separating the nine-dash line from China’s maritime rights claims, this article spells out at least some explicit links between the two.

On the other hand, it offers little or no support to the expansionist reading of the line that has underpinned many provocative PRC actions in recent years. In particular, the CPS scholars’ definition does not appear to support a claim to oil and gas resources out to the edge of the nine-dash line. This was a key element of the implied reading of the nine-dash line that the Tribunal struck down as unlawful. It’s a position that the PRC has backed up with coercion against other claimants’ energy survey ships in the past, and it’s also the basis for the notion, widespread in PRC domestic discourse, that rival claimants, especially Vietnam and Malaysia, are “plundering” China’s resources.

The writing of this article is attributed to CPS Postgraduate Studies Institute Deputy Dean Wang Junmin 王军敏, but the newspaper byline attributes it collectively to the CPS Center for Research on the Theoretical System of Socialism With Chinese Characteristics. It is, as such, not a government statement, but it’s very detailed, takes into account the Tribunal ruling, and could end up being close to the interpretation the PRC goes forward with in the wake of the ruling.

This interpretation can be summarized as follows. The nine-dash line is not a blanket claim to historic rights over all waters within, but rather to three distinct sets of rights across different geographical areas:

  1. Sovereignty over the islands within the line (the original meaning of the line when the KMT government published it in 1948)
  2. “Historic title” (历史性所有权) to waters enclosed by straight baselines drawn around island groups within the line (definitely including the Paracels, for which the baselines have already been announced, but not necessarily for the whole Spratly group)
  3. Non-exclusive fishing rights in others’ EEZs where (a) they overlap with the line and (b) Chinese fishers traditionally fished under high-seas freedoms

The article begins by arguing the UNCLOS does not constitute the entirety of international maritime law, and that customary international law continues to apply on matters where rules are not provided for in UNCLOS. In particular, the authors argue,

“The UNCLOS did not provide rules for the issue of territorial sea baselines for continental countries’ archipelagos; nor did it provide rules for historic rights, although it affirmed their status in international law.”

The author(s) state that the Philippines “distorted” the nine-dash line by (a) presenting it to the arbitral tribunal as representing a Chinese claim to sovereign rights and administration over all of the waters and seabed within; and (b) by arguing that the PRC claims “historic rights” (历史性权利) within the line, when in fact the PRC claims “historic title” (历史性所有权) over areas within the line, putting the case outside the Tribunal’s jurisdiction.

This line of argument appeared, fleetingly, in China’s 2014 Position Paper, which noted that disputes concerning “historic bays or titles” were exempt from compulsory dispute resolution under Article 298. According to the author(s), China has “historic title” to internal waters within archipelagic straight baselines.

So the authors say the Philippines “slandered” China’s nine-dash line by providing a distorted reading of its meaning to the Tribunal. Here’s how they explain its true meaning:

First, looking at China’s practical exercise of state power, China has never claimed all the waters within the line as its territorial sea or internal waters, exercising state sovereignty there. In fact, the 1958 Territorial Sea Declaration, at the same time as proclaiming the applicability of the straight baseline system and setting the breadth of China’s territorial seas at 12nm, implicitly noted that international waters [exist] between the Chinese mainland and coastal islands, and Taiwan and surrounding islands, Penghu, Pratas, Paracels, Zhongsha, Spratlys and other islands belonging to China [ZH]. In 1996 the Declaration of Territorial Sea Baselines announced the territorial sea basepoints and baselines for the Paracel Islands, thereby implying that within the ‘nine-dash line’ China would, in accordance with the UNCLOS, take the Paracels as an integrated whole entitled to territorial seas, contiguous zone, EEZ and continental shelf. Likewise, China’s 2011 note to the UN Secretary General claimed that the Spratlys also enjoy territorial seas, EEZ and continental shelf. This implies: China has never claimed all the waters within the ‘nine-dash line’ as China’s historic waters or that it enjoys historic rights .

Second, the Philippines used the Chinese expression ‘historic rights’ (历史性权利) to argue China had not claimed ‘historic title’ (历史性所有权). As everyone knows, historic rights in international law refers to the rights enjoyed continuously by a state in certain waters since ancient times. Historic rights include historic title and non-exclusive historic rights. Waters subject to historic title are called ‘historic waters’ (历史性水域), these are part of a coastal state’s internal waters or territorial seas, and mainly include historic bays. other coastal waters adjacent to the coast, and the waters within archipelagos. Non-exclusive historic rights are divided into historic rights of passage and historic fishing rights. The former refers to innocent passage through internal waters, specifically all countries’ rights of innocent passage through areas not originally regarded as internal waters, but which became enclosed as such through the coastal state’s application of straight baselines.[ZH] The latter refers to non-exclusive rights to fish in areas that were previously fished in accordance with high seas freedoms but which have now become a coastal state’s EEZ [or] archipelagic waters.[ZH] The mere use of ‘historic rights’ in the PRC EEZ and Continental Shelf Law, by MFA spokespersons, and by Chinese scholars, does not imply China does not claim ‘historic title’. In fact, our country has historic title and historic fishing rights in different areas within the nine-dash line.

Third, China’s ‘nine-dash line’ rights claims mainly comprise: 1. China has territorial sovereignty over islands, reefs, cays and shoals within the line; 2. China has historic title to waters within archipelagos or island groups that are at relatively close distance and that can be viewed as an integrated whole, these areas are China’s historic waters, they are our country’s internal waters,[ZH] and China has the right to draw straight baselines around the outermost points of these waters and claim state administrative zones such as territorial seas, EEZs and continental shelves etc. in accordance with the UNCLOS. 3. When waters within the ‘nine-dash line’ become [part of] another country’s EEZ or an archipelagic state’s waters, China has the right to claim historic fishing rights or traditional fishing rights in the overlapping areas.

The many references to non-exclusive fishing rights contrast sharply with the complete absence of any mention of claims to oil and gas rights. As noted, it was precisely that (implied) claim that led to the line being designated unlawful. The 2012 CNOOC oil blocks, especially, convinced the Tribunal that China was acting in accordance with this reading of the line (see especially the Award paragraphs 208-214). But under the above definition, the nine-dash line seems to have no significance at all to the geographic scope of China’s energy rights claims.

