Beijing and the South China Sea

| Joseph DeTrani
Joseph DeTrani
Former Director of the National Counterproliferation Center

Demonstrations in China against the U.S. in the wake of The Hague Court’s ruling against China in the South China Sea are reminiscent of the demonstrations in China when the U.S. accidentally bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade on May 8, 1999. 

The only difference now is that China, aware of the international support of this ruling, appears to be concerned about its public diplomacy image and is therefore overtly trying to show restrain by  gently  discouraging the protesters, with Chinese state media actually “criticizing anti-U.S. patriots”, claiming their actions are a “disservice to the nation” and calling for “rational patriotism.”

Despite these official exhortations, demonstrations continue against U.S. businesses in China, like Apple, Starbucks, KFC, and others.  This type of public outcry against the U.S. is not surprising, since the government has encouraged anti-U.S. sentiment.

The public reaction in 1999 to the bombing of China’s Embassy in Belgrade that killed five officials and wounded 20 was riveting.  Over 100,000 Chinese took to the streets in Beijing, with many attacking the U.S. Embassy with rocks and paint.  U.S. consulates in Shanghai, Chengdu, and Guangzhou were attacked, with attempts to set them on fire.  Chinese authorities were busing students, workers, and others to participate in these demonstrations, especially against the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.  Americans were cautioned to remain in doors, with preliminary plans to evacuate families if the situation worsened. 

Fortunately, after four days of government-encouraged and abetted demonstrations, the authorities shut them down, concerned that the demonstrations would morph into further protests against the government, on a myriad of socio-economic issues of concern to the public.  Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the government did not permit the people to hear President Bill Clinton’s apology for the unintentional bombing of their embassy in Belgrade. 

Since then, the U.S. has been portrayed as an adversary, concerned with a rising China eventually overtaking a so-called declining U.S.  This is a powerful narrative with the people, given China’s “100 years of humiliation.”  All Chinese students study the period of the Qing Dynasty, with the multitude of imposed Unequal Treaties, including agreements that granted extraterritoriality and access by the U.S. and France to Chinese ports, opened the Yangtze River to foreign navigation, ceded Vladivostok to Russia, and ceded Taiwan and the Penh Hu Islands to Japan.  There were other humiliations, to include the 1900 Boxer Rebellion that accurately documents a militarily and politically weak China being exploited by the stronger West, Japan, and Russia. 

This historical record has become a central part of the Government’s narrative on the need for a strong central government, supported by the people, and a strong military that will protect China’s sovereign interests.

Given China’s reaction to the 1999 Belgrade Embassy bombing, which conveniently diverted considerable public attention away from the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Incident, the official reaction to The Hague Court’s ruling against China in the South China Sea should not be surprising. 

It should not be surprising that China accused the U.S. of encouraging its ally, the Philippines, to challenge China in the Court of Arbitration in The Hague.  It should not be surprising that China, from the beginning of this legal process, has refused to participate or accept any ruling from the Court in The Hague.  China has asked the Philippines to “disregard the Court’s ruling over the South China Sea” and to negotiate directly with China in regard to sovereignty issues with Mischief Reef and the Spratly Islands, knowing Filipino freedom to return to the disputed Scarborough Shoal is the Philippine’s first priority.

Admiral Wu Shengli, Commander of the PLA Navy, recently told visiting U.S. Admiral Richardson, Chief of Naval Operations, that “we (China) will never stop our construction on the Spratly Islands halfway (to completion).”  These comments are in concert with PLA military exercises in the area of Hainan Island; a Chinese H-6K (nuclear capable) bomber flying over the contested area of Scarborough Shoal and threats of China imposing an Air Defense Zone in this area.  This is in addition to China routinely harassing U.S. naval vessels and airplanes, which could accidentally escalate into conflict as Chinese military aircraft and vessels come dangerously close to U.S. aircraft and vessels.

The South China Sea has never been a “core” issue for China.  China’s historical “core issues” are Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang Province.  These are non-negotiable issues for China, and any leader willing to compromise on them would be removed immediately, with public support. Why President Xi Jinping is making the South China Sea a core issue is open to much speculation.  It’s possible that putting this hard line marker down on the South China Sea is an ambitious attempt to put China in a better bargaining position when China eventually decides that a negotiated settlement to the South China Sea is in China’s interest. 

But what is clear is that international law dictates that China, a signatory to the Law of the Sea Convention, not interfere with the rights, freedom and lawful use of the sea and airspace in the South China Sea. 

This should be a “red line” for the U.S. and those countries affected by China’s attempt to claim sovereignty over 90 percent of the South China Sea.  To cave into China on this issue would have profound long term consequences for the U.S. and its allies and partners in the region.

The Author is Joseph DeTrani

Ambassador Joseph DeTrani is former Special envoy for Six Party Talks with North Korea and the U.S. Representative to the Korea Energy Development Organization (KEDO), as well as former CIA director of East Asia Operations. He later served as the Associate Director of National Intelligence and Mission Manager for North Korea and the Director of the National Counter Proliferation Center, while also serving as a Special Adviser to the Director of National Intelligence. Ambassador DeTrani is... Read More

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