Howard is a third year PPE/Law Student with a passion for international affairs, politics and economics. He writes about all of these things in such profuse amounts normally, that he felt it best to channel into something constructive, like a Woroni column.
China’s military adventurism in the South China Sea has been the focal point of regional tensions for more than a year now, shaping regional politics and opinion against China, and successfully tipping the allegiance of several crucial, pivotal states closer to the United States.
China’s nine-dash-line claim conflicts with those of the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. The threat of further Chinese expansion was arguably one of the largest factors contributing to the drastically increased Vietnam-US cooperation that has developed over recent years, punctuated by Obama’s visit to Vietnam in May, and the corresponding lift of their long-standing arms embargo.
On the other side of the South China Sea, the US’s support of the Filipino position in the dispute has been one of the few remaining lynchpins on the historic alliance, following the turbulence of Rodrigo Duterte’s presidency and comments.
More widely, the PCA’s (Permanent Council of Arbitration) July decision in support of the Philippines reflects a broad international consensus against the Chinese position. Determining the exact state of national opinion on the South China Sea is difficult, not in the least because Chinese press claims widely inflated support. On July 13, for instance, China Daily claimed 66 states supported the Chinese position. In response to this, Poland, Cambodia, Slovenia and Fiji released public statements denying these Chinese claims of support. The Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative currently tracks only five countries opposing the PCA ruling.
It is hard to imagine a way that China could more effectively align the bulk of its regional neighbours’ opinions, and international law, against it – except perhaps by simultaneously picking a fight with its other neighbouring island state, Japan.
All of this prompts the question: why?
The South China Sea is no great prize in itself. The combined total area of the Spratly Islands, which lie at the centre of the dispute, is only slightly larger than that of ANU’s campus. The 200-kilometre Economic Exclusion Zone radiating from each claimed landmass, however, is more valuable, especially considering the South China Sea’s potentially substantial gas and oil deposits. But this is a paltry gain relative to the immense diplomatic cost, weakening Chinese soft power throughout the region and the world, while strengthening the US’s position in Southeast Asia as a result.
China’s actions have very little to do with the South China Sea, or even with effective Chinese foreign policy. Like the Senkaku island dispute with Japan in the north, China’s actions in the sea are intended for internal consumption.
The South China Sea dispute is fuel for a narrative – a narrative which reinforces the perception of external threats against China (by way of the US), while also stoking nationalist sentiment regarding China’s “Cartography of Humiliation”, casting the South China Sea as the rightful target of a Chinese Reconquista. Both of these sentiments serve to shore up government support at home, and ensure that western political and cultural ideas remain safely heterodox as the ideas of a “hostile nation”.
The conflict is more a war for the hearts and minds of Chinese citizens at home and abroad, rather than one over a collection of atolls.
It’s a war fought with a deliberate revision of history, a collection of groundless attacks, and the dismissal of positions critical of the Chinese government. This often serves to conflate criticism of the government with being “anti-China”, rather than engaging a debate on the facts.
And it’s a war that has come to our university, including to Woroni. An article written by Chinese international student, Petal Wang, published in Edition 3 of this Semester, demonstrated what I see to be a textbook opinion. It characterised the Australian support of the Filipino decision as the result of racism-tinged xenophobia, compared Western criticism of the Chinese human rights abuses and authoritarianism to prejudice against the LGBTQ community, and accused the PCA of being “a misleading agent controlled by US-led alliances”, while insinuating that its judges had “suspicious motivations”. Neither of these claims were substantiated.
On the South China Sea, we should neither compromise our belief in the equal application of international law, nor compromise the fundamental legal principles that underpin it.