China’s public response to the Mischief Reef FONOP

“Unreasonable”: CCTV’s 10pm Evening News (晚间新闻) bulletin introduces the US FONOP near Mischief Reef, Thursday May 25, 2017.

Chinese media coverage of the recent US naval patrol near its outposts in the disputed Spratly Islands suggests, to me at least, Beijing’s increasing confidence in its handling of public opinion on this sensitive issue. 

In turn, the content of some of Beijing’s publicity offers insight into China’s intentions for the handling of the matter going forward. Specifically, the government’s response suggests a firm determination to avoid escalating tensions. It could even foreshadow an increasingly tolerant attitude towards US assertions of freedom of navigation into the future.

The basis for this speculation is outlined below, but as always i’d encourage readers with other explanations to get in touch or leave a comment.

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An assertive US move

The essential background is that since Donald Trump took office, there had been a pause in US Navy freedom of navigation assertions (FONOPs) near China’s newly-constructed artificial islands. Until last Thursday, that is, when the USS Dewey conducted the most assertive of these operations yet, going within 12nm of Mischief Reef and conducting a “man overboard” drill to demonstrate non-recognition of any territorial sea there.

Previous US operations in 2015 and 2016 were “innocent passages” within 12nm of PRC outposts on features that are entitled to territorial seas. As such, these FONOPs only challenged China’s requirement for prior notification before passing through its territorial seas.

Mischief Reef is different. In its natural state it was below the waterline at high tide, so it was not entitled to a territorial sea under the UNCLOS, despite China having built a massive artificial island there. So by sailing within 12nm and then stopping to conduct the rescue drill, the US demonstrated non-recognition of any such territorial sea claim.

Thus, the latest FONOP constitutes a shift in US behaviour in the area, not only when compared with the first 4 months of the Trump administration (when the military’s requests to conduct similar operations were reportedly denied at least 3 times), but also compared to the late Obama period, when the naval FONOPs directed against the artificial islands were all “innocent passages.”

But even as the PRC has publicized the issue domestically — a practice typically associated with striking a hardline stance — the content of the official line and media coverage examined below suggests the opposite: that the Chinese side is quite determined to avoid any escalation over the issue, whether on the water or in the bilateral relationship.

This combination of publicity and restraint in the face of provocation seems to imply a certain confidence in Beijing regarding its ability to handle public sentiments on this issue at present.

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China’s official response

The government’s public handling of the issue was, by PRC standards, rapid and detailed. The MFA spokesperson provided fairly extensive comments on the matter just a few hours after it had become public via anonymous US Defense Department sources.

The key elements of the response, delivered by MFA spokesman Lu Kang, were:

  • A US destroyer entered “adjacent waters of relevant islands and reefs in the Spratly Islands.” The use of the term adjacent waters (邻近海域) continued China’s careful avoidance of any official suggestion that it is claiming what would be a territorial sea (领海) from a particular feature in the Spratlys.
  • The US’s actions “harmed China’s sovereignty and security interests,” which could be read as something short of harming China’s sovereignty or security per se. Harming these interests (损害, which the MFA translated as undermining), is also well short of claiming a violation (侵犯) of sovereignty.
  • The US actions are “highly likely to cause accidental incidents in the waters and airspace.” This formulation (极易引发海空意外事件) was used in 2015 after the US “overflight” of Fiery Cross Reef, and the first patrol within 12nm of Subi Reef in October of that year. It sounds rather ominous, but at the same time it also suggests a desire to frame China’s objections on grounds that are shared concerns of other parties — including the US — namely, the avoidance of accidental escalation in the disputed area.
  • The FONOP “severely disrupted the relevant dialogue and negotiation” between China and ASEAN claimants. Here, as Euan Graham pointed out, the PRC attempted to drive a wedge between ASEAN claimants and the US. This failed to sway Vietnam, which publicly reaffirmed its endorsement of the right to conduct FONOPs.
  • China “respects and safeguards” all countries’ right to freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea but opposes any country (read: Japan, Australia) enacting harm on China’s “sovereignty & security interests” in the name of FoN.
  • The PLA Navy “lawfully . . . warned off” (警告) the US ship, as discussed further below.

