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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat - 19FortyFive

China’s Strategy To Control the South China Sea: Defense of the Indefensible

Arleigh Burke-class
Image: U.S. Navy.

The perils of imprecise language obsessed George Orwell. Vague, abstract, or euphemistic language made it possible to entertain foolish thoughts. Foolish thoughts gave rise to even vaguer, more abstract, and more euphemistic language. And on and on the cycle toward decadence went. Even worse than inadvertent corruption of the English language was deliberate corruption meant to obscure political misdeeds or shroud them in righteousness. Orwell called willful obfuscation the “defense of the indefensible.” His verdict: political language consisted “largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.”

George Orwell, meet General Secretary Xi Jinping.

Linguistic hygiene is a must when interpreting and replying to a Chinese Communist Party diplomatic offensive. More often than not, party potentates deploy tricksy and false wordplay to salve foreign worries about their motives and deeds. Demanding precision is more and more critical the higher the stakes are for Beijing. High stakes amplify the incentive to deceive. Things commanding surpassing value to party leaders, the armed forces, and ordinary Chinese include such real estate as the Senkaku Islands, Taiwan, and the 80-90 percent of the South China Sea enclosed by Beijing’s “nine-dashed line.”

Bareknuckles diplomacy is Chinese Communists’ method of choice for fulfilling such goals. And they have the mindset for it. Diplomacy is war without bloodshed for them, while there can never be too much deception in martial undertakings. Officialdom wages “three warfares” on a 24/7/365 basis to obtain what it longs for. It tries to dishearten opponents through psychological operations. It shapes opinion in its favor through the media. And it conscripts the law as its weapon through novel and self-serving arguments designed to confound rivals.

Just this week, for instance, Foreign Minister Wang Yi told a gathering of ASEAN foreign ministers: “China’s sovereign rights and interests in the South China Sea conform to international laws, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. China has never raised any new claim, but we will stick to our consistent position. With the joint efforts of China and ASEAN, the South China Sea has maintained a stable situation in general and the freedom of navigation and overflight have been protected by the law.”

That China abides by international law would come as news to the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague. Five years ago the tribunal rebuked China’s claim to “indisputable sovereignty” over most of the South China Sea. Wang’s artful phrasing—China has never raised any new claim—is meant to mollify Southeast Asian contenders determined to uphold their rights to maritime jurisdiction under the law of the sea. But Orwell would pronounce his words meaningless. Beijing’s position is that it has been sovereign over the South China Sea (and its natural riches) since ages past and that archaeological and documentary evidence proves it. All Wang did was restate its old and consistent—and unlawful—position. After all, “historic rights” to sea space have no standing in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the “constitution of the oceans” to which China long ago assented.

Defense of the indefensible.

And how about that benign-sounding phrase freedom of navigation and overflight? What the law of the sea actually guarantees is “freedom of the sea,” a legal doctrine dating to the seventeenth century. Freedom of navigation is a subset of freedom of the sea. Under the regime of freedom of the sea, mercantile and military ships may do more or less as they please on the “high seas,” beyond the jurisdiction of any coastal state. The same largely goes for coastal states’ offshore “exclusive economic zones” (EEZs), which extend 200 nautical miles out to sea. The law merely instructs shipping to refrain from poaching natural resources from the water or seabed within another state’s EEZ.

This liberty of action is not what Chinese officials are referring to when they talk about freedom of navigation. Just the opposite. By freedom of navigation they mean “innocent passage.” Under the law of the sea, innocent passage certifies a ship’s right to pass through a coastal state’s “territorial sea,” a belt of water that extends 12 nautical miles offshore, under tightly constrained conditions.

The law of the sea proscribes a range of activities in the territorial sea, singling out military activities in particular. In effect a ship exercising its right to innocent passage may cross through the territorial sea and do nothing else during its transit. Beijing wants to enforce this doctrine throughout the nine-dashed line, making itself the regional lawgiver. If allowed to get away with it, China will abolish maritime freedoms codified by the law of the sea in a major waterway—and set an awful precedent for other bodies of water (cf. Russia in the Black Sea). Chinese domestic law will dictate what foreign navies, coast guards, and merchantmen may do in the South China Sea. That’s why successive U.S. presidential administrations have clarified their position on these matters, posturing themselves as defenders of freedom of the sea as a whole rather than freedom of navigation construed narrowly. Many friendly governments have followed suit.

