Propaganda Wars over the South China Sea
By Mark J. Valencia

Propaganda Wars over the South China Sea

Jun. 09, 2016  |     |  0 comments

China, the US and their respective supporters are engaged in a burgeoning propaganda and lobbying “war” regarding the South China Sea. The immediate cause is the nervously anticipated verdict of the international arbitration panel regarding the Philippines complaint against China concerning its actions there. China’s government has launched a worldwide information campaign that justifies its position and criticizes the panel for even taking the case. The obviously coordinated and repetitive verbiage by China’s government officials, ambassadors and analysts is “over the top.” It is understandable — not justifiable — that in an authoritarian system the minions would repeat and proselytize the party line. But it is somewhat eye-opening that officials and analysts in the US and the West have seemingly been dragged into the media “gutter” and become involved in a public information campaign of their own.

US officials and analysts — and their supporters — have accused China of being aggressive; bullying other claimants; violating the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) and international law; militarizing the features; undermining the status quo; generating instability; not conforming to international rules and norms; and threatening freedom of navigation. Many of these allegations are justified —  certainly from the perspective of rival claimants and their supporters — like the US.

But recently released US official documents and US officials’ and analysts’ statements have provided both old and new “sound bites” that cry out for examination.

Let’s look at a few examples.

The 2015 US Department of Defense Asia-Pacific Maritime Strategy Report says that “for 70 years, US military presence in the Asia-Pacific region has played a vital role in undergirding regional peace, stability, and security.”1 This assertion has been repeated frequently by senior US government officials, and by analysts, and the mass media.

But it defies common sense. It ignores the deep involvement of the US in the Korean War and the Vietnam War and more embarrassing, the US support and even enabling of brutal dictators with horrific human rights records in South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia and South Vietnam. This hypocrisy makes this self-serving statement vulnerable to ridicule.

Although it has not ratified the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and is thus not bound by it, the US insists that China must base its maritime claims solely on it and abide by the upcoming arbitration decision emanating from its dispute settlement process. Indeed, according to Senator John McCain, Chairman of the US Senate’s Armed Services Committee, “This decision should not be viewed as a suggestion but as a law that China must acknowledge, abide by, and uphold.”2 The US also insists that any claims to maritime jurisdiction in the South China Sea must be from land. This implies that any claim by China to jurisdictional rights within and because of the nine-dashed line is invalid. The US may be neutral as to the sovereignty claims but it is clearly not neutral regarding China’s jurisdictional claims.

According to US Secretary of State John Kerry, the US wants “a mutual embrace of the rules, the norms, and institutions that have served both our nations and the region so well.”3 But China and the US do not agree on what many of these rules norms, and institutional directions are or should be, and have conflicting national interests as well. The US basically wants to strengthen the existing status quo in which it is the dominant actor and patron.  This is essentially a continuation of its Cold War policy and posture in the region with a forward deployed military presence and a hub-and-spoke alliance structure.

China believes it is being constrained by the existing international world order that favors a system developed and sustained by the West and which contributed to its colonialization and humiliation. It should not be a surprise that China wants respect for its enhanced status and its “core interests” and that it wants to bend the system to its benefit just as the US did and still does.

The US continues to allege China is a threat to freedom of navigation. US National Security Advisor Susan Rice has emphasized strong US support for freedom of navigation and urged China to address regional concerns.4 After the recent US-China Security and Economic Dialogue in Beijing, US Secretary Kerry said, “We want the traditional freedom of navigation and over flight to be respected.”5 Some US supporters in the region have also echoed its accusations that China is threatening commercial freedom of navigation (FON). The US claims its Freedom Of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea are intended to preserve and protect freedom of commercial navigation for itself and others that is threatened by China’s claims and actions. But the US has over time deftly conflated freedom of commercial navigation with its real priority — freedom of navigation for its warships and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) vessels and aircraft. In so doing it makes frequent reference to UNCLOS, which it has not ratified but claims to be adhering to and enforcing.

But China has never challenged commercial freedom of navigation. China does object by word and deed to what it perceives as US abuse of this right and its thinly veiled threat to use force. This threat is manifested in its gunboat diplomacy also known as FONOPs. This US position undermines its frequent allegations that China is using coercion (threat of use of force) to get its way in the South China Sea. The US is obviously doing the same thing.

More germane, US ISR probes on, under and over China’s coastal waters probably include active “tickling” of China’s coastal defenses to provoke and observe a response, interference with shore to ship and submarine communications, abusing  the consent regime for marine scientific research, and tracking China’s new nuclear-powered and armed submarines for potential targeting .These are not passive intelligence collection activities commonly undertaken and usually tolerated by most states, but intrusive, provocative and controversial practices. The US argues that these activities are allowed under “freedom of navigation.” In the spirit of transparency, the details of these activities should be revealed and carefully examined by a neutral body to determine if they are indeed “legal” or not.

US government officials and analysts fret about what China might do with the features it occupies. But the US has clearly “militarized” and continues to “militarize” the region with its forward deployed troops, assets and patrols, bolstered by the rebalance of its defense forces.

Many of China’s alleged violations of freedom of navigation are actually attempts to protect what it views as its resources. This is illegal according to precedential rulings of the International Court of Justice. But the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam have arrested Chinese fishermen for fishing in disputed waters. Also other claimants are violating international law by undertaking unilateral activities in disputed areas that change the nature of the area. Indeed, from China’s perspective, the former Western colonies have been stealing its fish and petroleum in collaboration with outside Western companies.

