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. He thanks Merriden Varrall for her assistance in preparing this.
A survey of state-aligned Chinese media coverage of the 2015 Shangri-La Dialogue sheds light on the narrative China has constructed concerning tensions in the South China Sea.
China sees itself as constantly threatened by foreign pressure. Yet it also sees itself as a lawful actor and an active participant in building regional peace and security. China's commitment to national sovereignty will mean compromises on its terraforming projects in the South China Sea remains unlikely.
The consensus in Chinese media is that a direct confrontation between the US and China was avoided at the Dialogue. Before the event, observers expected a 'Sino-US war of words'. But due to the efforts of both sides, and a more tempered speech by US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter, a clash was avoided.
Secretary Carter's speech was well received in state-aligned media for its balance. Chinese analysts were genuinely surprised by Carter's milder tone given his 'harsh words' and statements leading up to the Dialogue. Many expected 'hard words' to match the the US Navy's surveillance flight of Fiery Cross Reef in late May, which was interpreted as a challenge to China's construction in disputed territory.
Xinhua noted that while both sides 'exchanged blows' over the issue of the South China Sea, Carter's use of 'more diplomatic language' and less confrontational approach was welcomed. Comparisons were made to last year's Dialogue, when Carter's predecessor, Chuck Hagel, directly attacked China as a destabilising force in the South China Sea.
But support for Carter's speech ended there, and Chinese coverage was clear on an important point: the US position regarding the South China Sea will not fundamentally change. The US will continue to pressure China to halt its reclamation projects and interfere in what China claims are lawful actions within the confines of national sovereignty.
The Chinese-language edition of the tabloid Global Times ran a number of articles advising the Government to exercise caution while continuing the reclamation projects.
An article published on Monday argued that the underlying meaning of Carter's speech was that the US is committed to staying in Asia. While the media noted the importance of the US in maintaining regional peace, they remain wary of how increasing involvement in the region will affect the balance of power. They believe Obama's pivot will involve strengthening military cooperation with other claimants, such as Vietnam.
A piece published in the English-language version of the Global Times argued that while Carter emphasised peaceful resolution to disputes, he also signaled a warning by outlining US military capabilities in Asia. Another article in Monday's Global Times critiqued Carter's finger-pointing approach. It argued that China has a clear position regarding construction in the South China Sea; it will 'not be swayed left or right by any one country.'
A final article in Global Times argued that China must press on with its construction projects. Backing down in the face of foreign pressure will open a 'horrific precedent' and embolden US-led forces to set tougher positions against China. This could be applied to other territorial issues, including the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. The article called on the Government to prepare for the next US move and be ready to respond quickly. China must also prepare 'physically and mentally' to cope with increasing US involvement in the region.
Overall, state-aligned media coverage of the event presented China as a calm, confident and rational actor committed to improving regional security and cooperation. Before the Dialogue, Xinhua published an article outlining the key points of the Chinese position and Deputy Chief of Staff Sun Jianguo's speech. Both were portrayed as rock-solid, rational, and confident. Coverage of Sun's responses during question time, however, was absent from reports.
In contrast, the US was depicted as mischievous, nervous, and irrational. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the US acts solely in its own interests, ignoring 'history, legal principle, and reality', and uses underhand tactics to slander China. In this dichotomy, the US is an unlawful rogue whereas China is operating within the confines of national sovereignty. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs often reiterates that freedom of navigation does not extend to military aircraft and ships. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is only sparingly invoked.
Chinese media also portrays China as actively committed to the spirit of the Shangri-La Dialogue – cooperation while avoiding confrontation. Xinhua claimed that it was a great success that both sides could outline their positions without a fierce clash.
State-aligned media portrays China as unswerving – an immovable mountain on issues of national sovereignty. In the Chinese official view, Washington's change of tone demonstrates that China's strategy is working. The Shangri-La Dialogue was something less than an outright triumph which forced the US to stop pressuring China, but still a success.
Merriden Varrall has pointed out that, for China, 'success' is dependent on how the domestic population understands an event. Circulations on Weibo about the Dialogue reveal that nationalist sentiment and support for the Government's stance is strong. Netizens see their government as standing up to foreign bullies. They see the US as an unwelcome hegemon meddling in other states' affairs:
@??1962?The South China Sea has always been China's territory, what's it to you, America? Always condemning China? What does China being in the South China Sea have anything to do with you? The world's most dangerous countries are actually the US and Japan! My fellow citizens, we must be alert!!!
@ ????????: American garbage...The US wants to contain the rise of China, and fears losing its leadership position. But rest assured, sooner or later the curtain will fall on the US, and sooner or later China will be the strongest country, this is without a shred of doubt, it is only a question of time. Keep fighting, oh great motherland!
The official Chinese media narrative is that China just needs to hold course and weather the storm of foreign pressure. The 'inevitable' completion of construction projects in the South China Sea will be celebrated as a symbolic victory. Because of domestic political dynamics, Beijing cannot afford to back down. Buckling to foreign pressure would weaken the Party's support domestically as well as China's position internationally.
Photo by Flickr user Patrick Denker.