The US Is Dealing Behind the Scenes in the South China Sea Arbitration Case

According to statistics from Chinese media and the research organizations of 21 countries, since this year the country with the most reports on the South China Sea is the United States, with 60,076 different pieces. Among those, there were 4,676 reports about the South China Sea arbitration case, making up 7.8 percent of the reporting. The Filipino media’s corresponding number is the fourth largest, with 2,764 articles altogether, 660 being about the arbitration, making up 23.88 percent of the articles. It is not hard to understand the Philippines’ number, but why would American media report on the South China Sea issue and arbitration case on such a large scale?

Some people think — under peaceful circumstances, with declining great nations competing, China’s rise, military wrestling, international arbitration, the state of affairs in East Asia, and news companies’ constituents all valuing the same subject matter — that this situation is honestly hard to come by, and so the U.S. media obsessively reporting on something is not a big deal. But is it really like this? As a scholar who for many years has focused on the South China Sea, this author discovered that the U.S. media’s heavy reporting of the South China Sea is bringing about intensely stereotyped viewpoints, the principles of so-called objective reporting are nowhere to be seen, and the often-used pattern of balanced reporting has disappeared. Improper intellectual stiffness has also appeared in a large portion of the reporting; the quality level of the reporting generally has had a very evident decline.

Where does this problem come from? In fact, the American media likes to speak about political correctness a lot; in usual reports it appears acceptable to criticize the government or make fun of politicians, but on major issues the media uses its own style to conform to the government’s stance. The American media is very zealous toward the South China Sea problem. The reports choose sides, in essence because the U.S. government does too.

Take the South China Sea arbitration case, for example. Quite a few host countries’ diplomats informed Chinese diplomats that American diplomats had demanded they declare their support for the result of the arbitration. This makes clear that the arbitration case is first and foremost a political event, and secondly a legal happening. Furthermore, this so-called legal event is fraught with procedural errors and serious flaws.

The U.S. diplomats and scholars that I have been in contact with do not deny this point, but hold the belief that America’s actions are helping to protect fairness, the stability of the South China Sea and freedom of navigation. Is it really like this? My opinion on the South China Sea has been assessed by people of my profession, both domestic and international, to be comparatively neutral. But I have discovered that since at least October 2015, the U.S. has been an important factor in the continuous heating up of the situation in the South China Sea. American actions in the South China Sea have obviously been mixed with selfish motives, clearly pulling for prejudiced support.

For example, the freedom of navigation that countries generally refer to is commercial freedom of navigation. However, the freedom of navigation the U.S. refers to also includes military freedom of navigation, namely the freedom for warships to operate in other countries’ exclusive economic zones and territorial waters. Furthermore, they ensure this kind of freedom by carrying out freedom of navigation operations.

Apart from the aforementioned examples, there is more evidence of the U.S. pulling for prejudiced support, at the very least through the European Union, the G7 meetings and other multilateral mechanisms, to put pressure on China. They directly pressured ASEAN member nations that are unwilling to get too deeply involved in the South China Sea issue; they provided the Philippines with the techniques, manpower and public opinion support needed to raise the arbitration case. The U.S. has unilaterally criticized China’s land reclamation and deployment of defense equipment to reefs in the South China Sea, pledging that their freedom of navigation operations will be directed toward the reefs and islands that China controls, from the Spratly Islands to the Paracel Islands.

In recent years, the root cause of America’s actions in the South China Sea has been the need to accelerate its strategy of rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific; for this reason, the Americans have pursued both macro- and micro-level operations.

On the macro side, within the context of strategically pulling back throughout the rest of the world, the U.S. is working to strengthen its military presence in East Asia. To do this, the U.S. plans to deploy 60 percent of its naval vessels and 60 percent of its overseas Air Force power to the Asia-Pacific region by 2020. While strengthening military deployment in the second island chain, the U.S. will also increase military cooperation with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and other allied nations, as well as strengthening military support to partner nations such as Singapore and Vietnam. The recently published “Asia Pacific Maritime Security Strategy” and four other strategic documents discuss the South China Sea at great length, and assert that they will make China pay a price.

On the micro side, the U.S. policy adjustment is accompanied by the U.S. military’s actions against China becoming more and more distinct, including all categories of deterrence and provocative action becoming more frequent. In February 2014, the assistant secretary of state testified in front of the House of Representatives and criticized China’s “nine-dash line” viewpoint, stating that it lacks a strong foundation on international law. At the ASEAN regional forum held in Naypyidaw, Myanmar, Secretary of State Kerry directly proposed the “three stops” requirement.* These instances show that the U.S. has more and more directly flexed its muscles at China. Close surveillance of China by military aircraft has increased from approximately 260 sorties in 2009 to surpassing 1,200 sorties in 2014; U.S. warships have even entered China’s territorial waters to conduct so-called freedom of navigation operations.

With Secretary of Defense Carter representing the military, they have walked even farther from reason on this issue. An example is when their aircraft passed in the vicinity of Scarborough Shoal, it acted in a heavily provocative way. Even more serious than that was when two destroyers entered the 12-nautical-mile radius surrounding China’s islands and reefs. When U.S. warships enter coastal waters within the 12-nautical-mile boundary, they normally should operate according to Chinese law, but in these two instances, without prior approval, the ships bombastically entered the area, obviously encroaching on China’s legal rights, and completely ignoring the bare minimum of respect that great nations should have between themselves. Right now, American actions are making the already tense situation in the South China Sea spiral into an even more strained posture.

Obviously, precisely as the U.S. is leading the nations surrounding the South China Sea to set up their armies and push the region’s tense situation a step further, the Americans are also deliberately exaggerating the position of the South China Sea issue on the chessboard of world strategy. The substantial adjustments made in U.S. policy toward the South China Sea has allowed the Americans to no longer take into consideration fair pretenses. The U.S. media is dancing free, not surprisingly adding fuel to the fire.

The author is a director at the Chinese Institute of World Economics and Politics.

*Editor’s note: This quote, while accurately translated, could not be independently verified.

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