2012 CNOOC oil and gas blocks, noted by the Philippines vs China arbitral tribunal

2012 CNOOC oil and gas blocks, noted by the Philippines vs China arbitral tribunal

The other striking thing about this definition is the heavy focus on the issue of historic title over internal waters enclosed within straight baselines around island groups — an issue addressed in an excellent article by Yanmei Xie over the weekend. There is plenty of reason to think that straight baselines might be about to enclose the Spratlys, a move that would significantly harden the PRC’s position.

But there might be yet another strange twist here. Looking again at the third paragraph above, the Party School authors define China’s claim of historic title to internal waters as existing in “archipelagos or island groups that are at a relatively close distance and that can be viewed as an integrated whole (my emphasis).” Which kinda seems to suggest the historic title aspect might be referring to the Paracels but not the Spratlys.

I’ve heard the “can be viewed as an integrated whole” argument for archipelagic straight baselines in the South China Sea numerous times from PRC sources, but i’ve never come across the “at a relatively close distance” criterion before. Why else might they have included this?

Here’s the answer (update 21/7):

Dylan Jones points out that the relatively close distance criteria refers to the distances between the islands, and a careful re-reading of the article confirms this. Here’s the Central Party School authors’ detailed explanation in translation:

“Most international legal experts consider state practice is forming, or has already established, international legal norms regarding continental states’ offshore archipelagos: the straight baseline system’s applicability to continental states’ offshore archipelagos is restricted to those archipelagos that can be seen as an integrated whole, with relatively small distances between the islands, and intimate connections between the waters and the mainland [. . . ]

The most likely and most appropriate method for China’s territorial sea baselines in the Spratly Islands is to imitate the method used in the Diaoyu Islands, for example, taking the main islands and reefs such as Itu Aba, Pagasa, West York, Spratly and Mischief as the centre, and linking together the surrounding reefs to establish baselines [. . .]”

“Looking at historic rights, China has historic title to waters between the relatively close, intimately connected islands that qualitatively comprise a unified whole, these waters are historic waters, China’s internal waters . . . China has the right to take those groups of islands within the Spratlys that are relatively close to each other as a single entity to establish territorial sea baselines,[ZH] and China’s Spratly Islands in the SCS have maritime administrative zones such as territorial seas, EEZ and continental shelf.”

So the author(s) do in fact believe a “historic title” claim over “internal waters” enclosed by straight baselines exists in the Spratlys — but rather than covering the entire archipelago, as per the Paracels baselines in 1996, it would only cover those parts within the archipelago that are close together. Here’s the Diaoyu example they refer to:

Diaoyu Islands straight baselines submitted to the UN in 2012

Diaoyu Islands straight baselines submitted to the UN in 2012

The authors repeat this “within the Spratlys” + “close together” + “intimately connected” recipe for Spratly straight baselines (and thus the scope of internal waters subject to historic title) no less than 6 times, so it’s fair to conclude this was a point they were keen to get across. That would be a tough sell domestically given that it would probably exclude James Shoal, that shallow patch of ocean considered by many (probably most) Chinese people to be the southernmost point of the nation’s sacred territory. This would be one reason to think the party might not make a Spratly baseline declaration in the near future after all.

Another rambling post…i really ought to shut up and let things run their course. But the riddle of the nine-dash line continues to string me along rather compulsively. If any readers have made it this far then at least i mustn’t be the only one.

The “next level smearing” of Chinese patriotism: a view from the Communist Youth League

“There’s the door”: one of many Communist Youth League-approved “memes” on the South China Sea issue

The first weekend after the July 12 Philippines vs China arbitration ruling — the “7.12 Incident” — has passed without reports of major anti-foreign protests.

There were, however, scattered cases of nationalist mobilization. There was at least one case of picketing outside a KFC in Hebei province (video), some smashing of iPhones (footage of which was often shared via iPhones), and a bunch of online dried mango retailers claiming to have switched their suppliers away from the Philippines.

Together with the various patriotic outpourings online, this was probably the largest set of collective actions by Chinese citizens on the South China Sea issue yet seen in China — bigger than Scarborough Shoal in 2012, or the peak of tensions in 2011, though still probably smaller and less intense than the demonstrations that would likely have occurred during the 2001 Sino-American EP-3 incident, had authorities had not prevented them.

While the Global Times hailed the “new wave of patriotism,” it was clear that, like in 2001, the party-state did not want real-world demonstrations. Municipal and university authorities were reportedly instructed to stay vigilantly on guard against potential mass gatherings. Nor, it seems, was online warmongering particularly desirable from the party’s perspective, with jingoistic Weibos encountering censorship.

An article published on the Communist Youth League’s Weibo illuminates some of the reasoning behind this desire to keep the patriotic outbursts relatively mild. It argues that much of the extreme nationalist outbursts are in fact “next-level smearing” (高级黑, referred to below as gaojihei) of China’s good patriots by anti-party elements posing as extreme nationalists.

Just how much of China’s ultra-nationalist output this actually accounts for is a wide open question. But the article offers evidence that it does explain at least some of the most visible and intense cases of what the outside world commonly understands as Chinese nationalism. In this way, it’s another illustration of how much more lurks behind shows of apparently anti-foreign mobilization besides simple “nationalist” ideology.

The examples cited suggest at least 4 distinct kinds of anti-regime motivation for extreme nationalist speech and actions:

  1. Critiquing the party’s ideological policies through parody;
  2. Giving patriotism negative associations;
  3. Fomenting domestic chaos that would destabilize party rule;
  4. Pushing for a war that would likely be disastrous for the party.

The article is written by one of the Communist Youth League’s most energetic proponents of pro-party “positive energy” in both China and Australia. Besides being on the committee of the All-China Youth Federation, Lei Xiying is a PhD student at Australian National University, whose previous projects include the “take a selfie with the flag,” setting up an Association for PhD Students and Outstanding Youth Scholars, and heavy promotion of last year’s military parade. He’s a prolific political commentator in the PRC state media, as well as in the Chinese-language media in Australia.

The author is, in short, a very worthy recipient of his Positive Energy Youth award bestowed on him by the Cyberspace Administration of China for being an “outstanding youth representative of online ideological construction.” As such, the article is illustrative of some of the issues facing the state’s leadership of popular nationalism on contentious foreign policy issues in the internet era, which i’ll return to briefly at the end.



Life’s-a-game memes and the hijacking of youth patriotism by “crazy uncles”

Communist Youth League Weibo, July 16, 2016
Lei Xiying

“A gift for American President Putin”

This afternoon a post-1995 netizen sent me a “patriotic” photograph that he found confusing.

