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 “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.

China’s latest oil rig move: not a crisis, and maybe an opportunity?

Location of Chinese drilling rig HYSY-981, with approximate equidistant lines between Hainan, the Vietnamese coast, and the disputed Paracel Islands

Location of Chinese drilling rig HYSY-981, with approximate equidistant lines between Hainan, the Vietnamese coast, and the disputed Paracel Islands (map by Greg Poling)

On June 25, China’s Maritime Safety Administration announced the gargantuan drilling rig HYSY-981 had returned to the South China Sea for more drilling operations, raising concerns of a return of the serious on-water clashes last year. 

Here we go again was a widespread sentiment on Twitter. The apparent expectations of impending repeat showdown appear to result in part from the headline of a widely-shared Reuters story, ‘China moves controversial oil rig back towards Vietnam coast‘. This might be technically correct (i’m not sure exactly where the rig was before) but this year’s situation is quite different to last year’s.

Serious on-water confrontation is unlikely this time around because the rig is positioned in a much less controversial area. It is a similar distance from the Vietnamese coast (~110nm) but much further from the disputed Paracel Islands (~85nm), and much closer to the undisputed Chinese territory of Hainan (~70nm, compared to more than 185nm in 2014).

As explained below, the parallels between this area and others where China has objected — sometimes by coercive means — to Vietnamese oil and gas activities, make the latest move a good opportunity to grasp an important aspect of the PRC’s position in these disputes, and pin down some of its inconsistencies.

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Luconia Breakers: China’s new “southernmost territory” in the South China Sea?

Luconia Breakers (Shan Zhiqiang blog)

The “island” at Luconia Breakers 琼台礁/Hempasan Bantin (source: Chinese National Geography, October 2010)

In a vivid illustration of how dynamic the status quo in the South China Sea can be, an apparently new Spratly island, formed by the forces of nature, has become a source of tension between China and Malaysia.

Luconia Breakers (Hempasan Bantin / 琼台礁) is just over 100km north of James Shoal, the shallow patch of ocean that Chinese people are routinely taught is the southernmost point of their country’s “territory“, despite it being several metres underwater.

As this post will show, unlike James Shoal, the territory at Luconia Breakers actually exists above the waterline. This is significant because if the PRC ever needs to clarify the nature of its maritime claims under international law, it could end up adopting the “new” feature as its southernmost territory.

Topping off the intrigue, the train of events leading to the current Sino-Malaysian standoff may well have been set in motion by an adventurous Chinese magazine team.

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What’s not in the latest photos of China’s Spratly island construction?


1. Gaven Fiery Cross Reef 永暑礁 in November 2014 (source: AMTI) & Gaven Reef 南薰礁 (source: IHS Janes)

The spectacular photographs of China’s progress in creating artificial islands in the South China Sea have deservedly generated a flurry of attention in the media and punditry in the past week or so.

The pictures show the amazing transformation, over the past year or so, of submerged atolls into sizeable islands with harbours, roads, container depots, workers’ dormitories and even cement plants. The reclamation activities have been documented periodically since early 2014 by Vietnamese bloggers, the Philippines foreign ministry, defense publisher IHS Janes, and, most recently, the Washington-based CSIS’s Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.

These images seem to have a special ability to catch people’s eyes and draw attention to the issue. On my own humble Twitter feed, where most posts are lucky to be noticed by anyone, when i’ve attached images of China’s artificial Spratlys, the stats suddenly light up with dozens of retweets, many from strangers.

With this viral quality, and visual impact, they could well become iconic images that define the South China Sea issue as a whole. So amidst the surge of interest, it’s worthwhile reflecting on what’s not in the pictures. Here’s my stocktake, together with a collection of less widely-circulated photos:

  1. The scoreboard: China is still well behind
  2. The company: reclamation is part of most claimants’ Spratly strategies
  3. The history: it’s not new, and that does matter for policy responses
  4. The regional context: easing tensions
  5. The environment: an unfolding tragedy

Additions, omissions and arguments most welcome!

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China’s expanding Spratly outposts: artificial, but not so new

China's Johnson Reef (赤瓜礁) reclamation project, as photographed by the Philippines Navy (click for source)

China’s Johnson Reef (赤瓜礁) reclamation project, as photographed by the Philippines Navy (click for source)

Here’s another attempt at what a blog post probably should be: a short comment on some things i’ve read online. It’s about the New York Times’ report this week on China’s island reclamation work in the Spratlys, which i think missed some important background context to China’s activities.

The subject, in summary:

China has been moving sand onto reefs and shoals to add several new islands to the Spratly archipelago, in what foreign officials say is a new effort to expand the Chinese footprint in the South China Sea. The officials say the islands will be able to support large buildings, human habitation and surveillance equipment, including radar.

This island reclamation is the latest in a long line of measures China has taken since the early 1980s to strengthen its presence in the Spratly Islands, which it views as crucial due to their proximity to China’s sea approaches, as well as present (fisheries) and future (energy) resource bounties.

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China’s Information Management in the Sino-Vietnamese Confrontation: Caution and Sophistication in the Internet Era


Jamestown China Brief piece published last week:


China’s Information Management in the Sino-Vietnamese Confrontation: Caution and Sophistication in the Internet Era

China Brief, Volume 14 Issue 11 (June 4, 2014)

After the worst anti-China violence for 15 years took place in Vietnam this month, it took China’s propaganda authorities nearly two days to work out how the story should be handled publicly. However, this was not a simple information blackout. The 48-hour gap between the start of the riots and their eventual presentation to the country’s mass audiences exemplified some of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) sophisticated techniques for managing information during fast-breaking foreign affairs incidents in the Internet era. Far from seizing on incidents at sea to demonstrate China’s strength to a domestic audience, the official line played down China’s assertive actions in the South China Sea and emphasized Vietnamese efforts to stop the riots, effectively de-coupling the violence from the issue that sparked them. This indicated that, rather than trying to appease popular nationalism, China’s leaders were in fact reluctant to appear aggressive in front of their own people.[1]

By framing the issue in this way, China’s media authorities cultivated a measured “rational patriotism” in support of the country’s territorial claims. In contrast to the 2012 Sino-Japanese confrontation over the Diaoyu Islands, when Beijing appears to have encouraged nationalist outrage to increase its leverage in the dispute,[2] during the recent incident the Party-state was determined to limit popular participation in the issue, thus maximizing its ability to control the escalation of the situation, a cornerstone of the high-level policy of “unifying” the defense of its maritime claims with the maintenance of regional stability (Shijie Zhishi [World Affairs], 2011).

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China-Vietnam clash in the Paracels: history still rhyming in the Internet era?

Vietnamese diplomats are saying Chinese and Vietnamese ships collided today in the disputed Paracel Islands, where China has stationed the massive oil and gas drilling platform HYSY-981. The incident may be in some ways unprecedented as the first time China has attempted to drill for hydrocarbons in a disputed area of the South China Sea. But it also resonates with the past in some surprising ways, from the PRC’s initiation of the incident, to Vietnam’s response, and even the information environment facing the two sides.

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