This small wording difference, then, makes a colossal difference in foreign policy and strategy. Beware of verbal sleights of hand like Wang Yi’s. Friends of nautical freedom must strive for linguistic clarity in their own diplomatic communications, and they must insist on it from Chinese interlocutors rather than listen in silence. Otherwise seafaring states will seem to acquiesce in China’s version of affairs—and in the process grant purveyors of the three warfares an easy triumph.

Orwell would shudder.

And lastly, negotiations toward a “South China Sea Code of Conduct” are progressing fitfully. This is another benign-sounding venture that has been in the making since 2002, when Southeast Asian governments and Beijing agreed on a “Declaration of Conduct” for regional waters. It too lends itself to wordplay. Wang proclaimed that the code-of-conduct talks have “maintained momentum,” and they were on the agenda for the ASEAN-China ministerial meeting. But one hopes ASEAN governments don’t delude themselves that China will agree to any code of conduct that would require it to give up its quest for nautical sovereignty. Xi Jinping has vowed, time and again, to restore the nation’s sovereignty, and he has defined the South China Sea as sovereign territory. Reclaiming it is central to the “China Dream” he touts. Patriotic Chinese will hold him accountable—possibly in an ugly way—if he fails to deliver on his promise to make China great again.

Xi is not about to sacrifice his standing with them to conciliate Vietnam or the Philippines.

Let’s run a thought experiment. If China wants concord with its neighbors, there’s already a code of conduct for the South China Sea. It’s called the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Yet China blithely and routinely disregards the constitution of the oceans, trampling its neighbors’ rights in the bargain. What makes anyone think it would abide by some lesser covenant? If Xi & Co. were intent on amicable relations, furthermore, they could ease tensions today. The leadership could recall the China Coast Guard, maritime militia, and fishing fleet from Southeast Asian states’ EEZs and assume a posture of scrupulous fidelity to the law of the sea. But Beijing hasn’t, and in all likelihood won’t.


An F-35B with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 265 (Reinforced), 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU)

Bottom line, Wang was just prosecuting another front in China’s three warfares at the ministerial gathering. Recognizing what an antagonist is up to constitutes the beginning of wisdom. A long-dead English novelist can show the way.

James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a nonresident fellow at the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. The views voiced here are his alone.

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”



  1. Commentar

    August 6, 2021 at 8:05 pm

    The SCS issue can be traced directly to the actions of colonial powers in the 19th and early 20th centuries but of course today, nobody’s interested in blaming them.

    Ditto for Diego Darcia. The ICJ has ruled that the island belongs to its original inhabitants but nobody’s interested in blaming the squatters.

    The pertinent subject in SCS is the intention of US to turn it into the Persian Gulf of the far east. It is all the more pertinent if you take into account what happened to Iran Air flight 655 that was shot down by US warship while flying in Iranian airspace over Iranian territory.

    The SCS is vital to chinese trade and air passage and clearly China’s actions are a response to US threat in SCS. Issues concerning SCS are solvable but US intention in SCS and US support for Taiwan’s claims and US insistence for military ‘agreements’ in SCS region are the unmovable obstacles in SCS. The US needs to be chased out out of this next-persian-gulf-in-the-making if SCS is to evolve into calm waters.

  2. Commentar

    August 6, 2021 at 10:22 pm

    This month marks the 76th anniversary of US nuclear attacks on Japan in the delirious (or perhaps delicious) year of 1945.

    The US went on to drop 67 nuclear bombs on the Marshall Island Archipelago on the excuse it was needed in order to be able to defend the free world.

    The excuse for bombing hiroshima and nagasaki was that it was needed to save lives, a lie perpetrated through these 7 decades that started with the assertion that hiroshima was a military base. The real reason is that the US was eager to test uranium and plutonium bombs on live subjects or humansn. Nothing that included saving lives.

    Fast forward to today, the mentality of employing lies to save and protect the SCS is still so very much alive and well. The real reason is actually to obtain a potential chokehold on its peer adversary’s ability to maintain maritime navigation and air passage in the SCS.

  3. Duane

    August 7, 2021 at 10:10 am

    The “Commentar” is an obvious ChiCom troll – ignore his ridiculous blatherings.

    The only people who pay any attention whatsoever to ChiCom diplomatic blatherings and claims are a handful of professional diplomats whose day job is to get down in the mud to wrestle the ChiCom pigs – who by the way love to wrestle in the mud – and the ChiComs themselves.

    The rest of the world’s nations will make decisions on what to do about the ChiComs based upon their own national interests, and fears of what the ChiComs might do. The psyop campaign of the ChiComs only works in an environment of fear. So stop fearing the ChiComs and simply deal with them.