US officials and analysts allege that China’s behavior in the South China Sea is “aggressive” and “assertive.” There is no doubt that China’s recent actions in protecting its sovereignty and resources against rival claimants have indeed been both assertive and aggressive. But overall China has demonstrated considerable restraint vis a vis provocative, assertive and aggressive actions by US’ ISR military probes and FONOPs. In fact, according to Admiral Harry Harris CINCPAC Commander, “incidents of China responding assertively to the US’ freedom of navigation missions in the disputed water are actually quite uncommon.”6

US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently told a US House of Representatives hearing that China “can’t have it both ways” by being a party to the UNCLOS but rejecting its provisions, including “the binding nature of any arbitration decision.”7 Yet the US is trying to do precisely that — pick and choose which provisions it will abide by. But not having ratified UNCLOS, the US has no standing to have its concerns arbitrated and little credibility to unilaterally interpret it to its benefit.

Japan has jumped on the bandwagon criticizing China’s actions. At the Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD), Japan’s Defense Minister Gen Nakatani castigated China for its island building in the South China Sea. He said, “Such unilateral attempts to alter the status quo and consolidate such changes as fait accompli considerably deviate from the maritime order based on the principles of the international community.”8 But this is exactly what Japan has done with Okinotori in the western Pacific. Worse, Japan has acted on its claim that the feature is a legal island and not a mere rock by recently arresting a Taiwan trawler operating in what Japan claims is its EEZ extending from the feature.

Senator McCain in a 3 June speech at Singapore’s Nanyang Technical University said that China is “shattering the commitments it made to its neighbors in the 2002 Declaration of Conduct … by conducting reclamation on disputed features …”9 This is a common refrain in the region and of US analysts. But other claimants — like the Philippines and Taiwan — have also violated the DOC’s self-restraint provision by continuing their reclamation and construction activities after the 2002 agreement. More significant, the Philippines — by filing its complaint — has violated what China considers the most important DOC provision of all, that is the commitment “to resolve their territorial and jurisdictional disputes through friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned.”

Regarding “militarization” of the South China Sea, US Secretary Kerry has said that “we believe that it is critical that no country move unilaterally to militarize the region.”10 Also a leading analyst has suggested that “there is a crucial difference between US military deployment and rotational presence in Southeast Asia and China’s military activities in the subregion.… With the exception of FONOPS and routine naval patrols and overflights, US military activities in Southeast Asia are in cooperation with regional governments. Washington operates ships and aircraft from the Philippines and Singapore with the consent of the governments.”

This is true — but this rationalization doesn’t deny or diminish the fact that the US has militarized and continues to militarize the region. The statement also acknowledges that for regional countries, FONOPs are a projection of power not welcomed by some regional states — especially if they are the target. Indeed, so far they have declined to join the US-led FONOPs despite numerous US appeals to do so. Moreover, it would seem that this analyst is suggesting that China’s militarization of the region would be all right if it could “persuade” some small country to consent to enable it. Is this approach and reasoning conducive to peace and stability in the region?

Regarding “militarization,” many US government officials and analysts fret about and rail against what China might do with the features it occupies. But what the US has already done is a fait accompli. Indeed, the US has clearly “militarized” and continues to “militarize” the region with its forward deployed troops, assets and patrols, bolstered by the rebalance of its defense forces. The aircraft carrier John C. Stennis strike force has essentially been deployed to the South China Sea since March in what is clearly a show of force. More may be coming. The US Pacific command has said it will place special operations teams in US embassies and deploy Special Forces to advise and assist partner nation security forces. US Pentagon plans to call for “heavy” brigades of equipment — tanks and artillery — to be prepositioned in Vietnam, Malaysia, Cambodia and Bangladesh. Is this not militarization of the region?

The point is that both China and the US and their supporters are engaging in a propaganda and lobbying war. It would behoove both the media and analysts to realize this and demonstrate more caution before repeating and spreading biased information.


1. The 2015 US Department of Defense Asia-Pacific Maritime Strategy Report. Retrieved from ttp://

2. Remarks at RSIS Distinguished Public Lecture, by Chairman John McCain, Friday, June 3, 2016. Retrieved from

3. US Vision for Asia-Pacific Engagement, by John Kerry, Secretary of State, East-West Center, Honolulu, Hawaii, August 13, 2014. Retrieved from

4. US to boost South China Sea freedom of navigation moves, admiral says. (2016, February 27). Reuters. Retrieved from

5. Press Availability in Beijing, China, by John Kerry, Secretary of State, The Westin, Beijing, China, June 7, 2016. Retrieved from

6. Carter: China “Could End Up Erecting Great Wall of Self-isolation”. (2016, June 4). Voice of America. Retrieved from

7. US urges ASEAN unity on South China Sea ruling; warns China on reputation. (2016, April 28). Reuters. Retrieved from

8. Managing Military Competition in Asia, by Gen Nakatani, IISS Shangri-La Dialogue 2016, Second Plenary Session, June 4, 2016. Retrieved from

9. Remarks at RSIS Distinguished Public Lecture, by Chairman John McCain, Friday, June 3, 2016. Retrieved from

10. Joint Press Availability with Mongolian Foreign Minister Lundeg, by John Kerry, Secretary of State, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, June 5, 2016. Retrieved from

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *