The South China Sea is one of the most important bodies of water in the world, strategically, economically and in China, as the content of this blog often suggests, politically.

The aim is to provide a window into the conversations taking place within China regarding the country’s South China Sea territorial and maritime disputes with its six co-claimants – Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia – plus the U.S., India and any other foreign power that weighs in.

The author is Andrew Chubb, a PhD candidate in International Relations at the University of Western Australia postdoctoral fellow in the Princeton-Harvard China and the World Program, studying the relationship between Chinese public opinion and PRC foreign policy on territorial disputes, and its implications for international politics in East Asia. My project was prompted by the rising claims of “rising” nationalism as an influence on the Chinese party state’s behaviour, which my PhD thesis (downloadable here) put to the test on the South China Sea issue.

Research questions that guided the blog’s content included:

  • What is the nature of Chinese public opinion on different territorial issues, and how is the party-state shaping its development in the era of the Chinese internet?
  • How do different foreign policy actors within the party-state make use of public opinion (or the appearance thereof) for their own purposes, and to what policy effect?
  • When do the PRC’s actions actually accord with hawkish or nationalistic strains of Chinese public opinion?
  • When does Chinese foreign policy defy nationalistic trends in public opinion, and how does the party-state handle the issue domestically?

If you have knowledge of or interest in these issues, please get in touch, either by leaving a comment or by sending an email to achubb ~at~ gmail ~dot~ com.

Regarding translations of comment threads, note that while i try to focus on the comment threads with large numbers of ‘participants’, there is no implication that these conversations are representative of any significant proportion of the PRC population. One percent = roughly 13 million people. 0.1% = 1.3 million.

As a non-native reader of Chinese, i especially welcome clarifications, corrections and comments.


Political beliefs and biases after the jump. It find it helpful to state them, both as a disclosure for others and to keep track of them myself, but it’s largely off-topic. I’ll try to frequently update it…



Political beliefs and biases disclosure:

Although i don’t imagine too many people will be interested, since I am dealing with political topics I should declare my major political beliefs and biases as far as i understand them. As someone who has grown up in a world of western culture, I am likely to hold a range of unconscious biases towards western ways and ideas. I try wherever possible to counteract them with critical balance, but of course would appreciate readers who notice something to let me know.

Who do i think those islands in the South China Sea belong to? No one. No state exercised anything resembling exclusive 排他性 “sovereignty” over the disputed islands until the 20th century. What these remote atolls have been since ancient times is a haven for adventurous fisherfolk (and pirates) from all the present-day claimant states and beyond. They have not been exclusively controlled by one state authority to the exclusion of others. That means the disputes are ultimately a legacy of the arrival of western imperialism. If Asia’s post-(semi-)colonial states could work out their own concept of island sovereignty, one that reflects historical reality by being shared rather than exclusive 排他性, then the dispute would perhaps not be so intractable.

The East China Sea dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands is equally indeterminate, in my view. China may have the stronger historical records, but Japan has the stronger modern claim because it was the first to exercise something resembling sovereignty. On the other hand, Japan arguably acquired that sovereignty as part of the spoils of war. So no clear answer on that question either.

At the risk of stating the obvious, i do believe international law is an appropriate way of dealing with the maritime rights issue. International law is of course manipulable, not neutral, but from a human standpoint it is vastly preferable that states compete in that way rather than through violence and brinkmanship.

Techniques of mass persuasion – “propaganda” or “publicity” – are another important but contentious object of my studies. I consider that these can be used for both positive and negative purposes, especially on the issues of international disputes where nationalist sentiments maintained and stimulated through state propaganda often require reining in through those same channels. In this regard the Chinese term xuanchuan 宣传 (“proclamation-transmission”), might be more precise than the English word, propaganda.

I love a lot about China, the place, the people, the ideas, though as a believer in the essential dignity of all people and popular self-determination, i can’t say i agree with the CCP’s self-assigned right to choose 1.3 billion people’s political destiny for them in perpetuity. I acknowledge the CCP deserves some of the credit for the huge material benefits that have accrued to the Chinese people while it has ruled (though i tend to think the hard work and ingenuity of everyday people deserves a little more of the credit).

Certainly not anti-American, but i do try to maintain critical distance due to the above-mentioned western bias. The US can be, and is, a force for good in the world in various ways, but has also been a major source of catastrophic, destructive and unnecessary wars. I disagree with many current US policies, such as support for Israeli settlement building and drone strikes in tribal areas of Pakistan. I am also thankful that Assange, Manning and Snowden have made the world much more informed about the reach of US surveillance. I look forward to their Chinese counterparts one day emerging. . .

