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

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Jamestown China Brief piece published last week:

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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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Adventure, regret, anger: one Global Times reporter’s epic South China Sea journey

Huanqiu Shibao (Global Times) journalist Cheng Gang pictured in the Diaoyu Islands, 2010

After a three-week tour of the Paracels, Spratlys and Scarborough Shoal, the Huanqiu Shibao‘s special South Sea correspondent Cheng Gang 程刚, an experienced war journalist, filed a lengthy feature story that ran in the paper’s June 1 edition. It was titled, ‘Fisherfolk’s grief: we don’t fire the first shot, countries occupying the islands have fired countless shots‘.

It was really good reading, with loads of interesting detail, so i’ve done a summary translation. The photos are inserted to illustrate the places Cheng is talking about — i’ve attempted to link to the source wherever i have it on file, but they are taken from all over the internet, including Google images, Google maps, Panoramio and Vietnamese social networking sites, so if one belongs to you please don’t hesitate to demand a credit.

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Cheng’s piece starts by describing how May is the best time to be sailing on the South Sea, because the northeast wind has blown out but the southwest monsoon and associated typhoons haven’t yet arrived. Seabirds abound and dolphins follow the boat through the glassy blue waters. “The beauty of each day is far beyond picture scrolls,” Cheng writes, “but as a Chinese person who pays attention to the South China Sea issue, travelling with Chinese law enforcement boats on patrols through the Paracels, Spratlys and Zhongsha [ie. Scarborough Shoal and the Macclesfield Bank], this Huanqiu Shibao reporter could hardly think about the intoxicating views; on the contrary, it was more regret and unease.”

At Fiery Cross Reef 永暑礁, site of the PRC’s biggest Spratly installation [and a UN-sponsored meteorological station] reporter Cheng witnesses “a certain country’s” fishermen blatantly refusing to obey instructions to desist in their fishing activities, until finally a duty vessel was sent out and they resentfully left. “Fiery Cross Reef is Mainland China’s biggest reef fort 礁堡 in the Spratlys, and the place where its garrisons are the strongest. If it’s like this at Fiery Cross Reef, one can imagine how the situation in other areas is even more turbulent.”

Fiery Cross Reef (永暑礁), occupied by PRC

PRC sovereignty marker on Fiery Cross Reef 永暑礁

Fiery Cross Reef 永暑礁, Spratly Islands

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“Ours before, still today, more so in the future”: who is claiming the whole South China Sea…and why?

China's official nine-dashed line, as attached to numerous documents submitted to the UN. China claims the islands within the 9-dashed line, not the whole maritime area contained within.

China’s official nine-dashed line, as attached to numerous documents submitted to the UN. China claims the islands within the 9-dashed line, not the whole maritime area contained within.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei has attracted some heat from the hot heads of China’s internet population, for daring to state [zh] that “no country, including China, has laid claim to the entire South China Sea”.

Apparently seizing upon this domestic criticism of Hong Lei, the Global Times’ English edition has published a piece positing that “public will” is increasingly influencing foreign policy on the sea disputes. While Vietnam and the Philippines have tried to “woo the public” with hawkish stances,

China uses less public will to press other countries and does not seek to present a hard stance to win people over, despite paying the price of occasional fierce criticism.

On the South China Sea issue, I think China’s claims are misunderstood by media employees, many alleged experts and, perhaps most significantly, ordinary people inside China. While opinion-page pundits like Pan Guoping may claim the entire sea for China, and international media can sneer at the outrageous ambiguity of the famous nine-dash line, the PRC’s claim has actually been quite clear for some years. As expressed ad nauseum in official statements and UN submissions over the past few years,

China has indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and the adjacent waters

The islands . . . and the adjacent waters. China, pretty unambiguously, does not claim the whole South China Sea, and the attachment of the above map to diplomatic notes to the UN in 2009 and 2011 indicates further that the nine-dash line does not depict China’s claimed maritime boundaries. The BBC misrepresents the PRC’s position in every report it makes on the South China Sea, to which it attaches this map:

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