The South China Sea: A battle of narratives

A Hague Tribunal has ruled against China’s claims to the South China Sea. Gerald Wright explains the thinking behind China’s assertions, and why the decision is unlikely to make headway on reducing tensions.

By: /
July 14, 2016
Protesters release balloons as they display placards during a rally by different activist groups over the South China Sea disputes, along a bay in Manila, Philippines July 12, 2016.REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

'Twas a famous victory, as poet Robert Southey once wrote, but the short-term prospects for the international order are no brighter as a result of the ruling of an international tribunal on the entitlements of China and the Philippines in the South China Sea. 

The tribunal examined the application of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) to these countries’ claims and gave the Philippines, which initiated the case in 2013, almost everything it asked for.

The nine-dashed line delimiting China’s claim to most of the Sea was effectively eliminated. All of the features that China occupies in the Spratly Islands were held to be, at best, rocks, and therefore not entitled to 188-mile Exclusive Economic Zones. China’s island building was declared unlawful. The snag is that there exists no mechanism to enforce respect for the ruling and China long ago promised to disregard it. Indeed, we can expect to see China soon take actions that demonstrate its lack of respect for the tribunal and its decision.  

The battle of narratives will continue. 

The American narrative, honed in countless think-tank presentations, starts with the beginning of the postwar era, which witnessed a steady accumulation of rules and principles that have brought a substantial measure of order to international life. Foremost among these is freedom of the seas, one of the public goods that the United States provides to the world community. The same rules apply to everyone everywhere, the South China Sea included. When disputes arise they should be settled peacefully, in accordance with international law.

The rationale for American military operations in Asian waters that have been going on for 70 years forms an integral part of the narrative. The U.S. has shown its resolve to bolster the rules-based regime through energetic diplomacy, closer economic ties with Asia and an increase in military capabilities and readiness. What the U.S. is striving for is a “principled security network,” a term being promoted by U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter. 

There is a temptation to write off China’s extravagant claim as a land and sea grab, the act of a truculent, self-absorbed bully. We nurture our own sense of superiority by treating China as a rogue state. The Chinese have, however, produced a competing narrative that bears close attention for the insight it provides into the thinking of a would-be regional hegemon. Whatever may have driven its decision to sign and ratify UNCLOS in the first place, China’s differences with the U.S. and countries around the Western Pacific stem from a different approach to the law of the sea.   

"We nurture our own sense of superiority by treating China as a rogue state."

The UNCLOS principle is that rights to the seabed and the water column above it are determined in relation to the contiguous land. The Chinese invert this relationship. They see the South China Sea as indubitably theirs by virtue of the use they have made of sea lanes, fishing grounds and territory over 2,000 years. This is not an entitlement they intend to abuse; they are committed to freedom of passage. They view their claim to the Sea as giving them, in turn, rights to its land features. 

As far as building airstrips and other infrastructure on artificial islands is concerned, aren’t other countries doing that too? (In fact, the amount of construction undertaken by other countries is a fraction of that undertaken by the Chinese.) If differences do arise between states they should, in China’s view, be settled through negotiation by the parties concerned.

These arguments acquire an edge when set in the context of China’s sensitivity about what it views as unjustified American intervention in the Western Pacific. The forging of closer security relationships between the U.S. and Asian countries, freedom-of-navigation patrols that China characterizes as highly dangerous, and the anticipated increase of U.S. Navy ships in the Pacific from 52 to 62 by 2020 are all seen as an attempt to contain China just as it emerges from a long dark period of humiliation to claim its rightful domain.

Thus, ambassadors and academics have been dispatched to bombard international audiences with mounds of evidence of Chinese occupations stretching back into the mists of time. Their exertions will be undiminished by the tribunal’s assertion that the historical record ceased to provide valid grounds for a claim once China ratified UNCLOS. 

China’s arguments are by no means shared throughout Asia – indeed, they are probably disputed within China – but they acquire psychological force from Asians’ irritation with western rules and practices that are held to emerge from an historical and cultural experience quite different from their own. They have also stirred up tremendous nationalist feeling within China.  Ironically, one benefit of the current crisis has been to make the Western world much more aware of the domestic pressures that beleaguer President Xi Jinping. 

"If post-war order were not so closely identified with the U.S., China might be able to shed some of its rigidity."

We have here all the makings of a stalemate. It is even possible to imagine a world in which there are competitive systems of rules, overlapping and occasionally colliding and causing immense inconvenience to those who have to live and work in both of them at the same time.

Inventive minds will be at work trying to make this situation tolerable. Militaries will develop confidence building measures and rules of engagement intended to reduce the risks of unintended conflict. Five Chinese ships are participating in the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise currently under way. Proposals will be devised for joint resource exploitation and joint efforts at environmental management. 

On the Western side, the expectation will be that engaging with the Chinese will eventually wear down their resistance to the compelling logic that underpins a rules-based order.

An initiative that goes much deeper is, however, needed to shift governments in a constructive direction, promising a permanent improvement in the international environment. Other governments taking a principled stand could both add moral weight to the rules-based approach and correct the widespread perception that it is an American invention and merely an instrument of U.S. foreign policy. If the post-war order were not so closely identified with the United States, the Chinese government might be able to shed some of its rigidity and the nationalism rife in its population might not be so readily aroused.

The omens are not promising. Such is China’s ability to intimidate that some countries could turn out to be fickle friends. After the crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989, the European Union imposed a ban on weapons sales to China. France and Spain are now inclined to abandon it. The United Kingdom argues strongly for keeping it, but the UK is on the verge of disengaging from the EU. Japan, with its dependence on free passage of trade and energy supplies through the Sea, is an adherent of UNCLOS but likely to be regarded by China as an American lackey. South Korea will not want to risk offending China at a time when that country finally appears prepared to collaborate in managing relations with North Korea. 

Chinese efforts to split ASEAN have yet to score a definitive success but countries such as Malaysia shun controversy and even the new president of the Philippines is talking of bilateral negotiations with Beijing, which was anathema to his predecessor. Australia and New Zealand stand firmly with the U.S., their long-time ally, but their economic relationship with China will advise against taking more public stands than necessary.   

The Trudeau government, intent that the prime minister’s forthcoming trip to China will turn a page in Canada-China relations, will have similar misgivings about taking on an issue that does not engage Canada’s specific interests. 


It is always hard to make a case for pursuing what the late Arnold Wolfers called “milieu goals,” such as the maintenance of international stability and the orderly conduct of relations between states. Such goals cannot be presented to a domestic audience in as compelling terms as if they directly impacted territory or the pocketbook. Nonetheless Canada’s foreign policy history provides many examples of the pursuit of milieu goals. Identifying the rules-based order as a major theme of foreign policy could be a significant first step in shaping a saner world.