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Parsing The US Public Relations Campaign Concerning The South China Sea – Analysis


As the US-China contest for regional dominance heats up, the South China Sea is becoming a main cockpit of the struggle – – both militarily and for control of the narrative.  Many have analyzed and criticized China’s actions and its narrative defending them. 

This analysis focuses on US actions and its public diplomacy effort.  It has developed a clever, comprehensive and consistent narrative blaming China for rising tension and portraying itself as simply responding to China’s threats as the region’s defender and savior.  But this narrative cries out for careful analysis rather than rote repeating and hyping by media and analysts.

The U.S. has accused China of making use of the pandemic to advance its interests in the South China Sea. According to US Secretary of Foreign Affairs Mike Pompeo, “Beijing has moved to take advantage of the distraction, from China’s new unilateral announcement of administrative districts over disputed islands and maritime areas in the South China Sea, its sinking of a Vietnamese fishing vessel, and its ‘research stations’ on Fiery Cross Reef and Subi Reef.” He also accused China of deploying militarized ships to intimidate other claimant countries from developing offshore gas and oil projects.

This citing of a hodgepodge of China’s recent ‘sins’ is an attempt to portray China as having stepped up its ‘threatening’ actions in the South China Sea. But China has not changed the pace of its activities there.   It has simply continued to implement plans made before the onset of the pandemic. The US accusation that China is taking advantage of the COVID 19 pandemic denies this and attempts to paint the normal as the ‘abnormal’ in order to justify its own stepped up military activity.

Indeed, as retired Navy Commander Bryan McGrath, says: “There is little doubt_ _that the pace of U.S. Navy operations in China’s near abroad has picked up in the Trump administration as part of its overall signaling campaign to China.”   He also thinks the Navy has increased the publicity surrounding these operations –-turning up the volume of the signaling. 

The US Navy has not only increased the ‘presence’ of its warships in the South China Sea but has also ramped up over flights of its nuclear capable bombers and even made the rare announcement that it had deployed its entire forward  based submarine fleet to the Western Pacific “for contingency response operations”.

Even more galling to China, it has stepped up its Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) that challenge with warships China’s claims to some low-tide features as sovereign territory – – as well as its prior permission regime for entering its territorial waters.

This recent flurry of US military activity there seems to be an attempt to deter China, reassure the region, and encourage China’s rival claimants to side with the U.S. and ‘stand up to China’.

But creating new administrative districts, naming features and a collision in another separate island group are even collectively a rather flimsy excuse for putting its forces on what must appear to China as a ‘war footing’ with B1 bombers, an amphibious assault vessel, Aegis destroyers, cruisers and littoral combat ships.

Creating or in this case modifying existing administrative districts is hardly a novel attempt to demonstrate administrative control.  The Philippines and Vietnam have long had such administrative units for the Spratlys in whole or in part.  Such ‘administrative districts’ legally means little in the face of public denial of acquiescence to others’ claims and actions.

China’s naming of features in the South China Sea is not novel either.   Naming is not necessarily claiming  – – or evidence thereof.  If it were, then maps issued by other claimants naming features in their national language would be equivalent “sins”.  Does the U.S. claim all the features named in maps issued by its State Department Limits in the Sea series?

Regarding the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing vessel, it is not clear who was at fault.; ; The vessel was fishing off Sansha, China’s then administrative capital for both the Paracels and the Spratlys.  Fishing off this particular island in view of China’s own fishers in violation of China’s laws and claim to sovereignty over the island was extremely provocative. This does not justify sinking a rival claimant’s boat — but it provides context as to why it happened.  It was not a premeditated act.    Moreover, the China-Vietnam dispute over the Paracels and their attendant maritime zones is quite distant and distinct from their disputes with other claimants over the Spratly features, maritime space and the resources therein.

Regarding China’s establishing “new research stations on military bases”, this was certainly an effort planned and initiated before the pandemic. Moreover China’s claim to high tide features there is as valid as that of the other claimants and like other claimants, it has the right to build such installations on its territory.

The U.S. also claims that its stepped up military presence is to prevent China from bullying its rival claimants. According to U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral John Aquilino “The Chinese Communist Party must end its pattern of bullying Southeast Asians out of offshore oil, gas, and fisheries.”  American forces will “stand with regional friends and partners to resist coercion _ _”. 

But the Chinese vessels were exercising their freedom of navigation —the same rationale that the US Navy uses for its intimidating maneuvers against China’s claims.  Zubil Mat Som, the head of Malaysia’s Maritime Enforcement Agency said “We do not know its purpose but it is not carrying out any activities against the law”.

Although the Chinese vessel did appear to be carrying out a survey – it may have been in an area beyond Malaysia’s and Brunei’s 200 nautical mile (nm) EEZ claim from ‘legal‘ baselines.  Both claim baselines that extend their EEZs beyond limits acceptable to the U.S. among others.

But let’s look at the South China Sea situation from China’s perspective.

The mainland of the U.S. is an ocean away from the South China Sea.  The two are not at war and China has no forward deployed assets threatening the U.S.   The U.S already has military ‘places’ if not bases in Southeast Asia–in its military allies the Philippines and Thailand–and more recently in Malaysia and Singapore for its Poseiden subhunters and electronic warfare platforms targeting China.

China believes that the U.S. wants to restrain its rightful rise in order to maintain its hegemony.  China argues that it is only responding in kind to the US threat in and from its vulnerable underbelly—the South China Sea. For China, the South China Sea is a “natural shield for its national security.”   It also hosts vital sea lanes that it believes the U.S. could and would disrupt in a conflict.

But more important to its continued existence, the South China Sea provides relative ‘sanctuary’ for its second strike nuclear submarines that are its insurance against a first strike– that the U.S.—unlike China–has not disavowed.   Given their strategic contest and the growing US threat to its nuclear submarines, China is building up its submarine detection capabilities on some of the features it occupies. Prominent China critic Gregory Poling of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies argues that China’s installations could neutralize US intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) in the South China Sea and thus enhance the survivability of China’s nuclear submarines in the early stages of a conflict. They may even be able to detect and thus neutralize US submarines.

The facts are that while China might present a problem for the US Navy in encounters close to the Chinese mainland, the U.S. still maintains a military advantage over China in the region and the South China Sea. Moreover, it is the U.S. military— not China’s — that is ramping up its presence there.  

The point is that there is a public relations war raging and it is likely to get worse in the run up to the US election. The U.S. is winning this war – – in English and the West.  But objective analysts should recognize it for what it is –on both sides- – falsehoods, duplicity, hyping and manipulation of facts-and not contribute to either side’s attempts to win this public relations war.

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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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