China Responds to South China Sea Ruling

On Tuesday, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) announced the final decision in a case brought by the Philippines to a tribunal set up under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea over China’s actions in the . (See the PCA’s press release and full 405 page award document.) The tribunal offered a “sweeping rebuke” of China’s claims to control much of the sea, according to The New York Times’ Jane Perlez:

In its most significant finding, the tribunal rejected China’s argument that it enjoys historic rights over most of the South China Sea. That could give the governments of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam more leverage in their own maritime disputes with Beijing.

The tribunal also said that China had violated by causing “irreparable harm” to the marine environment, endangering Philippine ships and interfering with Philippine fishing and oil exploration.

“It’s an overwhelming victory. We won on every significant point,” said the ’ chief counsel in the case, Paul S. Reichler. [Source]

The tribunal was widely expected to rule in the Philippines’ favor—though perhaps not as comprehensively—and China had been preparing by waging a propaganda battle to win global support for their side. While the decision is binding on China as a signatory to UNCLOS, it is not easily enforceable, and such decisions have been defied by other countries in the past.

As soon as the decision was announced, China’s media and propaganda organs went into overdrive, denouncing the verdict, the tribunal, the Philippines, and the United States for its supporting role. The government also issued a formal response.

A piece by Xinhua called the tribunal “illegal and ridiculous” and questioned the qualifications of its members.

Crude cartoons tried to present China’s position in a more humorous light:

International media reports of the verdict were immediately censored:

Online, the ruling became a hot topic of discussion for netizens. What’s on Weibo’s Manya Koetse discusses the reactions she saw on Weibo, which she puts into three main categories: nationalist support for the government’s position, humorous responses, and questioning posts trying to learn more about the situation:

Nationalist voices were encouraged by the government’s dismissal of the tribunal and its ruling. A heavy police presence around the Philippine embassy prevented any protests there, though many registered their anger online instead:

While censoring messages that supported the tribunal, Chinese authorities also began to censor the “ultra nationalist” voices out of fear that they could spin out of their control. Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian reports for Foreign Policy:

But a wave of censorship also accompanied this outpouring of online commentary. Unsurprisingly, censors removed Weibo posts that contradicted the party line, such as one July 12 post that read “The South China Sea does not belong to China,” with an attached photo of a Filipino protesting China’s actions in nearby waters. But, according to information collected by anti-censorship website Freeweibo, most deleted posts were not anti-nationalist but ultra-nationalist, calling for military action against the United States or the Philippines to defend China’s territorial claims. “War is finally going to break out in the South China Sea,” wrote one user, whose post was later removed. “I was so damn excited last night that I couldn’t sleep!” Another wrote, “The South China Sea arbitration itself is an insult to China. Why would we wait for the result for this kind of crap? With such a large military, why don’t we just go fight to get back [what is ours]?” The post that was later removed. “We’re definitely going to fight,” wrote another user in a deleted post. “’We can’t lose even one dot’ means that we must take back the reefs and islands that Vietnam and other countries have occupied. How can we take them back? We can only rely on fighting.”

To understand why Chinese authorities would want to suppress speech that supports Beijing’s official line, it’s important to understand the risks that unbridled nationalism pose to the party. “Grassroots reactions represent an opportunity and a challenge for the Chinese government, which wants to harness public opinion but fears its power to destabilize the regime,” said Jessica Chen Weiss, a professor of government at Cornell University who studies Chinese nationalism. “The Chinese government tends to suppress grassroots nationalism when it wants room for maneuver in handling foreign incidents.” Weiss told Foreign Policy, “However tough the Chinese government’s response, it is unlikely to satisfy these ultra-nationalist demands for war.” Weiss said that “censoring extreme voices is part of China’s risk management strategy.” [Source]

After official media and social media accounts were blanketed with denunciations of the tribunal, a group affiliated with the Communist Youth League released a video which intended to show the world that China in fact doesn’t care about the case and its outcome: