Until the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, Beijing’s state media would continue the same medley on the recently-concluded Army Day Parade. That occasion, to commemorate the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) ninetieth birthday, was an unprecedented affair. Instead of troops goose-stepping and tanks rumbling on Beijing’s immaculately-maintained boulevards the PLA turned out on the dusty tarmac of Inner Mongolia’s Zhurihe military training base, the Chinese analogue to Fort Irwin.
The parade was more than muscle-flexing. It’s also intended to highlight the accomplishments to date of the ongoing PLA structural reforms, and to burnish Chinese President Xi Jinping’s credentials at the Party Congress. The Chinese leader’s message to the army was loud and clear. “Our heroic armed forces have the confidence and capability to defeat all invading enemies and safeguard national sovereignty, security and development interests,” he exhorted .
Xi’s call carries long-term significance, in view of how events have been unfolding in the turbulent Indo-Pacific maritime domain and the PLA Navy’s flurry of activities. Numerous Chinese warships were observed in the Indian Ocean ahead of Exercise Malabar. Frequent PLA forays were spotted close to Japanese home islands. To India , and to Japan , Beijing wryly has this to say: get used to it and don’t kick up a fuss over these legitimate activities.
Then came a Chinese intelligence-collection ship shadowing Exercise Talisman Sabre in international waters off Australia. The PLA Navy’s extent of reach has started to discomfort some, a stark contrast with Beijing’s opposition to foreign military activities in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). “At the moment what we see is a double standard where China picks the areas of the Law of the Sea that it likes and refuses to implement those that it doesn't,” the Lowy Institute’s Dr. Euan Graham remarked .
It’s not the first time China was called out for this double standard. The frustration is understandable: if other countries, including the United States, interpret international law to allow freedom of navigation and overflight for military vessels through the coastal states’ EEZs, why shouldn’t China conform to this mainstream?
There were attempts to socialize Beijing into the mainstream practice on freedom of navigation and overflight. Back in 2013, responding to the PLA Navy operating within American EEZ, then chief of the U.S. Pacific Command Admiral Samuel Locklear said : “They are, and we encourage their ability to do that.” Then came 2015; didn’t Washington downplay Chinese warships’ transit within twelve nautical miles of the Aleutians as complying with the Law of the Sea Convention’s “innocent passage” regime?
But when such socialization efforts went nowhere, criticisms are levelled at Beijing with the vain hope it will awaken and stop practicing the double standard. One should wonder: does China care? The assumption boils down to an instinct to protect international reputation and moral image. Yet it’s one thing to talk about “face” rather characteristic of the Asian socio-psyche; practicing statecraft quite another. Machiavellian in fact. National interests foremost, who cares what others say?
In case anyone needs reminder: Beijing’s island-building in the South China Sea was subjected to a torrent of criticisms, including from scientists who warned of a marine ecocide by the massive dredging work. And the biggest poke into Beijing’s eye—the Arbitral Award on Manila’s legal challenge, announced in July last year.
The award took China aback, albeit only temporarily. It refrained from escalation and mended ties with its Southeast Asian rivals through enticements. But Beijing has been obfuscating its deeds in the South China Sea. Behind diplomatic niceties championing cooperation with ASEAN, it persists with fortifying those artificial islands. Does Beijing care about being called out by others? Truth is, it doesn’t, but instead passes them off as “defensive” preparations against foreign meddling while others denounced such as militarization.
So let’s get real, Beijing will continue with this lawfare, justifying what it does as following what others have been doing to itself. And for better effect, couch this all within the boilerplate “Century of Humiliation” narrative: China was victimized in the past, but was too weak then to resist. A stronger China now should right the wrong and is beyond reproach.
Consider the snooping on Talisman Sabre. The jingoistic Global Times criticized Australian media for overhyping Beijing’s “low-key presence” and exercise of freedom of navigation in international waters. More relevant was this point it made: “patrolling in Western waters may be an ideal response to Western interventions in the South China Sea issue.” In short, China’s action is justifiable against what it perceives as foreign meddling in the disputed waters.
With its newfound diplomatic, economic and military clout comes newfound confidence—real or misplaced if you may call it—that Beijing will exploit for its interests. Never mind what others say. Only historical grievances matter. Such pent-up resentment translates into strength to challenge those perceived wrongs.