I luckily happen to be Australian, but i refute any claim that Australian people are somehow more deserving of benefit, or entitled to more of the world’s resources (including greenhouse gas emissions) than the rest of the world’s people. I cannot see any intellectually defensible argument for regarding one country’s national interest above another’s, let alone those of humanity as a whole. Nor is “my” country always right; i opposed “our” invasions of other countries like Iraq, support East Timor in its maritime resource dispute with Australia over the Timor Gap, and deplore the Australian government’s repeated and systematic violations of the UN Refugee Convention. Australia’s presence on the UN Human Rights Council is a disgrace.

My home country badly needs a treaty with its first nations. It also desperately needs to find a date other than January 26 for its national day. I find it staggering that in the 21st century Australians are meant to celebrate colonial invasion as a national day of unity. Not only is January 26, 1788 “invasion day” to the surviving original peoples of the country, it’s not even the date on which the unified “nation” of Australia was born — that is January 1, 1901. Many things about Australia today are great. But not its dark history of invasion, dispossession, genocides, more attempted genocides, racism and its ongoing legacies in the form of high rates of incarceration, illiteracy, disadvantage and death for the first Australians. January 26 should be commemorated, not celebrated.

Australia is an incredibly good place to live and, as an immigrant myself, i hope as many people as possible can do so too. My view is that many more refugees should be let into Australia. Boats are a dangerous form of transport to use, but if a refugee decides to travel that way to flee from danger (including arbitrary detention in countries that haven’t signed the UN Refugee Convention) they are not committing any crime. By contrast, it is clearly illegal to detain people indefinitely for doing so.

I also don’t oppose economic migration; Australia’s economic situation is, in any case, one of the reasons refugees from around the world attempt to come here. What Australia should do to discourage dangerous boat journeys is increase its orderly intake of refugees. Not only would needy people benefit from living here, i believe they would bring an injection of vitality and aspiration, not to mention labour and skills. Sadly, Australian refugee advocates have lost the national debate on this topic, and they have lost badly. By concentrating almost exclusively on the (completely valid) moral objections to Canberra’s cruel treatment of asylum seekers, refugee advocates have neglected the most powerful pragmatic national interest and national-identity based arguments, which actually stand a chance of resonating with a fearful and nationalistic general public.

Regarding China and the world, i believe cooperation is generally more rational than conflict, and that many if not most human conflicts involve misperceptions and misunderstandings. Therefore, the more the different states and the peoples who live with (and within) them understand about each other, the better. I started an Australia-China Youth Association at my university because i want Chinese and local young people to get to know each other better.

In my view adding a permanent US Marines presence in Australia in 2011 was an example of an unnecessary provocation that fed the PRC narrative that China is being “contained”. Hedge, by all means. All countries including China hedge, and many countries in our region hedge against the possibility of an aggressive China. But hedging needs to be subtle, rather than loud.

Loud hedging against China feeds ill-will, and associated promotion of China-phobia, which has an unfortunately rich history in Australia and other places. The People’s Republic of China is quite reasonably seen as a direct security threat when viewed from the perspective of Vietnam, Japan, the Philippines, or Taiwan. But at present China is not a military threat to the US, Australia or “the West” as a whole, let alone the world, though it might become one in the future depending on a myriad of factors, including how it is treated by foreign countries.

China’s increasingly energetic political activities, including United Front Work, needs to be handled calmly and firmly through laws and regulations, especially regarding academic conduct. And while exposés and scrutiny are essential, it is critical to avoid panic and alarmism, which risk abrogating the very freedoms of speech (which should extend to pro-China and pro-CCP speech) that they ostensibly aim to exercise and defend. As democratic societies respond to the CCP’s intensified efforts to use their openness for its own selfish purposes, they need to actively make clear that Chinese people are still welcomed and respected like any other people, regardless of political proclivities. My views on why Australia should show Chinese people and even their government, greater formal respect are argued in an article here.


In cricket i am usually proud to support whoever is opposing Australia, who were way too dominant for too long. I say “usually” because England have been very annoying of late.

In Australian football I support Melbourne, and in the statistics-based fantasy football league “KFL”, I am spokesman CHAIRMAN of Team CHINA.

Whatever other serious biases or dogmatic positions you notice, please point them out.


11 Comments on “About”

  1. Con Vẹo says:

    Since when Indonesia became one of the claimants in South China Sea? What kind of doctoral candidate is that? (LOL) You don’t know a thing Andrew.

