China Needs To Up Its Public Diplomacy Game Regarding The South China Sea – Analysis


In 1954 while representing the new China to the world, Zhou Enlai famously reaffirmed Clausewizt’s dictum that “All diplomacy is a continuation of war by other means.

Given that China is engaged in a long term struggle with others for control of the South China Sea, it needs to greatly improve its relevant public diplomacy in both tenor and tone.  Many of China’s often severely criticized positions vis a vis its rival claimants are defensible.  But China’s public relations spokespersons are nebulous both in stating China’s claims and in their defense.  This needs to be corrected.

China’s growing need for improved public diplomacy regarding the South China Sea was evidenced most recently by its response to Indonesia’s protest over the presence of its coast guard vessel in Indonesia’s claimed Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and apparently, its territorial sea.  Indonesia objected to ‘violations by the Chinese coast guard of the country’s sovereign rights and jurisdiction in its EEZ as well as its marine territorial sovereignty .’  

Indonesia’s protest specified its complaints and only obliquely referred to the Philippines-China arbitration award.  But China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang response was over the top. It focused  on this one aspect, declaring that “The so-called award of the South China Sea arbitration is illegal and we have long made it clear that China neither accepts nor recognizes it. The Chinese side firmly opposes any country, organization using the invalid arbitration award to hurt China’s interests.”

This counterproductive overreaction angered Indonesia, the de facto leader of ASEAN and a middle military power in its own right. Worse, it wounded Indonesians’ national pride, putting pressure on the government to ‘do something’. 

Moreover, it unnecessarily focused the public on  China’s lighting- rod like refusal to accept the verdict of a tribunal set up under a Treaty to which it is a party.  This played right into the U.S. narrative that China is defying the existing “international order” and bent on bullying the region into submission.  China could have specified that its coast guard vessel was exercising its freedom of navigation and innocent passage. It could have argued that the presence of its fishing vessels in Indonesia’s claimed EEZ is another matter that should be negotiated.

 This is certainly not the first time China used poor public diplomacy in a dispute in the South China Sea. Indeed, it is becoming a pattern. In its row with Vietnam regarding oil exploration on Vietnam’s continental shelf, it could have specified why it claims the area in question. When Malaysia officially filed an addition to its extended continental shelf (ECS) claim, China quickly protested stating that the submission “seriously infringed China’s sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction _ _”. But it could have specified that Malaysia’s supplemental ECS claim overlaps its likely ECS claim from the Paracels.

While China’s South China Sea policy has been somewhat successful in advancing its interests, there are still many things that could go wrong.  This is particularly so as China ratchets up the kinetic pressure on rival claimants.

The region has seen this movie before.  Southeast Asian states are very sensitive to any whiff of attitudes similar to those of their previous colonial and post colonial masters.  China must be especially careful because many Southeast Asian countries host a significant Chinese population that in many cases has sensitive relations with the ethnic majority. China must learn from the mistakes of the colonial powers that preceded it.  

Otherwise it could stimulate blow back from many Southeast Asian states.  In a worse scenario for China, some could unite against it as a neo-imperialistic power. The China-Philippines detente could devolve to its historical default situation of the Philippines being blatantly in the US camp. This would be a serious blow to China’s soft power in the region—and a great fillip for US soft and hard power there.

What could China do? First and foremost it could reduce the ambiguity regarding what it claims in the South China Sea and elaborate and defend its positions in detail – as well as pointing out flaws and hypocrisy in its critics’ arguments.  Ambiguity served its purpose up to a point.  But now, such obfuscation serves only to stimulate other claimants to reaffirm their own claims.

China seems to be slouching in this direction.  In its protest of Malaysia’s supplemental ECS claim, it said “China has internal waters, territorial sea and a contiguous zone based on its Nanhai Shudao [the South China Sea islands]; China has exclusive economic zone and continental shelf.  China has historic rights in the South China Sea.” The former is true; the latter is questionable unless it is talking specifically about traditional fishing rights in Scarborough Shoal’s territorial sea. China needs to further refine its claims and elaborate them in a manner that’s compatible with UNCLOS.  For example, China might argue that technically, the Philippines – China arbitration panel ruling on the legal status of the Spratly features applies only to the features examined and named by the panel– and it does not apply to the Paracels—at least not directly. 

China could argue that the Paracels belong to China, that they are legal islands, and that they generate a 200nm EEZ as well as a continental shelf extending out to 350 nm.  Those claims could encompass some of the northern part of Vietnam and Malaysia claimed areas in contention and necessitate the establishment of boundaries.

 Until the ownership and status of the Spratly feature and the Paracels are determined and any necessary boundaries are established, there is an area in dispute.  According to the Guyana-Suriname arbitration precedent, no country should unilaterally proceed with exploitation in such an area. 

China could reiterate that it has been consistent in its policy of being willing to negotiate these issues.  It could point to its sincerity in negotiating and abiding by conflict management agreements in similar situations– with Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin, Japan in the East China Sea and with the Republic of Korea in the Yellow Sea.  China could also stress that has also offered joint development of petroleum resources with the Philippines in the latter’s favor and is willing to explore similar arrangements with others.

In its defense, China could observe that every state in the region, including China, claims adherence to international law but they have different concepts of what that means and different policies that flow from these different interpretations.  It could point out that other claimants are violating the 2002 Declaration of Conduct (DOC) by conducting “activities that complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability internationalizing the issues.”  For example, China could declare Malaysia’s filing of a supplemental ECS claim as a violation of the DOC.

Regarding protection of  the South China Sea environment, China could acknowledge that it has damaged the environment in the South China Sea with its island building and destructive fishing methods.  But it could also point out that other claimants have done the same with their own island construction and destructive fishing methods like poison, blast and muro-ami fishing—particularly Filipino fishermen.  It could also emphasize that it is undertaking the largest environmental remedial action there and challenge its rival claimants to join it.

In sum, China needs to tread more carefully and up its public diplomacy in the South China Sea. These are some of the ways it could do so.

A different version of this piece appeared in the South China Morning Post. 

Mark J. Valencia

Mark J. Valencia, is an internationally known maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. He is the author or editor of some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles. He is currently an Adjunct Senior Scholar, National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.

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