NICHOLAS WU explores the effect of domestic politics on China’s strategy in the South China Sea.

USS Lassen (DDG 82), (R) transits in formation with ROKS Sokcho (PCC 778) during exercise Foal Eagle 2015, in waters east of the Korean Peninsula
The USS Lassen patrolling waters east of the Korean peninsula in March 2016.

Although there has been no armed conflict in the South China Sea since 1988 when China and Vietnam last skirmished, tensions have again flared due to China’s recent land reclamation efforts in the region. Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Taiwan all lay claim to portions of territory where China has been engaging in land reclamation efforts since mid-2014. Many of those nations have also been engaging in land reclamation efforts, but China’s have drawn international attention and condemnation for their unprecedented scale. Chi-Hung Wei, a research fellow at Princeton University, postulated that in the view of some countries, China is aiming to increase its security perimeter, creating a bigger “yard” for itself. The United States would prefer for the regional balance of power to be tipped to the American advantage. The particularly dangerous issue in this crisis is that the United States and China have framed the conflict in entirely different ways, which could make it difficult to reach a compromise. There is hope, though, as overall stability in the region is in the best interest of both countries.

The United States’ official position is that it does not take sides in sovereignty disputes. Nevertheless, it has become increasingly involved in the ongoing dispute in the South China Sea, staging two freedom of navigation operations (FONOP) in October 2015 and January 2016. In early March 2016, the United States Navy dispatched the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis and its attached carrier group to patrol the South China Sea. China claims most of the disputed territory based on the so-called “nine-dash line,” a territorial claim covering most of the South China Sea that the Nationalist-governed Republic of China originally staked after World War II. After the Communists defeated the Nationalists in the 1949 civil war, the newly established, Communist-governed People’s Republic of China coopted the Republic of China’s territorial claim based on its “One China” policy.  

The United States couches its arguments about the Chinese territorial claims as issues of international law, but, curiously enough, the United States has not ratified UNCLOS, the body of international law governing these disputes. 

Many of the other claimants, who were not independent nations when China staked its original claim, would prefer instead for individual territorial claims in the region to be determined by maritime law. Maritime law, in this case the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), grants a nation a territorial sea extending twelve nautical miles out from the island over which they have sovereignty as well as an exclusive economic zone within two hundred nautical miles. Islands and rocks have territorial seas, but improved landmasses and reefs like Subi Reef do not. The United States specifically objects to maritime laws in several of the nations that make territorial claims in the South China Sea. These laws require ships passing through foreign waters to give prior notification to the foreign government, regardless of the nature of the ship’s passage.

Under traditional conventions of maritime law, “innocent passages,” like those conducted by US Navy ships during the two FONOPs, do not require notification, so the FONOPs functioned as displays of American opposition to those laws that the United States believe violate freedom of navigation on the high seas. As Josh Earnest, the White House Press Secretary, has put it in past press conferences, “the United States will fly, sail, and operate anywhere that international law allows.” Freedom of navigation is in the interests of the American Navy as well as American commerce.

The United States couches its arguments about the Chinese territorial claims as issues of international law, but, curiously enough, the United States has not ratified UNCLOS, the body of international law governing these disputes. According to Christina Lai, a research fellow at Princeton University, Chinese state media has attacked the United States’ position for its hypocrisy, an argument that she argues has some resonance in American policymaking circles – even President Obama has called upon the U.S. Senate to ratify UNCLOS. Although it is not a signatory, the United States still abides by the provisions of UNCLOS as a matter of customary international law, meaning that the United States follows its provisions as a matter of established state practice rather than a codified statute. Thus, while the United States itself is not subject to the legal repercussions of violations of international law, it follows all of the provisions of UNCLOS. According to Graham Webster, a senior research scholar at Yale Law School, the American Freedom of Navigation Operations were intended to force China to explain its claims in the region and actually stake a claim to sovereignty to them because it has not previously done so.

China’s claims are particularly difficult to resolve through international arbitration because China has not acknowledged any legal controversy, nor does it accept the legitimacy of some of the international arbitration bodies despite its being a signatory of UNCLOS. The Chinese response to the American FONOPs were telling. Soon after each of the FONOPs, editorials published by China’s state-run news agency, Xinhua, declared that the “U.S. maneuvers in South China Sea threaten China’s sovereignty and security interests.” A spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of National Defense used similar language, referring to “US threats to China’s national security and sovereignty,” reaffirming the Chinese government’s position that the American FONOPs were in violation of Chinese maritime law. There is a subtle difference in language in these statements, as they fall short of calling the American operations an absolute “infringement” (weifan) or “violation” (qinfan) upon Chinese territory. Calling the operations an “infringement” or “violation” would have staked a concrete Chinese claim, which would then expose China to binding international arbitration, in Professor Graham Webster’s opinion. To “threaten” (weixie) does not imply a concrete claim. The Philippines has taken China to court at the Permanent Court of Arbitration over the issue of China’s overall claims, but the Chinese have not acknowledged the legitimacy of that international tribunal on the grounds that the tribunal has no jurisdiction over the matter and that bilateral action between the two countries would be a better solution to the dispute.


Amidst withering criticism of China’s actions in the region, American commentators have generally overlooked the potential effect of China’s domestic politics on its foreign policy. Much of the Chinese government’s rhetoric regarding the South China Sea has been targeted at domestic consumption. In early January, between the first and second FONOPs, the Chinese government landed civilian airliners on the Fiery Cross Reef airstrip, conducted a photoshoot with the stewardesses aboard the airliner, and then welcomed Chinese citizens to the reef as a demonstration of Chinese authority. This episode was well-documented and then posted on, a major online news source. China clearly intends to resolve this crisis as a domestic matter, and the FONOPs have not caused China to remove its installations or revoke its claims to the South China Sea islands.