At a glance, with the slogan “violators of my China, however distant, must be punished” it’s a hot-blooded emotional “patriot.” But look a bit closer . . . Excuse me? [The calligraphic banner] is “a gift for US President Putin” . . . look again, a bald, bespectacled, half-naked, very inelegant “crazy uncle” with bad posture hits your eye . . .

“Bro, his patriotic expression is weird, how could he say the American President is Putin…”

I replied to this post-95’s doubts in three decisive words: next! level! smear! (高!级!黑!)

Is this surprising? Actually no, it’s commonplace. Whenever big things happen in China, whenever the whole population’s patriotic sentiments rise, these kinds of gaojihei are sprayed out everywhere.

For example, the author says, during the Diaoyu crisis, a person who had once burned the 5-star red flag suddenly became a patriotic Diaoyu defender, inciting the masses to take to the streets. Other suspect “patriots” had bragged about using the occasion to help themselves to a free meal or Rolex watch. “As for those among the peaceful patriotic marchers who urged violence and looting, their shouting of patriotic slogans was the loudest, but what was their objective?”

In one common gaojihei, Lei notes, netizens purported to blame actress Zhao Wei, who has again been the target of nationalist criticism of late, for masterminding the South China Sea arbitration decision, the Turkish coup attempt, and the Nice terror attack in order to divert attention from her sins.

Satirical posts blaming recent events, including the South China Sea arbitration, on Zhao Wei

Lei makes an important distinction between those who initiate extreme nationalist actions and those who join in later:

The initiators of this type of information are generally troublemakers, while those who forward it on are overwhelmingly ordinary netizens with naive patriotic sentiments — their heart is good, but due to their unfamiliarity with the internet’s complex public opinion environment, they are used by people with a purpose.

Besides these, some groups who are normally very dissatisfied with the state, the current system and the present state of affairs, suddenly become interested in patriotism, and urge everyone to take to the streets, and take to the battlefield.

The author then provides several examples of such suspects.

Another concern is the attempts to link party-sactioned patriotism with the sickening violence seen in the anti-Japan demonstrations over the Diaoyu Islands in 2012.

Some people take the opportunity to smear and exaggerate the behaviour of “extremist elements,” and use this to “represent” and “denounce” the rational behaviour of the overwhelming majority of patriotic youth, enacting maximum distortion on patriotism.

Have we taken to the streets and smashed things? Committed violence? We are just playing with memes (表情包), OK?

Weibo post on July 14 recalling protester Cai Yang’s horrific hammer attack on Toyota driver Li Jianli during the 2012 anti-Japan protests in Xi’an

The author then takes the opportunity to address some other criticisms of South China Sea patriotism. A comment observing two main types of nationalists, “very smart swindlers” and “very emotional idiots,” comes remarkably close to Lei’s own analysis of the initiators and followers noted above. Not surprisingly, his rebuttal does not acknowledge any such parallel:

Please do not force these meaningless labels on us, OK? If you must label us, we are the ‘party of memes’ (表情包党), OK?

In response to a middle-aged Weibo user’s observation that outbursts of patriotism tend to involve the denouncing of race-traitors:

We love the country but we do not arrest traitors, that was your generation’s hobby, our hobby is memes, OK?

“What you’re doing is moral hijacking”: one of the Communist Youth League patriotic meme gang’s responses to the critics

In the words of noted scholar Liu Yang 刘仰: “If you trace the patriotic demonstrations over the past few years, you find that every time patriotic enthusiasm is ignited, a succession of acts of sabotage follow. Strong voices immediately appear afterwards, saying patriots are ‘angry youth,’ patriots are criminals, patriots are extremist terrorists, patriots are ignorant brain-dead! . . . Time after time patriotic enthusiasm has ended in farce. This may be the behind-the-scenes manipulators’ objective: [keep this pattern repeating] until one day when China really needs the power of patriotism no one will appear, like the villagers in the Boy Who Cried Wolf or King You’s generals after he played with the fire beacons (‘烽火戏诸侯’故事里的勤王之师).”

Thankfully, according to the author, the plot was thwarted thanks to the Communist Youth League sending out articles such as his own, discouraging any boycotts of any country’s products, and designating memes as the “patriotic form” of choice for today’s youth.

“I’m not giving you a single fish from my South China Sea”

In conclusion Lei notes that critics of patriotism had different motivations corresponding to their generations. In contrast to the post-1970 and post-1980 generations (who presumably act on the basis of their westernised values), post-1950 and post-1960 critics of contemporary youth patriotism are often driven by their disillusionment with “the current system, road, and theory.” The article finishes with a rousing affirmation of the current generation:

Our understanding of history, of China, and of the world is inevitably more complete, more objective, more rational than that ‘historically burdened’ generation

. . .

this is why, after the 7.12 arbitration incident, we did not take to streets, scream protests, or even smash things up as some people had hoped . . . on the contrary we initiated a form of ‘mocking and scolding’ (嬉笑怒骂) unique to this generation.

“Your ignorance pains me”


Not sure if the summary above hangs together at all — the article itself is similarly disjointed — but it does raise a couple of issues facing the state’s leadership of popular nationalism on contentious foreign policy issues in the internet era.

First, as the Liu Yang quote suggests, the CCP state’s ability to tap into the power of popular nationalist mobilizations is significantly compromised by the moderate backlash their extreme elements generate. This point, borne out in Chris Cairns and Allen Carlson’s recent study of the 2012 wave of nationalism, has been recognized by other smart minds within the propaganda system. In a research interview in 2013, a state media employee familiar with audience costs theory observed that any international leverage China may gain from allowing domestic protests is greatly diminished when violence ensues. Not only does protest violence require suppression, thereby foregrounding the state’s ability to control nationalist outrage. It also brings forth strong anti-nationalist voices from across society, suggesting popular support for defiance of nationalist demands for escalatory foreign policy choices.

Second, perhaps reflecting the need to protect trade ties in a time of economic uncertainty, the CYL was clearly keen to specifically discourage boycotts among the youth, and substitute them with online “memes” (表情包). For the party-state to adopt these particular forms of internet-era youth expression as a vehicle for its propaganda makes perfect sense. But as a substitute for real political action it’s so openly inconsequential (and, due to the need for political correctness, humourless) that i wonder how this could possibly satisfy any genuine nationalist anger about the South China Sea issue — let alone the kind of general dissatisfaction with life that underpins at least part of it. This might be why some of the approved “memes” contained nods in the direction of slightly more violent Cultural Revolution-esque imagery (e.g. the one below).

