An interesting video surfaced on the Chinese Internet after China lost its South China Sea arbitration case to the Philippines at the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague. Titled “South China Sea Arbitration, Who Cares?” the video was promoted by the Chinese Communist Youth League, and featured a disturbing mix of youth, some donning animated cat whiskers, nonchalantly stating, “South China Sea Arbitration, who cares?” These images were interlaced with those of missiles, fighter jets, and explosions.
It is likely that many of those featured in the video are unable to care, because the country’s censorship machine blocked all details about the case. Nevertheless, the peculiar video raises valid questions for the United States and other parties that have an interest in pressuring China to respect the courts decision: What does Beijing care about?
Official sources have made China’s position abundantly clear, stating that they do not care what the world thinks, and are thus fully willing to let the country’s international reputation suffer in order to achieve its nationalistic goals. China’s Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin eloquently called the ruling “nothing but a scrap of paper.” Xinhua News called the arbitration award “null and void.” China’s Defense Minister Chang Wanquan said that the country would reject any proposition or action that is based on the award.
Furthermore, with the Chinese population generally kept in the dark about any opinion other than that of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), it is safe to say that no direct appeal can be made to the Chinese public. This reality transcends the South China Sea issue; hyper-vigilant propaganda organs increasingly sound the alarm against views contrary to the Party line, warning that hostile enemies under the yoke of foreign forces are lurking high and low. The U.S. ambassador is unlikely to be allowed to write an article explaining Washington’s position on the South China Sea issue for Chinese media (like the one Chinese Ambassador Cui Tiankai penned last year in the U.S.-based The National Interest).
If no reception can be found at the foreign ministry or in Chinese public opinion, then perhaps good old U.S. military muscle might do the trick. However, even here Washington appears to be at the disadvantage of “caring,” while Beijing purportedly does not. In order to avoid serious confrontation, the current U.S. presidential administration has refrained from military maneuvers that challenge outright China’s South China Sea claims. It has chosen to conduct missions of innocent passage near features that are legally entitled to 12 nm territorial water zones, rather than freedom of navigation patrols near low-tide elevations that lack such entitlements.
Beijing, on the other hand, has steadily advanced its territorial interests through dangerous provocation, even organizing its own civilian mariners into a maritime militia that enforces Beijing’s South China Sea claims. These mariners and fishermen are provided with basic military training, global positioning satellite equipment, and small arms before being sent off to safeguard Chinese sovereignty. The most advanced of these units are trained to confront foreign ships with sea mines and anti-air missiles, should there be a need.
In sum, it is plain to see that the United States’ cautious approach has not worked in the face of China’s high-risk tactics. If Beijing cares so little about world opinion, and is willing to leverage any strength it has (such as its massive fishing fleets) to score an advantage in the South China Sea, then the task for Washington and other concerned governments is to find what Beijing does care about. In other words, what cost is Beijing not prepared to accept? How can those costs be linked with respecting international law in the South China Sea? If policymakers can find the answers to these questions, then perhaps Beijing’s strategic calculus can be changed.
(This article originally appeared in The Diplomat)