    • Andrew Chubb says:

      Thanks Con Veo, i’ll take your comment in the spirit of robust scholarly exchange!

      Of course Indonesia doesnt claim sovereignty over any disputed features there, but i must have missed the news that Indonesia has dropped its claim to exclusive economic right in the southern SCS, and canceled its agreed maritime boundary with Vietnam (the one that intersected with the southeastern dash of the PRC nine dash line).

      And the Natuna Islands – are they no longer part of Indonesia, or no longer in the South China Sea?

  2. Emily Hoble says:

    Dear Andrew,
    My name is Emily Hoble and I am an IR undergraduate studying at the University of Exeter. As part of my final year, I am enrolled in a module called ‘War and Public Opinion’, led by Jason Reifler. Jason has asked us to find an original article to use as a springboard for a quantitative essay. As I am sure you are aware, most of the literature regarding public opinion addresses that in the US. However, having just returned from living in China for a year and about to begin writing a dissertation on China, I am keen to focus on Chinese Public Opinion. As a result, I was drawn to your article published by the Perth USAsia Centre, ‘Exploring China’s Maritime Consciousness’.
    Unfortunately, Jason has told me that I need to access the original dataset for this article in order to use it as a basis for my essay. I have emailed the Perth USAsia Centre but have yet to receive a response. I would be greatly appreciative if you would be able to give me any further information about how/if it might be possible to access the dataset. Please let me know if this isn’t possible so that I can begin to make alternative essay arrangements!
    Thanks a lot for your help, I really appreciate it.
    Yours sincerely,

    • Andrew Chubb says:

      Of course, i encourage as many people as possible to explore the dataset! It’s in SPSS format, will email it to you.

      • Allison Rastelli says:

        Dear Andrew,

        My name is Allison Rastelli and I am an undergraduate student at Drew University, double-majoring in Chinese Studies and Political Science. I will be attending Georgetown University for its Conflict Resolution MA program beginning in Fall 2016, where I hope to continue studying international conflict and pursue a concentration in Asian studies.

        Like Emily, I am also conducting research involving the South China Sea. I am currently writing an undergraduate Honors Thesis in which I discuss Chinese foreign policy and use the South China Sea as a case study. I found your article, ‘Exploring China’s Maritime Consciousness,’ to be quite interesting and extremely helpful when writing my thesis.

        My thesis goes into depth in discussing domestic factors that influence Chinese foreign policy, a few of which are the legitimacy of the CCP, Chinese nationalist sentiment, and Chinese public opinion. I am curious to hear if you have any comments or opinions on how these domestic factors are influencing China’s behavior in the South China Sea? I am also very interested in using your dataset to reinforce some of the key concepts used in my thesis. Would you be able to email it to me as well?

        I greatly appreciate your time and help!


        Allison Rastelli

      • Andrew Chubb says:

        Hi Alison,

        Thanks for getting in touch. Great to hear you’re on the case – it’s such a complex and so far intractable dispute, the world needs as many people trying to gain new understandings of it as possible.

        As you can see from the preliminary research questions above, which i put there about 4 years ago, i came into this project intending to identify the bottom-up popular influences on China’s policy in the South China Sea. What i’ve found, however, is that very few of the on-water acts that comprise China’s policy involve any significant bottom-up popular nationalist influence. Instead, the influence of domestic opinion appears to be largely limited to two areas: omissions (ie, actions not taken), and propaganda policy (ie. official rhetoric, media guidance and censorship).

        Even within those areas, it’s difficult to discern any clear influence for public opinion or popular nationalism — though i remain open to the idea. In terms of omissions, particular policy options may never come up for consideration due to the obvious political risk they would entail in terms of nationalist backlash (either elite, popular or both). Clarifying the nine-dash line may be one example of this, since it has heavy symbolic significance and might be interpreted by both domestic elite and popular opinion as a backdown. Yet there are many other reasons that would arguably be sufficient to explain the non-clarification of the nine-dash line: the value of the resources that it would involve giving up claims to, the perceived advantages of strategic ambiguity, leaders’ own normative/moral beliefs about the “historical facts” that the line embodies, etc. So an interesting question is, if these other explanations are in fact sufficient to explain this policy omission, can we really talk of a constraint by public opinion as being a factor?

        Another problem with the idea that public opinion constrains the Party from acts of conciliation or compromise that they otherwise might pursue in the SCS is that one of their most basic (and thus most high-profile) policies is to seek joint development of resources within the nine-dash line. Of course, countries like Vietnam and the Philippines don’t see this policy as generous or conciliatory at all, since the resources in question are invariably much closer to their own shores, and lie in areas China does not itself have control of (it is notable that China has never proposed joint development with Vietnam in the Paracel Islands, which it controls). The point here is that the CCP evidently doesn’t feel that public opinion prevents them from seeking compromise over resources it claims (rightly or wrongly) to be the sovereign property of the Chinese people.