What else is going on here? What am i missing about this “meme” strategy? As always, thoughts, suggestions, corrections etc. most welcome.


“You, a banana seller, dare to scramble with daddy for the South China Sea!”

Did China just clarify the nine-dash line?

Locations of China's 2011-2012 coercive operations against foreign energy surveys

Locations of China’s 2011-2012 coercive operations against foreign energy surveys. As far as i’m aware, no similar incidents have been reported in these areas since that time. Also shown in green is the maximum EEZ area the PRC might have claimed in the SCS under UNCLOS before the arbitral tribunal ruled that there are no proper islands in the Spratly archipelago. This reduced China’s maximum legal claim under UNCLOS to the sprinkling of 24 nautical mile-wide circles roughly indicated on the map. (Compiled using Google Earth, incident coordinates found in official materials, and Greg Poling’s CSIS report.)

I’m going to make this very quick because i should get back to reading a 501-page piece-by-piece dismantling of maybe 95% of China’s maritime claim south of the Paracels.

Unless i’m mistaken (again), i think the official Statement of the Government of the People’s Republic of China in response to the arbitration result might just have made an important and long-awaited clarification of the meaning of the nine-dash line.

The status of a PRC Government Statement is about as high as a statement’s status can get in the the PRC system. This one contains five numbered points, each explaining a different aspect of the PRC’s position.

  1. China’s historical claim to territorial sovereignty and “relevant rights and interests” over islands in the SCS
  2. The PRC government’s actions to uphold said sovereign rights and interests since 1949
  3. Four elements of the PRC’s rights and interests in the SCS:
    • Sovereignty over SCS islands,
    • Internal waters, territorial seas & contiguous zones based on SCS islands
    • EEZ & Continental Shelf based on SCS islands
    • Historic rights
  4. China’s opposition to other countries’ occupation of some of the Spratly archipelago
  5. China’s commitment to freedom of navigation for international shipping

I’m pretty sure this is the most comprehensive encapsulation of China’s claims in the South China Sea ever made. None of the elements are new, but i don’t think they’ve all appeared side-by-side in one document before. The claim to “historic rights”, for example, is included in the PRC’s 1998 EEZ & Continental Shelf  law, but that document doesn’t refer to the nine-dash line. A diplomatic note to the UN in 2009 included the nine-dash line map for the first time officially, but didn’t mention historic rights. And another 2011 note to the UN specified that the Spratlys were entitled to EEZ and Continental Shelf, but didn’t include the nine-dash line map or “historic rights”.

Of particular note is the Statement’s treatment of the nine-dash line. The first paragraph of point 1 begins by referring to its sovereignty over the territories of the Spratlys, Paracels, etc., states that China’s activities there date back 2,000 years, and then concludes that this established “territorial sovereignty and relevant rights and interests.” What’s especially interesting is that an explanation of the nine-dash line is presented separately in a second paragraph (also under point 1) that reads:

“Following the end of the Second World War, China recovered and resumed the exercise of sovereignty over Nanhai Zhudao which had been illegally occupied by Japan during its war of aggression against China. To strengthen the administration over Nanhai Zhudao, the Chinese government in 1947 reviewed and updated the geographical names of Nanhai Zhudao, compiled Nan Hai Zhu Dao Di Li Zhi Lue (A Brief Account of the Geography of the South China Sea Islands), and drew Nan Hai Zhu Dao Wei Zhi Tu (Location Map of the South China Sea Islands) on which the dotted line is marked. This map was officially published and made known to the world by the Chinese government in February 1948.”

The nine-dash line, according to this authoritative statement, was created to “to strengthen the administration over” the Chinese-claimed islands of the South China Sea. No mention of “historic rights.”

The omission of a link between the nine-dash line and China’s “historic rights” wouldn’t, on its own, mean much, if they weren’t mentioned elsewhere in the statement. But they are: they are on the list of 4 elements that comprise the PRC’s maritime claims, where they are once again listed separately from the territorial claims represented by the nine-dash line.

This seems to imply very strongly that the nine-dash denotes the extent of the area within which China claims sovereignty over islands, and does not demarcate the extent of the area within which China maintains a claim to “historic rights,” which had been one of the most likely readings.

The separate treatment of the nine-dash line strongly implies that the nine-dash line does not depict the geographical extent of the PRC maritime rights claim.

If this implication was intended, it should be apparent in China’s behaviour. One sign in favour of this reading is that the PRC’s “cable-cutting” operations against Vietnamese survey ships around the edge of the nine-dash line area in 2011 and 2012 seem to have ceased since that time (see above map).

Going forward, if this is correct, we might also expect to see a winding back of China’s opposition to other countries’ activities near the edges of the nine-dash line, such as Vietnam’s oil and gas projects in the Nam Con Son Basin. And the path of the PRC Coast Guard’s “regular rights defense patrols” should no longer hug the nine-dash line. Where fishing in the “traditional fishing grounds” off the Natuna Islands (mostly outside the nine-dash line) might fit in, i’ve no idea.

And with the nine-dash line appearing decoupled from “historic rights” in a Statement of the PRC Government, this should mandate the same treatment to be repeated in future statements by lower-level authorities like individual leaders, the MFA and its spokespersons.

Time to get back to work, long and fascinating night ahead….please share any thoughts and corrections. I can only hope my hasty read of this present statement might turn out a little closer to the mark than my prediction of the arbitration outcome.


South China Sea arbitration: don’t count on a decisive Philippines win


Thomas A. Mensah, Presiding Arbitrator of the Philippines vs China arbitral tribunal. Among Judge Mensah’s many qualifications, he was the inaugural President of the ITLOS, on which he served from 1996 to 2005. Contrary to PRC propaganda claiming the arbitral tribunal is “presided over by a former Japanese diplomat” Judge Mensah is from Ghana.

Here’s a bit of speculation ahead of the UNCLOS arbitration decision on Tuesday, written for the Australian Institute of International Affairs’s website.

My argument is that, however shrill and legally unconvincing the PRC’s propaganda campaign may seem, it will force the tribunal to take politics into account to an even greater extent than it would have otherwise — so expect some significant concessions to China. As Bill Bishop points out, the CCP has a long tradition of overcoming deficiencies of reason via sheer force of rhetoric (强词夺理). Of course, i could be proved wrong in short order; if so, things may get very interesting for the PRC’s relationship with the UNCLOS.