The Ministry of Defense also happened to be holding its routine monthly press conference the same day. When asked about the incident, spokesman Ren Guoqiang made many of the same points, with the added flourishes of listing the names of the PLA Navy destroyers that had “warned off” the US ship, and a vow to keep doing what the PLA always says it’s doing:

“The misconduct of the US military will only motivate the Chinese military to strengthen its capabilities and to defend its national sovereignty and security in a more resolute manner.”

However, amid all the (relatively) rich detail, one element of previous PRC responses seems to have been missing from both the Foreign and Defense Ministry comments: a threat.

After the USS Lassen‘s October 2015 FONOP, Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui promised the PRC would take “all necessary measures as needed to firmly respond to any deliberate provocation by any country.” The Defense Ministry and Foreign Ministry spokesmen echoed this language, and it featured in China’s official responses to the US’s patrols in May and October 2016. Its omission this time is all the more surprising given that, as noted above, the operation last week was the first deliberately non-innocent FONOP near China’s artificial islands.

In sum, this official response confirms to me that the leadership in Beijing is keen to avoid any escalation of tensions or deterioration of Sino-American relations over the issue. If that’s right, then it could well be Trump-related, since Xi is probably as uncertain of Trump’s ability to properly handle a crisis as the rest of us.

But some of the prominent domestic publicity of the issue outlined below raises another, even more wildly speculative possibility: that it might be part of a longer-term — and self-interested — shift towards greater acceptance of FoN as it is understood by most of the international community.

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Dovish domestic publicity

CCTV broadcast a one-and-a-half minute segment on these official responses in its national 10pm news bulletin that evening. The report foregrounded the Defense Ministry spokesman stating, “The Chinese Navy’s guided missile destroyer Yangzhou and guided missile destroyer Luzhou identified and investigated the American warship, and warned it off (警告).” Cutting straight to the names of the ships like this, the report invited viewers to imagine for themselves what the scene of the “warning-off” might have looked like.

“…and warned off [the US warship]”: CCTV’s 10pm Evening News (晚间新闻) bulletin carries comments from MND spokesman Ren Guoqiang the US FONOP near Mischief Reef, Thursday May 25, 2017.

Subsequent coverage, including on TV and in selected translations of foreign news reports by Xinhua’s translation digest, Cankao Xiaoxi, indicated that the CCP propaganda authorities were content, if not keen, to see the issue remain high on the public agenda over the weekend (May 27-28). Given Beijing’s apparent disinclination to take a hardline stance on the issue, what might explain this apparent willingness to have the public paying attention?

One hint of the direction in which the Party might like to see domestic discussion of the issue proceed can be gleaned from an intriguing Huanqiu Shibao editorial from Saturday, May 27.

The Huanqiu Shibao — i.e., the Chinese-language foreign affairs tabloid, not the English-language China-focused external propaganda initiative [1] — is a for-profit operation, with a dynamic editor, Hu Xijin, who’s reportedly involved in most or all of paper’s often bellicose editorials. (In busier moments he’s said to dictate them down the phone to his staff.) Bottom line: no individual editorial is indicative of the central authorities’ intentions.

But on important and sensitive issues such as this, repeated lines of argument from the Huanqiu, especially those that go against sensationalistic commercial imperatives, are likely to reflect (the editors’ understanding of) the centre’s preferences for how the issue should be presented to nationalist-leaning sections of public opinion.

So it’s significant that this weekend’s Huanqiu editorial on the US’s operation at Mischief Reef continued the dovish line it has taken the wake of previous FONOPs, reassuring the audience that the matter is not a major issue, and dampening down expectations for a strong response.

This editorial makes several arguments downplaying the importance of the US operations in the Spratlys as a security threat. The US, it says, may just be doing it so that its officials have something to say at the upcoming Shangri-la Dialogue. Or it could just be because the Pacific Command needs to spend its excess budgetary allocations.

Of particular note is the way it bundles together the Mischief Reef patrol (a new and assertive move by the US) with the P8-A spyplane flight that PLA fighters intercepted on Friday (a very longstanding routine operation). The two are presented throughout as one and the same business-as-usual issue, not requiring of any drastic response.

Remarkably, the editorial actually tells readers the FONOPs might actually be a good thing, for “in no time at all” China will be able to do the same to America.

If “freedom of navigation and overflight” continues as a norm, this is beneficial to a rising great power like China. In the future it will offer many conveniences to China. Its value to China in the future may exceed its value to America.

Whether the nationalist public will buy such sophistry is a different question. Certainly, on the comment threads i glanced over, there were plenty of the standard “grow some backbone,” “sink them!” and “declare a war, I will volunteer!” type of sentiments. But a more important target audience is the silent hyper-majority who don’t post comments online on such matters.

Unlike the general line de-emphasizing the US threat in the South Sea, this actively pro-FoN aspect of the Huanqiu‘s argument seems to be quite new — and please be sure to get in touch if i’m wrong about that. As such, it remains to be seen whether this was just a Hu Xijin brainwave, a trial balloon to gauge the public’s response, or the start of a prolonged effort to bring the Chinese public opinion around to a new appreciation of the value of FoN.

Given the likelihood of more FONOPs in the months and years to come, there should be plenty of opportunities to look for answers.

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[1] Huanqiu has remained a perennial subject of debate and confusion among China specialists and non-specialists alike. In my recent Phd thesis i’ve argued that analysts need to distinguish between:

  1. Huanqiu Shibao (HQSB), a commercially-oriented Chinese language foreign affairs-focused tabloid, and aimed at a nationalist-leaning audience;
  2. Huanqiu Wang (HQW), a commercially-oriented Chinese-language foreign affairs-focused news portal, which supplies a substantial proportion of China’s online news about the outside world; and
  3. Global Times (GT), an English-language China-focused external propaganda initiative that strives to attract international eyeballs.

The three share some editorial content, but their most fundamental common feature is their institutional location as subsidiary units of the CCP’s official mouthpiece, which makes them amenable to the central propaganda authorities’ guidance. This fact creates the possibility for analysts to derive politically significant information from its content — but rarely on the basis of a single article, and only with careful attention to the HQSB/HQW/GT distinction, and a strong awareness of the assumptions involved in doing this.

For more explanation of the approach i take to analyzing HQSB, HQW and GT content, see pp.272-274 of the thesis, available via link here.

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One Comment on “China’s public response to the Mischief Reef FONOP”

  1. In the 12th century CE, China’s Southern Song dynasty, the retired high official Cheng Dachang, whose writings are concerned with China’s historical geography, wrote an article on the topic “The Four Seas”. That phrase is found in classical Chinese literature said to have been written in the early first millennium BCE, that described even eariier legendary times correlated to about 3,000 BCE, when, as recorded in the later classical writings, the habitable world was surrounded on four sides by seas.

    The Song dynasty was pressed on the north and west by foreign powers. Song officials were required to read the classical literature, so they were very concerned about the authenticity, or otherwise, of those writings. Cheng Dachang wrote, whereas there were not real North or West Seas, about the South Sea (NanHai) he wrote that “everyone has heard of it and it requires no more proof” 人人皆聞見,不待證說矣. Indeed, the Southern Song dynasty was unprecedented in its emphasis on trade through the South Sea.

    Modern Chinese propaganda statements claim today that Chinese people were the first to discover and use those seas, and they have belonged to the China since antiquity, citing this as proof of modern sovereignty. Western readers are prone to smile at this reasoning. But careful observers will do well not to disparage the reality that Chinese are, without doubt, aware of a long history of using those waters and strongly consider them critical to their security and to their self-regard as a rising “big country” 大國.


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