    In the meantime, strengthen alliances between the US and the other nations of the world – including the Quad and NATO and others like ROK – both military and especially economic. Restart TPP – ChiCom’s worst worry – and prepare to obliterate the ChiComs militarily should they allow their nutty dictator Xi drag their 1.4 billion people into a war they cannot win and which creates only losers, no winners.

  4. JVK

    August 7, 2021 at 7:47 pm

    International law includes generally accepted legal principles of nations. These include the idea that you cannot be a judge in a dispute involving you, and they also include a rule called the “clean hands doctrine.” In other words, those making an appeal based on international need to have followed the law themselves.

    Has the US followed international law concerning UNCLOS? — no because it is NOT a party to UNCLOS, along with some of its genocidal allies here and there.

    So, the US has zero standing to complain on the basis of UNCLOS about anyone. Case closed.

  5. alhorvath

    August 8, 2021 at 3:51 pm

    Communist China’s ambitions to control the South China Sea and beyond must be stopped by whatever means necessary. Bringing up what happened 100 years ago is nonsense. Communist China is a totalitarian government that oppresses its own people and would do the same to others.

  6. Jack O'Leary

    August 9, 2021 at 9:10 am

    Tibet, Tibet, Tibet. Makes all claims to defend PRC behavior, in the SCS or elsewhere, moot.

    BTW lets go back to the old name for SCS, the West Phillipine Sea.

  7. Scott Christie

    August 9, 2021 at 4:18 pm

    Agreed, Commentar is a Chicom troll. Their comments are absurd. That said
    1. Excellent Article James, well done.
    2. the chicoms will begin the next war with a massive cyber attack, possibly EMP or full Nuke attack. MAD strategy only works if you actually care about your own people. After murdering 50,000,000 of their own they could hardly claim that.
    3. There will be no warning of this attack, and likely show signs of singing a new treaty giving the US everything they want. This will lure us into inaction.
    4. This will happen during a liberal administration. They know the response will be weak and indecisive.
    5. Their goal will be the same as the Japanese during Pearl Harbor. Neutralize the US and have their way with the rest of Asia.

  8. Scott Christie

    August 9, 2021 at 4:25 pm

    In response to Commentar comments.
    1. We dropped the A Bomb to end the war or end the Japanese. Saving lives was just a by-product. Both the Japanese and Germans had active A bomb projects. We just got there first. Plus, I would rather die in a Nuke strike than be burned alive by incendiary attacks which was the current strategy to destroy Japanese cities. It was the strategic and moral right decision.
    2. MAD and A bombs have saved lives. Proof is there has been no Major wars or WWIII. The only reason for that is the A bomb.
    3. China has no right to the SCS anymore than the US has a right to all of the Gulf of Mexico or Italy has a right to all of the Mediterranean.

    How is any of this a lie? Please put down the Communist daily news and try again.

  9. Conmentar

    August 9, 2021 at 6:42 pm

    The US has made its intentions in the SCS very crystal clear by way of the DoD’s plan to equip its naval forces, especially its USMC and naval special forces units with new models of landing craft and amphibious warships. Military contractors have been asked to submit their designs.

    China needs to keep a close eye on such developments and thus avoid getting blindsided by an invasion force that suddenly appears in SCS waters from some tranquil harbor in the reguon or from a seemingly innocous war drill held in the said region.

    The development of aircraft carriers by china is a big waste of money. It would be far better to build fast destroyers that carry a side flight deck that can operate light jet recce fighters.

  10. Pavlos Xorofas

    August 10, 2021 at 11:24 am

    The Chinese people joke about Xi. His nickname is “the Pig”. He is an egomanic on an insane mission to rule the world. Where have we heard that before?

    The Chinese people are not stupid. They would get rid of Xi in a heartbeat, and Xi knows it.

    They may have money, they may be able to build ships, aircraft and missiles. but they have no experience in operating these forces in a coordinated fashion, no experience running the mini city of an aircraft carrier. In any conflict the US would prevail.

  11. Publicus_Reanimated

    August 11, 2021 at 12:09 am

    You must understand China believes and always has believed it is the seat of wisdom and power. Its mission is to impose order on the world. It does not matter if the Mandarins, Mongols, some Han dynasty or the Communists are in charge. The notion is engrained in their national id. Deal with them accordingly. Changing the form of government is not going to solve the problem.

  12. MD

    August 23, 2021 at 12:07 pm

    It is quite interesting to see the exchange of “arguments” from both sides on this and few other questions.

    Could someone remind me under which “right” US ruled Hawaii these days?
    The same stands for ruling Philippines for over a century. And don’t start with “We tuck them over from Spain” as Spain had even less ground to be in that part of the world.

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