I’ve also added in the page numbers of the article’s references to the tribunal’s Award on Jurisdiction. Obviously i’m not a lawyer and it’s a case where the fine-grain details are crucial, so i’d especially appreciate any corrections.


South China Sea arbitration: don’t count on a decisive Philippines win

AIIA Australian Outlook
July 7, 2016

By Andrew Chubb

On 12 July, an international arbitral tribunal will hand down its findings in a landmark case brought by the Philippines against China over the South China Sea issue. The decision will have far-reaching implications, not only for this contentious maritime dispute but also for international law and politics in East Asia.

United States officials have expressed concern that the decision may exacerbate tensions in the region if China responds to an adverse finding with new assertive moves in the disputed area. However, contrary to the expectations of many observers, a total victory for the Philippines is unlikely. At least some key findings will probably favour China due in part to the political interest of the tribunal in protecting the status and relevance of the law of the sea in international politics.

The case has been particularly contentious due to China’s allegation that the Philippines is “abusing” the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) processes. China’s subsequent refusal to take part in the proceedings, relentless propaganda campaign aimed at delegitimising the tribunal among domestic and international audiences, and its frenetic efforts to enlist statements of support from foreign governments, have created a backdrop that means the tribunal is unlikely to decide the case on legal merits alone.

Even if the merits of the Philippines’ claims are strong, the arbitrators will be keen to avoid appearing to make a one-sided ruling. Instead, they will seek to make at least some concessions to China in order to neutralise Beijing’s political attacks on the tribunal’s authority, minimise the political fallout, and forestall the possibility of a Chinese withdrawal from UNCLOS. The latter scenario, while highly unlikely, would be a major disaster for the cause of international law, so it is likely to be among their considerations as legal professionals.


The current state of play

The Philippines has asked the arbitral panel to rule on 15 specific questions concerning the South China Sea with the aim of clarifying the limits of the sea areas that China can legally claim under UNCLOS. The Philippines’ contentions can be summarised as:

  • China’s claims to “historic rights” within the nine-dash line are invalid under the Convention (submissions 1 & 2)
  • Scarborough Shoal is not an island, and therefore generates no entitlement to maritime rights beyond 12 nautical miles (nm), such as an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) or Continental Shelf (submission 3)
  • China’s outposts in the disputed Spratly archipelago are also not islands, and therefore also generate no EEZ or Continental Shelf entitlement (submissions 4, 5, 6 & 7)
  • China has conducted maritime law enforcement and economic exploitation activities in areas where it does not have any lawful claim, thereby violating the Philippines’ lawful rights under the Convention, while also violating the Convention’s safety requirements (submissions 8, 9, 10, 13 & 14)
  • China’s massive island-building projects breach the Convention’s rules on artificial islands, constitute unlawful appropriation of maritime spaces, and violate the Convention’s obligations not to damage the marine environment – as do its fishing, coral and clam harvesting activities at Scarborough Shoal and in the Spratly Islands (submissions 11 & 12)

The Philippines is also asking the tribunal to order China to drop any unlawful claims and desist from any unlawful activities (submission 15).

In response, China argues that these matters are “in essence” issues of territorial sovereignty, which UNCLOS was not intended to govern, and maritime boundary demarcation on which China has invoked its right to reject compulsory dispute resolution. Beijing also argues the Philippines is legally bound by its previous “commitments” to settle its disputes with China through bilateral negotiations.

However, in October 2015, the tribunal issued its preliminary award  and found that it is competent to rule on at least seven of the Philippines’ 15 claims against China. In an official statement, China expressed anger at the ruling, this time accusing both the Philippines and the arbitrators themselves of having “abused the relevant procedures”. Notably, however, it avoided any suggestion that it was rejecting the UNCLOS itself.


Political considerations

Numerous analysts, including many in Manila both inside and outside government, expect that when the arbitral tribunal hands down its final award, the ruling will find in favour of the Philippines.

But as Phillipines legal academic Jay Batongbacal has noted, the tribunal had a strong incentive to accept jurisdiction over the case because doing otherwise would have been tantamount to an admission that UNCLOS is irrelevant in one of the world’s most important waterways, and one of its most dangerous maritime hotspots.

However, the same considerations make a total victory for the Philippines unlikely. Not only would this outcome draw even more furious political attacks on the tribunal’s authority from China, a decision seen as one-sided would increase the rhetorical bite of Beijing’s international propaganda.

The Award on Jurisdiction issued last October foreshadowed findings favourable to China on some key issues. For example, it noted that if China’s island-building and law enforcement actions are found to be “military in nature” then it may be unable to rule on their legality as these are excluded from the Convention’s dispute resolution procedures (p.140).

Perhaps even more importantly, the Award (pp.62-63) also flagged the possibility of the tribunal providing an implied reading of the nine-dash line’s meaning for China:  development that could effectively legalise the PRC’s infamously unclear and expansive claim.


What to expect

The case’s greatest significance may lie in providing the first legal precedent defining specific criteria for what constitutes an “island” (entitled to an Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf under UNCLOS), as opposed to a “rock” (which is only entitled to 12 nautical miles of territorial sea).

Previous international legal rulings have deliberately avoided this question, but the Philippines’ submission has put the issue front and centre. The Award explicitly noted that “the Philippines has in fact presented a dispute concerning the status of every maritime feature claimed by China” in the disputed area (p.72). This suggests the tribunal may make the long-awaited definition. This would also accord with the arbitrators’ imperative to maximise UNCLOS’ relevance in international politics as it would help clarify the status of other disputed maritime rights claims in Asia and beyond, notably Japan’s claim to a 200nm EEZ around Okinotorishima.

It is no certainty that this will happen. It remains possible that the tribunal would simply rule that there may exist one or more islands within 200nm of the relevant areas: a conclusion that would be sufficient to prevent consideration of the Philippines’ claims against China in those areas.

Although the case is too complex to predict specific findings with certainty, the Philippines’ best hopes probably lie in obtaining an explicit rejection of China’s claims to “historic rights” and an affirmation that Scarborough Shoal—but not the much larger Spratly archipelago—is a rock and not an island, meaning the surrounding waters outside 12nm cannot be subject to any legitimate Chinese claim.

US officials worry that the ruling may exacerbate tensions in the region if China responds to an adverse finding with more assertive moves. Reclamation activities at Scarborough Shoal and the declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone in the South China Sea have been touted as possible responses.

Despite China’s decision to ignore the tribunal’s verdict, it has major stakes in UNCLOS’ ongoing viability. These include deep seabed mining concessions in international waters and its outer continental shelf claim in the East China Sea. UNCLOS is also central to China’s argument that US naval surveillance activities off its coast are illegal.

This leaves Beijing in the awkward position of trying to cast itself as a defender of UNCLOS while ceaselessly attacking an arbitration process constituted directly under its auspices. The continuation or even intensification of China’s political campaign threatens the global authority of UNCLOS as it seeks to divide signatory states into opposing camps. I may be proved wrong on Tuesday but I suspect the SCS tribunal’s arbitrators will be only too aware of this as they prepare their ruling.

“The arbitrators will themselves be judged by history”: domestic aspects of China’s UNCLOS propaganda blitz

People's Daily, June 27, 2016, p.3

People’s Daily, June 27, 2016, p.3

There has rightly been plenty of attention directed towards the PRC’s furious campaign to enlist, or at least appear to enlist, international support for its rejection of the arbitral tribunal that will shortly adjudicate on 15 complaints about China’s actions in the South China Sea. The latest broadside against the tribunal from the People’s Daily is a helpful reminder of some domestic aspects shaping the propaganda blitz.

The wave of propaganda from China’s English-language mouthpieces (and presumably those in other languages too) is certainly not receding, and in fact judging by Xinhua’s Twitter stream it is gathering momentum. 

The weekend just gone brought forth one of the more brazen pieces of propaganda from Xinhua, titled, Turkey agrees China’s stance for resolving disputes via dialogue. Readers who clicked through to the story may or may not have noticed that by “Turkey,” the article was in fact referring to Dogu Perincek, Chairman of the Patriotic Party, which has zero seats in the Turkish parliament, and who just recently got out of jail following one of Erdogan’s crackdowns.

But “Chairman of the Turkish Patriotic Party” sounds quite legitimate and credible, at least when translated into Chinese. Not surprisingly, then, the story was widely publicized in the domestic media under the headline: Turkish Patriotic Party Chairman says China has no duty to obey the South China Sea arbitration ruling.

This points to the importance of domestic considerations shaping China’s campaign to delegitimize the UNCLOS arbitration. As is so often the case, domestic may help explain quite a bit: the curiously un-legalistic tone of China’s critiques of the international legal process, with lots of high-strung rhetoric of brazen betrayals and malicious conspiracies instead; a fixation with getting foreigners to back the PRC’s position (even as the Beijing maintains its resolute opposition to “internationalizing” the issue); and a conga-line of usually obscure domestic organs lining up to say exactly the same thing, from the China Society of the Law of the Sea to the China Fisheries Association.

Besides pursuing the ever-elusive goal of “unified thinking” among party and military, there are good reasons why the CCP would be concerned about shoring up support among the general public in China. In early 2013, before the PRC had gone public with its rejection of the arbitration, about 6 out of 10 urban survey respondents indicated that they thought international arbitration sounded like a reasonable way of handling the South China Sea disputes. The article that appears below in summary translation, from the People’s Daily‘s foreign affairs commentary team “Zhong Sheng,” seems illustrative of how hard the CCP is trying to delegitimize the arbitration among domestic audiences. It appeared on p.3 of the official party mouthpiece, and became a top headline throughout the day on major commercial news portals on June 27.

The article also makes plain the PRC’s heavy stake in the ongoing viability of the UNCLOS system, which has put China is in the awkward position of trying not to undermine the convention while ceaselessly attacking an arbitration process constituted directly under its auspices. This may seem hopelessly contradictory, but in the CCP’s eternally-correct dialectical approach to policy there’s generally a way for the party to have its cake and eat it too. In this case, the correct handling of the contradiction lies in convincing domestic and international audiences that China is in fact defending the authority and integrity of the UNCLOS by rejecting the arbitration. Not only is the Philippines maliciously “abusing” the process, and the US hegemon puppeteering behind the scenes, the arbitrators themselves are reckless and ill-intentioned co-conspirators who will be judged by history.

(Now just repeat ad nausem and — bingo! — another contradiction inevitably resolved…as long as the immutable laws of history haven’t been infiltrated by those same shadowy forces who got to the law of the sea.)

Appearing next to the article in the People’s Daily print version was a piece proclaiming that participants at a conference at Leiden University, co-organized with Wuhan University, had concluded: Philippines’ South China Sea arbitration violates international legal principles. An English version of the latter piece is available here: Int’l experts question proceedings of South China Sea arbitration.


Zhong Sheng: China’s inevitable choice of determination and capability


Top headline on Sina, QQ, Baidu, Huanqiu, NetEase news platforms under headline. “Party paper: China completely capable of towing away Philippines ship on Second Thomas Shoal”

“Zhong Sheng” begins by observing that America’s pushing of the militarization of the SCS and words and deeds showing off its weaponry, have deepened China’s concerns about harm to its own interests, and raised China’s resolve to increase its capabilities to defend those interests.

Of course, the islands of the SCS belong to China and no country even said anything to the contrary otherwise until the 1970s. But then,

“tempted by the prospect of resources, the Philippines and other countries, under the excuse that the islands were within 200nm of their shores, attempted to using maritime administrative rights claims to negate China’s sovereignty over the Spratlys. To use a common expression, China’s Spratly islands were looted.”

As to why the PRC allowed this to happen,

it wasn’t because China did not have the ability to stop the illegal occupations, but rather because of China’s extremely restrained response. However, China has bottom lines, and no Chinese government administration has made any compromise on the sovereignty questions. Today, in the southern part of the South China Sea China does not have a single oil well, Chinese fishing boats are often impounded, and fisherfolk often detained. People should ask whether this is the ‘strong bullying the weak’ or the ‘weak bullying the strong.’

Since the 1960s China has settled border disputes with 12 out of 14 land neighbours. This is “the best example of China resolving disputes through bilateral negotiation, of its independent foreign policy, its peripheral diplomacy policy of good-neighbourliness, and its practice and upholding of international law.”

The story of Second Thomas Shoal, according to Zhong Sheng, is evidence of China’s good intentions:

“China is completely capable of towing away the Philippine ship grounded there, but for the sake of the overall situation of stability in the SCS, China has kindly and patiently waited, all along maintaining an extremely restrained attitude.”

The Philippines’ has openly engaged in vile treachery 背信弃义 by requesting arbitration, Zhong Sheng tells readers, for in 2011 Pres Aquino agreed to joint development and promised to resolve disputes through negotiation. But then 18 months later he wantonly filed for arbitration without even telling China beforehand.

