The U.S. State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus mentioned that July 12 was the third anniversary in which the Philippines initiated the South China Sea arbitration, a reminder to all concerned countries to resolve territorial and maritime disputes according to international laws, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang responded on July 12, stating, "The U.S. side is yet to ratify the Convention, but keeps blathering on about the Convention, making requests for other countries; its words and deeds are way too ridiculous… [it is] typical double standard, hegemonic logic, hypocritical and ugly.” While the Philippines hosted the SCS arbitration, it has not mentioned the matter on its own initiative, meanwhile, on the other side of the Pacific, the U.S. seems obsessed with it. Why is the U.S. bringing up the SCS arbitration once again?
First, it intends to sabotage the current favorable conditions in the SCS that have continued to improve, and aims to create new troubles by raising the topic. China-U.S. relations have undoubtedly turned from the pattern of "cooperation accompanied by competition" to a bilateral relationship dominated by comprehensive strategic competition. The U.S.’s means of containment of China are increasingly diverse and tough: in addition to the red-hot "trade war,” the U.S. has raised such topics as the "Hong Kong issue,” U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, Xinjiang, and the South China Sea. All have become strategic handles for containing China. Since Trump assumed office, his administration has created hotspots that take advantage of the 13 so-called "freedom of navigation” operations conducted in the SCS. The administration certainly would not pass up the opportunity on July 12 to highlight the arbitration, which it created behind-the-scenes.
Second, the U.S. has encouraged opposition forces in the Philippines to handle disputes over the SCS arbitration. Since the Duterte government assumed office, China-Philippine relations have seen a turnaround, entering the best period in recent years. The China-Philippine bilateral consultation mechanism for the SCS issue has successfully held four consecutive sessions. Midterm elections show the ruling party has received an overwhelming win. Pro-U.S. opposition forces are an important faction that frequently attacks Duterte with the SCS arbitration, and their influence under U.S. instigation should not be underestimated. Therefore, the fact that Duterte has occasionally expressed concern about the SCS issue, even made some toughly-worded statements, to some extent stems from the realistic needs of the Philippine-US alliance and the need to show concern about what opposition forces deem “national interests.” Of course, the Chinese attach more importance to what one does than what one says.
Third, from the technical perspective alone, this is but a sophisticated maneuver by the U.S. to stoke “public opinions warfare.” For a long time, the U.S. government, military, and think tanks have had a tradition of feeding international media with sensational information. The U.S. figures if China stands out and clarifies its own initiative, it would be a belated response, and the so-called arbitration ruling would not be just a simple “piece of scrap paper;” however, if China doesn’t respond, it will create the impression that China has a guilty conscience. For many years, the U.S. has been deft in playing such low-cost, high-return tricks. Ashton Carter, the U.S. defense secretary during the Obama administration, mentioned “rules-based order” 38 times during his speech at the 2016 Shangri-La Dialogue. After that, the concept has repeatedly made ghost-like appearances in messages from politicians, scholars, and media outlets, yet to date nobody could say for sure what it means. But that doesn’t seem to matter, because perhaps even the U.S. itself is not fully aware of what it means. The same is true with the widely discussed “Indo-Pacific strategy.” The U.S. eagerly presented the concept to the international media as soon as it was created, and intellectual circles caught up immediately, providing a U.S. rhetorical monopoly over the topic. Some Chinese scholars once warned against making excessive responses to the U.S. “Indo-Pacific strategy.” That the strategy has taken such a bold initial shape has a lot to do with media sensationalization.
Such a U.S. practice has a number of takeaways. First, Chinese media professionals should acquaint themselves with and adapt to U.S. public opinion warfare. In the present international public sphere, China’s weakness is obvious compared with the West in terms of rhetorical impact, which is why various distortions and slandering of Chinese actions in the SCS can gain traction. Instead of putting energy into responding to such accusations, China should learn to identify these strategies of propaganda as well as their inherent logic.
Second, along with improvements in China-Philippine relations, both sides have shown great enthusiasm for cooperation, creating favorable conditions for the two countries to properly manage maritime disputes and explore maritime cooperation. However, it remains an undeniable fact that though the Duterte government has temporarily shelved the SCS disputes, we should not ignore their hidden destructive potential, which may become a disruptive variable affecting the orientation of bilateral ties and SCS conditions. Therefore, it is of critical significance to prevent the arbitration from becoming a chess piece for extra-territorial forces to sabotage China-Philippine relations, or otherwise be prepared to mitigate the shock from it to a minimum.
Third, the matter is also a reminder for Chinese scholars in the fields of international law and maritime law, even government officials, that they need to seriously evaluate and study the SCS arbitration ruling, which is both of theoretical significance to refute mistaken views, and of pragmatic significance to accelerate the cultivation and pooling of talents specialized in maritime law.