China Power

China’s Academic Battle for the South China Sea

Beijing supports increased research on South China Sea issues as part of a soft power push for control.

China’s Academic Battle for the South China Sea
Credit: Library Books image via Shutterstock

China’s increased military and maritime surveillance activities in the South China Sea have been well-documented, both by foreign and Chinese media outlets. But China’s push to assert its claims over islands within the South China Sea is not simply unfolding in the military realm — the increased naval activities are backed by a renewed focus within the academic community.

A recent article in China Daily highlighted one such organization, the Collaborative Innovation Center for South China Sea Studies (CICSCSS), based at Nanjing University. The Center was established in 2012 as one of 14 national research projects prioritized by the central government. According to Hong Yinxing, the chairman of the board for the center as well as the Party chief for Nanjing University, the center was designed to promote comprehensive study of maritime issues in the region, crossing barriers between  academic departments, the military, and other government agencies. “The center will become a high-end think tank for South China Sea policymaking, a dialogue platform for international communication, and a training center for outstanding talents on maritime affairs,” Hong told China Daily.

Nanjing University is not alone in promoting study on South China Sea issues. The National Institute for South China Sea Studies (NISCSS), located in Hainan province, is affiliated with China’s Foreign Ministry and State Oceanic Administration. Founded in 1996, the institute has been upgraded and expanded in the past decade to reflect China’s growing will and ability to promote its claims in the South China Sea. NISCSS’s areas of interest include the history and geography of the South China Sea (with a special focus on sovereignty), the area’s geopolitics (including neighboring countries’ South China Sea policies), and the applicability of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea to the region’s territorial disputes.  The NISCSS recently recommended that Taiwan and China work together on research projects to bolster their sovereignty claims in the South China Sea.

China’s elite foreign policy think tanks are also carrying out their own research. The China Institute of International Studies is currently sponsoring a project on how China should respond to international arbitration over the South China Sea. Experts from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences routinely appear in media articles to present academic arguments for China’s sovereignty over and actions near the South China Sea islands. Plus, as maritime issues grow in regional importance, more general articles on subjects from Asia-Pacific regional security to U.S.-China relations have to include research and/or policy recommendations on handling the sovereignty disputes.

The result has been a government-sponsored boom in South China Sea issues in China’s academic and policymaking community. In addition to publishing research specifically designed to back China’s historical claims, think tanks specializing on the South China Sea have a broader goal. The China Daily article pointed out a “national shortage of qualified maritime-affairs personnel skilled in international dialogue and cooperation.” Research organizations like CICSCSS and NISCSS are important training grounds for Chinese experts who will not only help Beijing formulate South China Sea policy, but will also be tasked with arguing China’s maritime claims internationally. Think of it as a soft-power push for control of the South China Sea. Beijing wants to have scholars trained not just in the history of China’s activity in the South China Sea, but in maritime law, foreign policy, and military affairs.

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To date, China’s soft power campaigns to promote its territorial claims have been clumsy.  In 2012, for example, the state run China Daily took out a two-page advertisement in the New York Times and Washington Post with a headline proclaiming “Diaoyu Islands Belong to China.” Such heavy-handed tactics are far more likely to backfire than to convince American audiences.

The growth of Chinese think tanks specializing on South China Sea issues hints at a more sophisticated long-term strategy. The goal is to have Chinese experts who can argue for China’s claims based not only on history, but on international law. As China’s academics hit the books to present arguments for de jure sovereignty, the Chinese military and Coast Guard will continue their stepped-up patrols of the region to assert de facto control of disputed areas. Anyone arguing that the military apparatus is acting of its own accord is ignoring the parallel increase in China’s academic battles. Beijing is implementing a multi-pronged strategy to assert its claims to the South China Sea, and academia is one of the battlegrounds.