Sand, Reef, Elevation, Island


碰瓷儿【Peng-Ci-er】: v. deliberately throw oneself to a running vehicle to extort the driver for compensations.

Against a backdrop of an indigo blue sky and the hypnotically golden sunlight of late Beijing autumn, a sixty year old man protested with a squeaking loudspeaker outside the sturdily walled compound of the US Embassy this Wednesday, demanding the “shelling” of USS Lassen, the US warship that a day before had conducted a “Freedom of Navigation” operation near the South China Sea reefs that China controls. Photos of the scene convey a sense of quixotic loneliness. He was later taken away by the police.

The man represents one end of the wide spectrum that features the Chinese society’s response to the well anticipated US patrol in the South China Sea. In that spectrum, you can find the hysterical, the ridiculous, the cocky, the official, the reasonable, the cynical and the sarcastic. It is another example of how China’s social media adds layers of nuance to an issue that can easily be oversimplified, acting as a prism that breaks down a beam of blinding sunlight into a rainbow of colors.

Wang Zhanyang, a scholar from the party affiliated Central Socialist Institute, is one of the more vocal personalities on Weibo who try to deconstruct a simplistic reading of the US move. He disputes the claim that China has “sovereignty” over the South China Sea features in question, arguing that unlike islands, they do not qualify as subjects of national sovereignty. He further challenges the conventional wisdom among the Chinese that the vast ocean encompassed by the nine-dashed line is China’s territory, declaring that it was an outdated idea advocated by Chiang Kai-shek but was later discarded by Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, who chose to honor the 12-nautical-mile rule for territorial sea. Nevertheless, he maintains that the remaining modern-day value of the nine-dashed line is to support sovereignty claims over the islands within the area, which have their respective 12-nautical-mile territorial waters.

Wang’s view is already a marked departure from the more radical idea that the US patrol is a direct violation of Chinese sovereignty. It also serves as a benchmark of how far a relatively milder Chinese view could go: maintaining sovereignty claims on the ISLANDS (not necessarily reclaimed features) within the nine-dashed line, while honoring international maritime norms. It seems to be closer to the largely implicit official position on the matter, as expressed by the decisively ambiguous protests made by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other governmental organs, which repeatedly referred to the waters entered by the USS Lassen as “nearby waters” or “offshore waters”, instead of territorial waters.

More hawkish views to the left find themselves in an inhospitable environment this time. Recently, a Vice Admiral of the Chinese Navy somewhat frivolously commented that the name of “South China Sea” in itself implies China’s ownership of the ocean. It was immediately greeted by sarcasm on the internet, with netizens listing the Indian Ocean, Gulf of Mexico and a string of other names to highlight the obvious absurdity of such claims.

On the other hand, Wang’s “liberal” view is also challenged for its lack of “necessary subtlety”, which might undermine China’s long-term interest in the region. For instance, his insistence to refer to the features as “man-made reefs” met with criticism from people whose views have otherwise very little substantive difference from his. Fudan University professor Feng Wei, an authority on Japanese affairs and one who disputes the blanket claim that China has sovereignty over ALL islands in the South China Sea, sneers at Wang’s insistence as “nerdy” and “trouble-making.” He claims that the official Chinese reference to the features as “land reclamation” (rather than entirely man-made structures) has political implications and is a “necessary wordplay” that should not be undermined by careless choice of words. But it is unclear how calling them “land reclamation” brings any real gains for China in this case, as the aforementioned Ministry of Foreign Affairs response did not advance any real territorial sea claims. It might be a case where China simply wants to leave the doors open for future developments. The naming dispute did trigger a call for the abandonment of any Chinese reference to the features as “man-made islands”, seeing the term as a misnomer and a US trick to distort their legal status.

Not surprisingly, the ultra-left online “hawks” are not happy with the milder commentators (despite their nuanced differences) and waged vituperative attacks against both Wang and Feng as “shameless” and “un-Chinese.” Only this time such jingoistic views faced resistance from within the same nationalist camp. The ferociously patriotic Weibo account, Zhanhao (same pronunciation as “war trench” in Chinese) labelled the angry, militant responses online as a sign of naïveté. Even though it sees the US move as a dirty trick of “peng-ci-er” and a way to “divert US domestic attention from the failure in Syria”, it still insists that maritime engagement with the US Navy should follow proper rules of engagement and only escalate when clear boundaries are violated. It believes that the current level of “staged” confrontation actually rewards both sides in their respective contexts: for the US, the move pacifies those who want to see the administration take stronger actions against China’s South China Sea ambitions. While for China, the stand-off provides an excuse for future militarization of the installations.

In an article written for the Financial Times’s Chinese website, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences expert Xue Li provides by far the most nuanced reading of the China-US South China Sea confrontation. First he makes a distinction among the seven Nansha reefs that China claims. He states that three of them, including the two where the USS Lassen approached this time, are mere “low-tide elevations” (meaning that they are submerged under water at high tide), therefore they are not eligible for 12-nautical-mile territorial waters under international law. He further argues that “innocent passage” by the US warship does not constitute substantial violation, even though it may not have paid China “due regard” in this case. The other four reefs sit above water during high tides, hence entitled to the legal status of islands bestowed by international law. But even for those reefs which do possess territorial waters, innocent passage of warships should still be considered acceptable, though more sensitive. He maintains that only when US warships anchor or conduct other clearly non-innocent activities within the territorial waters of the four islands, or within the 500-meter safety zone of the three “low-tide elevations,” should China consider substantive retaliation. Despite such possibilities, Xue argues that the United States, as “an experienced hegemony,” would hardly venture in such directions.

The relative mellowness in the Chinese response to the US patrol in the South China Sea seems to be doing the government some good. In particular, a subdued and neutralized hawkish wing on the Chinese internet, confronted by a vocal group of issue experts, gives the authority some space in building certain subtlety into its official response. As expressed through its mouthpieces such as the Global Times, there seems to be an intention to distance foreign policy maneuvers from the influence of over-enthusiastic domestic public opinion and hand them to the “professionals” to take care. For a country that has in the past forcefully used nationalistic public opinion as a weapon, this could be sheer wishful thinking or a serious change of mind that is worth watching.