        As for propaganda policy, this is of course designed to shape public opinion, but it also unavoidably involves responding to how public opinion actually is. So we can certainly say that public opinion and popular nationalism affect the propaganda and information management aspects of China’s policy on the South China Sea issue, but we also know that these aspects of state policy have major effects on public opinion too. The question then turns on which side has the initiative, state or society, at different key moments, and what happens after that: if there is a bottom-up groundswell of popular nationalism, such as in 2011 and 2012, first of all, what are its causes? In particular, is the wave of nationalism connected with the state’s own actions and rhetoric, and if so, do these involve the state as a whole and its agreed-upon foreign policy, or just particular sub-state elements that might stand to gain from aligning themselves with a nationalist upswell? Second, if we find the wave of nationalism to have been largely spontaneous, or that the level of nationalist mobilization has gone beyond the state’s expectations, or that it has been driven by sub-state elements and not by its foreign policy requirements (see Jessica Chen Weiss’s work), then are its propaganda and information control techniques able to defuse this, or does the bottom-up influence spill over into actual real-world policy, as it apparently did in relation to Japan policy in 2003-2005 (see James Reilly’s book)? This is where my PhD thesis has ended up, and i’m afraid, far from that rather exciting and dangerous idea of a rising monster of popular nationalism driving China’s SCS assertiveness, it tells an overwhelmingly top-down story.

        Anyhow, that’s my take — i’d like to know what you’ve found.

        Will send you the survey dataset over email.

  3. […] of a many minute contention of a South China Sea can be found on a South Sea Conversations website, run by Andrew Chubb an Australian academic. The South China Sea website has a extensive set of […]

  4. mahi says:

    dear andrew, i would like to know how you feel about the whole act and do you think there could possibly be any solution ?

    • Andrew Chubb says:

      Dear mahi, thanks for your visit and comment. How do i feel about the whole act? I feel it’s a tragedy. It’s tragic for the local natural environments that have been decimated by the militarization of the area over the years, as well as for the planet, which is losing some of its most abundant and unique marine ecosystems. It’s a tragedy for the fisherfolk on all sides whose livelihoods have been taken away or imperiled, as well as those who have been dragged into the dispute by having their activities politicized by “their” governments. Above all, it’s a human tragedy, as millions of good people have been trained to view each other as enemies, blinded to their common interests and in many cases even their common humanity.

      On the other hand, at this point it’s still not a Mearsheimian “tragedy of great power politics.” A lot of my research points to the power of states, particularly the PRC, to control and manipulate popular nationalist sentiments in accordance with their foreign policy interests, and those interests have mercifully so far not resided in major open warfare, and i’m hopeful that this will remain the case.

      As for solutions, it depends on which aspect of the dispute you have in mind. Decreasing worldwide dependence on fossil fuels in the energy mix may reduce this aspect of the problem over time, or perhaps increase the likelihood of compromise over energy development (though this could only worsen the environmental tragedy). One idea i think has some potential is joint fisheries managment, since it’s in no side’s interest to see the fisheries stocks collapse. The claimant states could, i think, take small steps towards this by quietly aligning their existing unilateral seasonal fishing bans in the area. From there, they could move towards joint patrols and enforcement.

      On the sovereignty side, if one or more states decide to resort to international courts on this question — and we are a long way from that (the currently pending Philippines arbitration case deliberately avoids this aspect) — it’s possible to imagine the ICJ issuing a ruling that most of the world would recognize as legitimate. But it’s highly unlikely that the losing side would agree, and it could lead to extreme unintended consequences.

      So it’s going to take a creative approach to the concept of sovereignty. This aspect of the dispute can’t be resolved while sovereignty is strictly exclusive. As mentioned above, the concept of exclusive sovereignty fundamentally contradicts the historical reality of the area.

  5. Shikhar Mishra says:


    I am student on University of Lucknow, INDIA. I am writing a article on “Importance of south sea verdict for international environmental law”. So please tell me that How this verdict help in improvising environment and how China’s action of building artificial island in south sea affect the environment.

    Your Sincerely
    Shikhar Mishra

  6. Oscar says:

    Dear Andrew,

    Great Work regarding CEFC, there is definitely more than meets the eye regarding the company and the Chairman. Hope you continue digging for more info.


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