By Jackson Kwok, an intern with the Lowy Institute's East Asia Program. He holds a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) degree with specialisations in Chinese language, history, and foreign policy from the University of Sydney
Following the freedom of navigation operation carried out yesterday by the USS Lassen, China's state-owned news outlets have portrayed China as a victim of US aggression. The media has framed Washington's actions as provocative and illegal, constituting a direct challenge to China's national sovereignty and security. But coverage remains fairly measured, with one editorial encouraging the nation to 'remain calm' in the face of deliberate provocation and 'deal with US harassment rationally'. It is possible that Beijing will use this perceived aggression as justification for further construction in the South China Sea.
Xinhua News Agency reported the operation constituted a 'deliberate provocation' and a 'direct challenge to China's sovereignty and security interests'. This continues the official line established by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs earlier this month that China 'would absolutely not permit any country to infringe on China's territorial waters and airspace in the Spratly Islands'.
An article published in People's Daily Wednesday morning depicts the US as a 'restless' and irrational actor that has ignored China's warnings not to stir up unnecessary trouble and intentionally disrupted regional stability and security. The article argues Washington has used the 'mask of freedom of navigation and overflight' as an excuse to strengthen its military presence in the region, and says Washington aims to actively raise tensions in the South China Sea to justify increased investment in its rebalance to Asia strategy.
An article in the state-aligned tabloid Global Times similarly warned the US would use this opportunity to tighten relations with regional allies and partners. It noted support for the FONOPs in Japan, the Philippines, and Australia, and claimed US discomfort and paranoia about China's growing influence in the region prompted the action.
This theme of containment and disruption was echoed in an interview with Rear Admiral (Ret) Yang Yi: 'The US has sought an excuse to disrupt our progress, but our pace must not stop, and we must not submit ourselves to humiliation.'
Reports portrayed China as a victim of US aggression and provocation that was acting within accepted international law, with 'acceptable actions, correct behaviour, and a clear conscious.' In the face of provocation, China's government was depicted as holding firm on the all-important issue of national sovereignty. An article in Xinhua also emphasised China's magnanimity and implored Washington to keep in mind and 'cherish the momentum of hard-won positive development in US-China relations.'
China's online community was particularly outraged by Washington's actions, with many making their anger known on Weibo. Many netizens felt an assertive US had reneged on its commitment to bilateral cooperation. But behind the anger was also a subtle suggestion that Chinese diplomacy in Washington had failed, an impression that perhaps Xi's state visit to the US last month was not as successful as state-owned media would have them believe.
In a departure from the state-owned media, Global Times published an article Tuesday evening encouraging Beijing to carry out 'anti-harassment operations and track the US warships.' It also noted that it may even be necessary to 'launch electronic interventions...send out warships, lock them [onto US vessels] by fire-control radar and fly over the US vessels'. A similar editorial published this morning channelled Chairman Mao's famous dictum, labeling the Lassen as a 'paper tiger', and concluding Beijing should remain confident.
The editorial also notes that 'China did not elaborate whether it will expand its territorial seas after land construction', ascribing this to 'ambiguity of the international law.' Interestingly, however, the article goes on to discuss China's Spratyls claims with detailed reference to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. According to the editorial, the features under Chinese control in the Spratlys are either reefs that have portions above water at low tide, and are uninhabitable; which have territorial waters but no 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zones (EEZs); or completely submerged 'low tide elevations' (that) have no territorial waters.
The contention that none of the features are capable of generating EEZs is significant, as is the admission that some of the Chinese-occupied features have no territorial sea. Moreover the article ends on a conciliatory note, claiming that it is the 'US that helps us to build and reinforce' the 12 nautical mile concept and that 'we have no intention to accept 13 or more than 13 nautical miles.' This could be interpreted in different ways, and some of the references to UNCLOS are inaccurate, but it nonetheless hints at an attempt to position China's South China Sea claims as consistent with international law. Behind the hard-line messages and countermeasures, this could be viewed as a positive form of signalling to the US.
But China has also made it clear it won't back down easily in the face of US pressure. Articles and official responses from the MFA hinted China may even use perceived US aggression and the threat of future FONOPs to justify further construction in the South China Sea.
In yesterday's press conference, MFA spokesperson Lu Kang said that if tensions continue to rise in the region, China will be forced 'to step up and speed up relevant capacity building'. Lu also commented that China will not change its behaviour, and that any country which seeks to interfere should 'cast aside such an illusion the sooner the better.' While avoiding questions on whether or not China would take direct military action, media reports have also included vague threats of 'serious consequences' should the US continue to interfere.
Beijing will be engaged in a difficult balancing act in the coming weeks and months. It will likely aim to demonstrate commitment to its territorial integrity in order to impress domestic audiences, while seeking to avoid the risk of military confrontation with the US. All of this will only be tested when and if future FONOPs are carried out.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user UNC - CFC - USFK.