American policymakers and commentators must consider China’s domestic political landscape and resist the urge to caricature the Chinese government as a monolithic body that can pass policy by fiat regardless of public opinion. American officials cannot afford to make that mistake, given the volatility of the South China Sea situation. If planners miscalculate in their strategy, it could provoke a huge domestic backlash in China that will affect the strategy of Chinese leadership.

After the first FONOP, netizens posted on sites like Weibo that China needed to resolutely defend itself against “foreign incursions” to prove that the nation’s defenses were not merely “paper tigers.”

Chinese foreign policy is in part predicated on the perception in China of a long history of encirclement and humiliation. Henry Kissinger famously wrote in his book On China that a large degree of Chinese strategic thinking is aimed at preventing encirclement by foreign powers, as in the Chinese intervention to save North Korea during the Korean War. That theme of encirclement still resonates strongly among the Chinese public. Even the Xinhua and Global Times editorials about the South China Sea allude to the “threatening of national security” by American FONOPs. The concept that China has been subject to a “century of humiliation” by foreign powers and is only now coming out of that period is a very salient argument for the Chinese national psyche.


In the eyes of many Chinese citizens, the issues at hand in the South China Sea are critical. According to Bonnie Wang, a Chinese national currently living in North Carolina, “the advocacy of national sovereignty is very important to an ordinary Chinese citizen.” According to Professor Jessica Weiss, Associate Professor of Government at Cornell University, “Perceptions of foreign humiliation and encroachment on Chinese sovereignty and interests are easily reawakened by new slights and perceived insults. In the absence of tough words and actions, many among the Chinese public—particularly ‘netizens’—will accuse the Chinese government of being too soft in standing up for Chinese interests.” Indeed, after the first FONOP, netizens posted on sites like Weibo that China needed to resolutely defend itself against “foreign incursions” to prove that the nation’s defenses were not merely “paper tigers.”

Furthermore, there is a precedent for large-scale grassroots demonstrations in China in response to perceptions of Chinese foreign policy weakness, as with the anti-American protests after the accidental bombing of the Sarajevo Chinese Embassy in 1999 or the large-scale anti-Japanese protests in 2012 after the Japanese government purchased the Diaoyu/Senakau Islands from private owners. The threat of domestic backlash can have large consequences for the Chinese government’s foreign policy-making and diplomacy.

As the government of the PRC moves away from its traditional ideology-based legitimacy and as the government’s economic performance-based legitimacy flags amidst economic difficulty, nationalism becomes an increasingly important tool.

Perhaps surprisingly, no major protests have occurred yet over the South China Sea, be they government-organized or grassroots protests. Professor Weiss explains, “The Chinese government has held the upper hand so far in its territorial disputes with Vietnam and the Philippines, so Beijing has not needed protests to convey its resolve. But the situation could change with further US involvement and the international ruling on the nine-dashed line.” China is attempting to expand its physical presence in the region without provoking severe regional backlash. The illiberal nature of an authoritarian system allows it to frame, organize, or suppress domestic protests in a way conducive to diplomacy as a form of providing credible signals in negotiations. The government’s position could be contingent upon the cost of suppressing protest. If the cost of suppressing protest would be too high, as in the case of the 2012 anti-Japanese protests, then the government will permit them. But in cases regarding smaller countries like Vietnam that lack historical animus with China, the cost of suppressing protest is significantly lower. Yet, the United States’s involvement threatens to change that dynamic, as belligerent action from the US might make it more difficult for China to mitigate domestic backlash.  

As the government of the PRC moves away from its traditional ideology-based legitimacy and as the government’s economic performance-based legitimacy flags amidst economic difficulty, nationalism becomes an increasingly important tool. Nationalist causes can provide a “rally around the flag” effect that increase support for the government. Alternatively, if the government is seen as too weak on issues related to nationalism, it could endanger the legitimacy of the CCP. According to Dalton Lin, a research fellow at Princeton University, Chinese nationalism can be built upon two ideological tenets: one is anti-imperialism; the other is the drive to move China away from colonialism. With the decline of the former colonial powers, however, what used to be anti-colonialism has become blurred with anti-imperialism.  Taiwan and the United States are very much linked to the anti-imperialism issue because of historical animosity, but smaller countries like Vietnam and other claimants in the South China Sea are not as much of a part of China’s anti-imperialist narrative. Nationalist fervor in China is much stronger than most outside observers realize.

As evidenced by conversations with Chinese citizen s and the posts of the netizens, a perceived weak foreign policy remains a central political concern. American planners need to be wary of China’s domestic political conditions and of China’s effort to avoid another “century of humiliation” regarding foreign incursions on its territory. No major protests have yet occurred against the United States, but the possibility remains. If China does see protests, the cost of suppressing them will only rise for the Communist Party because of the way that the United States could be tied into the historical anti-colonialist narrative. In other words, more aggressive Freedom of Navigation actions could provoke a huge anti-colonialist backlash in China because of the perceived slight against Chinese territorial integrity. This could even lead to the Communist Party being forced to adopt a more aggressive foreign policy stance in order to placate domestic opposition. American planners neglect this domestic element of the crisis at their peril.


Nicholas is a sophomore at Princeton University. Contact him at

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