Soft Power vs. Salami Slicing: China's Dilemma


A month after China established an oil rig in disputed waters near the Paracel Islands, the Chinese Foreign Ministry has released a document outlining China’s official position on the ensuing crisis. The statement, titled “The Operation of the HYSY 981 Drilling Rig: Vietnam’s Provocation and China’s Position,” is China’s attempt to refute Vietnam’s repeated public statements on the matter. Vietnam has been spreading rumors against China, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told reporters. “Under such conditions, we feel it necessary to tell the international community the truth and set straight their understanding on the issue,” she said.

The document begins by noting that the oil rig is located “inside the contiguous zone of China’s Xisha Islands” (the Chinese names for the Paracels). The oil rig has explored one location and is in the process of exploring a second. Both sites, according to the Foreign Ministry document, “are 17 nautical miles from both the Zhongjian Island [Triton island] of China’s Xisha Islands and the baseline of the territorial waters of Xisha Islands, yet approximately 133 to 156 nautical miles away from the coast of the Vietnamese mainland.” The implications are clear: the oil rig drilling zone should be considered Chinese waters, as it is closer to Chinese territory than to Vietnam (Hanoi, of course, disputes Chinese ownership of the Paracels and thus does not accept such an argument).

From there, China’s Foreign Ministry reports in some detail on the Vietnamese response to the oil rig, which Beijing calls “serious infringements upon China’s sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction.” Vietnam is accused to sending “a large number of vessels” to “illegally and forcefully” disrupt the operations of the oil rig. The report also claims that Vietnamese vessels have rammed “Chinese government ships … a total of 1,416 times.” Further, the report accuses Hanoi of having “condoned anti-China demonstrations,” including the deadly riots that caused extensive damage to foreign factories near Ho Chi Minh city. In the face of these provocations, China says it has “exercised great restraint.”

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Finally, the document moves on to the most comprehensive outline to date of China’s claims to the Paracel Islands. China says that it “was the first to discover, develop, exploit and exercise jurisdiction over the Xisha Islands,” but does not use that claim as the basis for its modern-day sovereignty. Instead, the document outlines Chinese control during the 20th century, including claims by the Qing dynasty and Republic of China.  According to this brief history, China has twice driven “invading armies” out of the Paracels: in 1945, with the Japanese surrender, and in 1974 when China clashed with South Vietnamese forces.

China also presents several documents that show Vietnamese acknowledgement of China’s control over the Paracels, including diplomatic communiques from the 1950s and 1960s as well as a 1972 Vietnamese atlas and a 1974 Vietnamese textbook. By claiming the territory now, China says, Vietnam is in “gross violation of the principles of international law, including the principle of estoppel.”

The gathering of historic evidence to back China’s claim to the Paracels is interesting but not likely to do China much good. Beijing has already indicated that it has no intention to engage in international arbitration on the issue, so outlining China’s claim can only be meant to sway global public opinion. And if that’s the main goal of the MFA report (as Hua Chunying’s remarks seem to indicate), then the timing is inexplicable. Why wait nearly a month after positioning the oil rig before releasing the report? Vietnam’s government has spent that time building up its own narrative — at this late stage, it will be all but impossible for China to make any headway in its counter-PR war.

The Foreign Ministry document is indicative of China’s image problem in the region. In regional affairs, from the establishment of China Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea last November to the ongoing oil rig crisis, China has been in the strange position of being both assertive and reactive: it initiates events, but immediately loses control of the narrative, forcing Chinese officials into a defensive posture as they respond to criticism from abroad.

There are two main explanations for this. One is that Beijing knows the response its actions will cause and simply doesn’t care — in fact, it is being intentionally provocative in order to further its claims in disputed regions by demonstrating the inability of other regional players to respond. This is generally known as the “salami slicing strategy.”

The other explanation paints the Chinese government as less nefarious, but also less savvy. This theory holds that China simply doesn’t have a good feel for its image in the region, and thus cannot accurately predict when its actions will cause an outcry. China’s tendency to dismiss all concerns about its growing military clout as part of a massive conspiracy certainly contributes to this problem. In May, a top Chinese military official provided evidence for this theory by publicly stating that China had not anticipated such a strong reaction to the placement of its oil rig.

In the case of the oil rig, it should have been fairly easy for China to imagine Vietnam’s response. Though China has flatly refused to see it, there are similarities between China’s stance on the Paracels and Japan’s stance on the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands — in both cases, the current occupier refuses to acknowledge there is a dispute. Yet there’s little doubt that, if Japan were to set up an oil rig 17 miles away from the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, China would respond every bit as aggressively as Vietnam has. By refusing to engage in even this basic-level of foreign policy empathy, China continues to cement a reputation for itself as a regional bully.

As the Foreign Ministry document shows, China has a fairly solid claim to the Paracels. In international sovereignty disputes, current ownership goes a long way, which works in China’s favor. But despite this, China is losing the battle for public opinion. Perhaps Beijing has simply decided this negative image is an inevitable byproduct of its “salami slicing,” but the Foreign Ministry document’s release itself demonstrates that Beijing is not happy with the current situation.

Whether China’s soft power deficit is intentional or  accidental, Beijing should consider the alternative. Focusing on, negotiating over, and perhaps even solving one of its maritime disputes would go a long way toward enhancing China’s regional soft power. Malaysia or Brunei would be good candidates for this approach, as both have been far less vocal about their claims than the Philippines or Vietnam. Meanwhile, even a temporary halt to potentially controversial actions in the South and East China Seas would help refute Western media narratives about China’s growing aggression. Even one year of relative peace in the East and South China Seas would give China  more room to argue it is not a destabilizing player in the region.

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