UNCLOS article 298 provides for state parties to declare non-acceptance of dispute resolution processes, including arbitration. China did this in 2006 and nearly 30 other countries have done likewise. Thus,

China’s non-acceptance and non-participation, much less recognition, is completely in accordance with international law including UNCLOS. It is proper and legitimate, and is an action that respects international law and safeguards the integrity and authority of the UNCLOS. If the tribunal ignores basic principles of UNCLOS, and basic common sense in international law, forcing a judgement, it will set a dangerous precedent, opening a maritime ‘Pandora’s Box’, for which the arbitrators will themselves be judged by history.”

Finally, America is militarizing the SCS in the name of opposing militarization – it’s America’s ships and aircraft making waves there, and American officials who are “issuing evil words that destroy the peace and stability of the region.”

“America’s advancing of the militarization of the SCS, and its words and deeds that show off its weaponry, have deepened China’s concerns about harm to its own interests, and raised China’s resolve to increase its capabilities to defend those interests.”

China’s capabilities and determination mean that it will not compromise. However, China has no intention of becoming a world superpower, or even a regional boss.

“America absolutely does not need to worry about a strong China challenging its global interests. Ideas about treasuring peace have been handed down through the generations in China, and the gene of peace is deeply planted in the blood of the Chinese people.”

China’s maritime Great Wall and a “new Eight-Nation Alliance”

Troops of the Eight Nation Alliance (with the appropriate addition of Australia, then still a British colony)

Troops of the Eight Nation Alliance, 1900 (with the fitting addition of Australia, then still a British colony)

In lieu of normal posts (working hard to wrap up my thesis) i’m going to try taking this blog back to where it began, sharing some of the quick summary translations i do for my own purposes. They’ll be mainly Chinese media and commentary that hasn’t been reported in English. I’ll let the pieces speak for themselves, but i’d love to hear any readers’ thoughts and analysis.

The first is an op-ed from the Huanqiu Shibao on Sunday (June 12), regarding events at the Shangri-la Dialogue. Most of the article addresses US Defense Secretary Carter’s reiteration of his “Great Wall of self-isolation” line, but it also raises the strong statements on the South China Sea issue from the French Defense Minister. The latter appears to have been the basis for the striking headline, which propelled the story to the top of the agenda over at Sina and Baidu on Sunday, and onto front pages elsewhere online.


Expert: many western countries want to send warships to SCS, may form new Eight-Nation Alliance
专家:西方多国欲派舰赴南海 或现新八国联军

When the Great Wall meets US aircraft carrier 
(original headline from print version)


Widely reposted (under the “Eight-Nation Army” headline) – top headline on Baidu News, Sina News, front page on HQW, QQ, etc.

By Liu Zhixun, fellow of the Renmin University Chongyang Financial Research Institute.

Liu frames the story as a series of “thankyous” to Ashton Carter for using his Great Wall analogy at Shangri-la, because, first of all, the Great Wall is evidence of China’s thousands of years of purely defensive strategy.

“The reason we ought to thank Mr Carter is that he has given China the best opportunity to talk about history, to tell its story. At the same time, Mr Carter’s use of the correct analogy of the the Great Wall shows the world that everything China does in the South China Sea is merely building a Great Wall, and a Great Wall’s only function is defensive.”

Aircraft carriers are “not only the strongest weapon of attack, they are also an extension of territory” — so when US aircraft carriers meet the “Great Wall” in the South China Sea, the US’s aggressive intent is laid bare. In a line picked up as the headline in the print version, Liu likens the encounter to a scholar-official meeting a soldier in ancient China, ie. civilization and reasonableness against brute force (秀才遇见兵,有理说不清). “US aircraft carriers cruising the South China Sea are clearly not there to take in the view, but to show off and cause trouble, to give a demonstration of America’s military power.”

The Great Wall also, according to Liu, shows the unconquerability of the Chinese nation (民族). “Because, a nation that can construct a 10,000-li wall is a nation that can overcome 1,000 difficulties and 10,000 dangers, a nation that no force can conquer.”

However, contrary to what Carter said, the Great Wall was absolutely not a building of self-isolation and “defense is absolutely not a synonym for isolation.” To prove this, Liu offers Carter and his Huanqiu readers a lesson in European history:

“Whether in Germany, Rome, or any number of northern European countries, you can everywhere find principalities and city states that flourished whilst protected by city walls. There is no historian or military expert in the world who could describe these cities as ‘self-isolated’. On the contrary, people give the historical function and cultural contributions of these buildings high appraisals and respect.”

“…In passing through these ancient city walls, history becomes closer and more friendly. Because they became the best textbook linking together nations with different histories, cultures and beliefs.”

Liu says China should also thank Carter for showing its young people the US’s true “bandit logic” and “hoodlum behaviour”, thereby disabusing them of any unhelpful admiration they might have had for America.

“Mr Carter has greatly helped China’s media, or China’s propaganda organs: making China’s young people treasure the importance of national unity and the urgency of state power.”

Liu concludes by stating that other western countries have been “talking nonsense 妄言” about sending ships to the South China Sea.

“Some experts have made preliminary calculations that a new “Eight-Nation Alliance” may emerge in the South China Sea. If this situation really does appear, it will carry enormous warning to the world and China: people will not forget the great powers’ invasions of China in the 19th century, and the harm they caused China. If this history is repeated, Carter will be remembered in history as an inglorious character.

“China’s Great Wall is impassable, indestructible, indispensable defensive bottom line, and no one in the world should underestimate or overlook the strength and power of China’s Great Wall.”

But Liu finishes by noting that there is “reason to believe” China and America have the ability to prevent the occurrence of a destructive conflict.

China announces the US’s Spratly patrols to the masses

“If any countries have delusions of using small actions to interfere with or even obstruct the Chinese side’s reasonable, fair and legal activities on its own territory, then I must urge those countries to abandon those fantasies as soon as possible.” – MFA spokesman Lu Kang, October 27, 2015 (click to view video on CCTV).

Have been trying to avoid the temptation of blogging, but the US and China conspired to break my resistance…

The US early this morning (Beijing time) finally followed through with its plan to patrol within 12nm of at least one of the PRC’s artificial islands, and China has just announced the developments to the whole country via CCTV’s 7pm news broadcast.

The 7pm news program Xinwen Lianbo 新闻联播 is both the most-watched and most tightly-controlled news broadcast in the country. Whatever appears there can reliably be understood to be there for primarily political reasons, rather than due to professional media “news values” or sensationalism. What makes Xinwen Lianbo a unique source of insight compared with other media carrying authoritative content, such as the People’s Daily or Liberation Army Daily, is that while the official press’s readership is mostly limited to elites and the attentive public, Xinwen Lianbo is watched by perhaps 50 to 100 million or more ordinary people. In short, it carries the Party Line to the masses.

Although Xinwen Lianbo’s presentation style has evolved slightly in the 2000s, content-wise the bulletins are still dominated by detailed narrations of the top leaders’ meetings with international dignitaries and each other, updates on the ever-successful rollout of party policies and campaigns, paeans to model citizens and, last of all, a few general news reports, usually very brief. Foreign affairs controversies like the South China Sea dispute are rarely mentioned — when they are, it is usually in the context of leaders’ anodyne remarks about appropriately handling differences and jointly upholding stability in meetings with their counterparts from rival claimant states, most commonly Vietnam.

Mentions of specific developments in disputed areas are rarer still — even when they cast the party in a positive light from a hardline nationalist perspective. To take one topical example, China’s massive island-building activities began in early 2014 and were widely reported in foreign media from around June last year, but they only received their first mention on Xinwen Lianbo on June 16 this year. Evidently, the leadership normally prefers to handle these issues without encouraging scrutiny from the broad masses. This is why it is meaningful when contentious developments and confrontational rhetoric, such as that surrounding the US patrols, rate a mention.

At 1 minute 40 seconds, this Xinwen Lianbo report was quite lengthy compared with other South China Sea stories. Here it is in translation:

CCTV host: Today, the US warship Lassen, without permission from the Chinese government, illegally entered waters adjacent to China’s relevant islands and reefs in the Spratly archipelago. Regarding this, China expressed strong dissatisfaction and resolute opposition, and urged the American side to immediately rectify its mistakes.

CCTV voiceover: Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, when asked during the China-Japan-Korea symposium today, advised the US side to think thrice before acting, and not be rash or make trouble. In this afternoon’s daily press briefing, MFA spokesperson Lu Kang reiterated, China has indisputable sovereignty over the Spratly Islands and their nearby waters.

Lu Kang: If any countries have delusions of using small actions to interfere with or even obstruct the Chinese side’s reasonable, fair and legal activities on its own territory, then I must urge those countries to abandon those fantasies as soon as possible.

CCTV voiceover: Lu Kang said the Chinese side has always respected and defended the freedom of navigation and overflight enjoyed by every country in the South China Sea under international law, but firmly opposes any country harming China’s sovereignty and security interests in the name of [Freedom of Navigation].

Lu Kang: The Chinese side resolutely defends its own territorial sovereignty, security and its legitimate and reasonable maritime rights and interests. China will firmly respond to any country’s deliberate provocation. We will continue to closely monitor the situation in the air and on the water, and adopt all necessary measures as needed.

CCTV voiceover: Lu Kang said the Chinese side strongly urges the American side to earnestly take heed of the Chinese side’s solemn representations, immediately correct its mistakes, not engage in any dangerous and provocative behaviour that threatens China’s sovereignty and security interests, and strictly abide by its commitments not to take a position on sovereignty disputes, in order to avoid further damaging Sino-American relations and regional peace and stability.

A Xinwen Lianbo report like this not only directly announces the party line to a massive audience, it also legitimizes other media to focus on the issue. As far as i can tell, this must reflect the propaganda authorities’ understanding that the party leadership wants the issue near the top of the broad public’s agenda, at least in the short term. If this assumption is sound (and please let me know if you disagree), the next question is why.

I’ve been watching the Chinese media treatment of the issue over the past 2-3 weeks, and will try to put together something more comprehensive together when we see how this plays out, but for now i’ll just try to point out a few features of the CCTV report’s content.

1. The CCP has chosen to make this an issue of sovereignty. Graham Webster noted recently in the US-China Week newsletter, China has carefully maintained ambiguity regarding its claims around the Spratly Islands and reefs. In particular, it has not explicitly stated which reefs it considers to be surrounded by 12nm territorial seas 领海. That deliberate ambiguity is continuing, as reflected in the term “adjacent waters 邻近海域” in the PRC statements today (see above). Subi Reef, where the US Navy patrolled today, is almost certainly not entitled to a (sovereign) territorial sea under international law, and as i argued in East Asia Forum last month, this actually makes the patrols less provocative than they might otherwise be. But five mentions of “sovereignty” in CCTV’s 100-second report makes clear that the PRC wants domestic discussion of the issue to be on these terms. The MFA spokesman mentioned “security interests,” “maritime rights and interests,” “provocation” and “dangerous behaviour” — the CCTV report could have focused on any of these complaints, but instead repeatedly emphasized “sovereignty,” a choice that is likely to capture everyday people’s attention and potentially inspire nationalist mobilization.

2. The lines about some countries’ “delusions” about obstructing China’s Spratly construction projects will allow the CCP to depict itself as bravely defying foreign pressure as it moves forward. The line appears to be primarily domestically oriented, given that it is missing from the MFA’s account of Lu Kang’s remarks on the topic. It sets up a kind of straw-man idea that the patrols are aimed at forcing China to stop its construction work on the artificial islands. Pushing this line to domestic audiences makes good sense, because it will frame any future updates about new Chinese facilities in the Spratlys as shows of unwavering determination in the face of US pressure.

3. The high-handed demand that the American side “correct its mistakes” leaves the CCP well positioned to claim that its stern response forced an aggressive hegemon to back down. At least one US official has described the patrols as “routine“, suggesting there will be more to come. Even if the US patrols happen, say, once a month from now on, it will be up to the CCP to decide how often Chinese mass audiences hear about this. Having established a high level of domestic publicity on this occasion, the CCP might well be able to (implicitly or explicitly) encourage the perception that it forced the US to back down, simply by not affording the same level of publicity to future FoN patrols.

So there are three speculative domestic rationales for the CCP’s decision to publicize the issue. A more internationally-oriented answer with plenty of explanatory purchase is the “strategic logic” of nationalist protest Jessica Chen Weiss outlined in her book Powerful Patriots and elsewhere. The theory focuses on the state’s decisions to allow or disallow anti-foreign street demonstrations, and who knows, those might be just around the corner…

I’d love to hear readers’ thoughts on what China going public like this means, so please leave a comment or get in touch.