China Plays the Victim in the South China Sea

June 15, 2015 Topic: Security Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: ChinaSouth China Sea

China Plays the Victim in the South China Sea

The strategic discussion between the U.S. and China can’t be called a dialogue of the deaf.


The strategic discussion between the U.S. and China can’t be called a dialogue of the deaf. The talk is loud and each side hears the other.

Yet a lot of mishearing is happening. Perhaps the metaphor should be a security debate shaking on a sea of scrambled semiotics.


Everybody purports to be talking about the same thing when really they’re talking about different things. Same subject, divergent understandings.

Take the subject du jour: the South China Sea. The issue under discussion should be clear and well understood. This is about rocks and reefs, contested ownership and rights in some vital maritime territory. When each side talks about the South China Sea, however, they’re also talking about lots of things that look nothing like rocks and reefs; scrambled semiotics in spades.

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The big shared understanding is that the South China Sea is one element in a much larger process—the shift in Asia’s balance of power.

Beyond that, though, the South China Sea becomes a subject of conflicting and confusing signs and symbols and understandings.

For everyone else, China’s rampant terraforming in the South China Sea shows the raw power of Asia’s biggest player, grabbing what it wants on the international commons. China, though, sees it as a domestic issue, restoring historic rights torn from China in its time of humiliation. The Party has been telling the people the humiliations-of-history story for a long time—and the people believe it. Domestic imperatives mean the Party must press on or be punished by the people. This is about domestic politics, not the international system.

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Listening to Beijing is to hear a litany of complaints about all the injustices imposed on China despite its indisputable rights and interests. The language of valiant victimhood is striking. Everyone is ganging up against poor China, but China will emerge victorious. The deep wounds of history throb. China proudly proclaims its power but the message is wrapped in a teenager’s question: Why is everyone so mean to me?

The crucial question that Beijing constantly worries about, often glimpsed, is the valiant victim conviction that everyone is plotting to foil its inevitable success. No wonder China faces huge problems and difficulties, with so much ranged against it.

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So it was that I turned on my mental decoder to listen to the Shangri-La speech by Admiral Sun Jianguo, Deputy Chief of the PLA.

Admiral Sun spoke of China’s ‘enormous restraint’ and its goal of peace and stability:

We hope relevant countries will work together in the same direction to build the South China Sea into a sea of peace, friendship and cooperation.

My decoder heard: We’re certainly going to keep building. Mountains of sand! Get used to it. Accept the new facts of our fait accompli. And by the way, America, this is our equivalent of the Caribbean.

Admiral Sun concluded: ‘We hope that all countries in the world will, in the spirit of win-win and all-win cooperation, strengthen communication and consultation, and make concerted efforts to safeguard peace and stability.’ Ah, yes, communication and consultation. The decoder offered this understanding: win-win means Beijing wins twice, all-win means that China always wins. Scrambled semiotics, indeed.

The U.S. speaks about freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight. And, crucially, rule of law. The decoder, though, keeps throwing up Barack Obama’s State of the Union line that the U.S. should write the rules, not China.

Who rules and who is writing the rules?

When Xi Jinping proclaims an Asian future run by Asians for Asians, there’s a big power surge on the U.S. decoder. The American translation, as offered by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in its 2015 Asia Pacific Regional Security Assessment is that China’s objective is ‘to weaken U.S. alliances, erode American centrality in China’s neighborhood and eventually create a new security order with Asia at its core.’

When the U.S. says freedom of navigation and rule of law, what does China’s decoder hear? As Yanmei Xei interprets it, Beijing:

likely does not see the U.S. Navy’s action as being aimed at upholding international law. Rather, it thinks Washington is mainly out to block its rise, a narrative that already dominates China’s geopolitical consciousness.

Evelyn Goh saw something similar in what has become the well-rehearsed theatre of the annual Shangri-La Show:

For the Chinese, the Shangri-La Dialogue tends to highlight the uncomfortable reality that the Asia Pacific is filled with American allies and friends, many of whom have superior resources.

Beijing is acting on the assumption that its island-creation in the South China Sea (the assertion of its natural rights in its Caribbean) will be only a second or third order issue in the great power relationship with the U.S.

The U.S. takes no position on the merits of any claims. Fine by Beijing. The U.S. concern is freedom of navigation. Tick, says Beijing. And quickly on to more important matters.

The overarching concern, Beijing assumes, is to build the g2 to become the G2, the shadow condominium of the world’s top two powers. Many in Washington see the logic. Xi Jinping’s ‘new type of great power relationship’ will get another big show when he visits the U.S. in September.

The only problem with this view of the South China Sea as a non-core g2 issue is that Beijing’s decoder may not be picking up all the different signals coming from the U.S. For the U.S. Navy, this is core business. And, as the old line goes, the 7th Fleet steers a lot of U.S. foreign policy. There’s a reason the Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command is always a Navy man.

From the U.S. Navy perspective, what the U.S. says about the South China Sea is exactly what it means. China may need to turn up the power of its decoder to consider the question posed by Nick Bisley: Why does the U.S. risk upsetting the tenor of Sino–American relations over rocks, islets and reefs?

Nick thinks China has been ‘genuinely surprised by the shift in tone and behaviour’ by the US over the South China Sea. To lessen the chance of any more surprises, Beijing should go back and re-read the speech that Admiral Harry Harris made to ASPI in March about China’s ‘great wall of sand.”

When Harris made that speech, he was Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Now he’s just stepped up to the top job: Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command.

When decoding what the other side is saying, it’s always important to see who is saying what, and what power they have to enforce their words.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. This piece originally appeared on ASPI’s The Strategist.