China’s New South China Sea Messaging

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China’s New South China Sea Messaging

China has changed the way it talks about its actions in the South China Sea, signalling a shift in the way it thinks.

China’s New South China Sea Messaging
Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Bt4wang

The Philippines released photos of China’s construction and land reclamation activities in the South China Sea, on May 15, 2014, a day after Manila accused Beijing of violating the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea by carrying out such construction. Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying was asked about the photographs in her regular press conference on May 15. Here’s her response, in full:

China has indisputable sovereignty over Nansha [Spratly] Islands including Chigua Reef [Johnson South Reef] and the contiguous waters. Whatever construction China carries out in the Chigua Reef is completely within China’s sovereignty.

That response did not evolve much over the next ten months. In March 2015, Hua was still defending China’s construction with terse proclamations: “China’s normal construction activities on our own islands and in our own waters are lawful, reasonable and justifiable.”

Over the last four months, however, we’ve seen a major change in the way China talks about its activities in the South China Sea – first a clarification of the purposes of the construction, then an announcement that land reclamation will soon be coming to a halt. As others have pointed out, China’s change in rhetoric does not accompany a change in behavior – it still plans to finish all its previously-started construction, for example. Nonetheless, the shift in tone is important.

This shift signals that China realizes the damage being done to its soft power in the region by sticking to a because-I-said-so attitude (ie, our construction is “lawful, reasonable, and justifiable” simply because we said so). In its new statements, China is actively trying to convince listeners (most prominently, the governments of ASEAN countries and the United States) that it does not pose a threat – clear proof that Beijing does, indeed, care about its image.

The change began on April 9, when, for the first time, Hua (speaking for China’s Foreign Ministry) provided a detailed explanation of the purposes for China’s construction on disputed islands. In her remarks, Hua framed the construction as an example of China upholding its “international responsibility and obligation” by providing new facilities to assist with “maritime search and rescue, disaster prevention and mitigation, marine science and research, meteorological observation, environmental protection, navigation safety, fishery production service and other areas.” Beijing wants to flip accusations of irresponsibility on their head, arguing that China (as the region’s major power) has not only the right but the responsibility to construct facilities in the South China Sea.

In later comments, Beijing expanded on this by suggesting that other countries would also be welcome to use the new outposts. The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) released a statement outlining its plan for the South China Sea reefs, including the construction of “large-scale lighthouses”; wireless navigation facilities; base stations for maritime security and communications; emergency rescue stations; moorings for fishermen to shelter from storms or replenish supplies; and weather stations, oceanic observation platforms, and scientific research centers.

Beijing also announced on June 16 that its land reclamation activities would finish “in the upcoming days,” although Chinese officials have declined to provide a concrete timeline. Construction on the reclaimed land will continue, however, as China builds up facilities on newly-created islands. Foreign Ministry Lu Kang made that clear in the initial announcement: “After the land reclamation, we will start the building of facilities to meet relevant functional requirements.”

Experts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies note that, prior to the announcement, China had already finished land reclamation on Johnson South Reef and Fiery Cross Reef and is nearly done in other places. “[T]his recent announcement appears only to confirm what analysts already knew: Beijing has almost finished its planned land reclamation activities in the Spratlys,” CSIS experts concluded. They categorize the announcement as “a change in message, not in policy.”

Very true, but the change in message is important nonetheless. Compared to a year – or even four months – ago, China’s rhetoric on the South China Sea issue is almost unrecognizable. Instead of beginning and ending the conversation with proclamations of China’s “indisputable” sovereign rights, we’re seeing a genuine attempt at putting some China-friendly ‘spin’on these construction projects. That these new proclamations are unlikely to convince China’s critics is beside the point. The attempt itself is new, and noteworthy in the sense that it signals a level of recognition of how China’s actions appear through other’s eyes.

As Chinese Academy of Social Sciences scholar Xue Li recently pointed out in a piece for The Diplomat, the South China Sea disputes could jeopardize the success of Beijing’s top foreign policy priority: implementing the “Belt and Road” projects. The Maritime Silk Road in particular will require cooperation and buy-in from China’s neighbors in ASEAN. If the South China Sea disputes cause problems for the “Belt and Road” (as Xue argues is likely to happen), Xue suggest that China “adjust its South China Sea strategy and policies.”

The shift in messaging may be the first stage in this adjustment. As my colleague Prashanth has noted before, China’s South China Sea strategy involves both asserting sovereignty in the region and maintaining adequately friendly ties with rival claimants, largely based on economic relations. As China itself put it in its military strategy white paper, Beijing must strike a balance between “rights protection” (defending China’s claims) and “stability maintenance” (making sure tensions in the region do not get out of hand).

China’s “Belt and Road” project was announced in fall of 2013, during a larger ‘charm offensive’ that accompanied Xi Jinping’s tour of Southeast Asia. But the fruit of that labor (including the Belt and Road) withered away during the tensions of 2014 and 2015. The policy fell out of balance, tipping too far toward the side of “right protection” at the expense of “stability maintenance.” China seems to have woken up to that fact and is adjusting its messaging accordingly.

There are limits to this shift, of course — most notably that China has changed rhetoric but not behavior. Beijing has repeatedly stated it will not give up an inch of its territory, including the nine-dash line in the South China Sea; that policy will remain the bedrock of its maneuvering in the disputed area. In addition, though Beijing has provided a lengthy list of civilian functions for the island outposts, it has not been similarly upfront about its plans for militarizing the islands, although officials have confirmed that the new facilities will be used for defensive purposes, including “better safeguarding territorial sovereignty.” That means the area that most concerns other claimants – newly militarized Chinese outposts in the South China Sea – remains a black box.