A fleet of ships sail out at sea as China and Russia’s naval joint drill concludes in Zhanjiang, Guangdong Province, China, September 19, 2016. Photo Credit: Reuters
By Kevin Truitte, Columnist
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has embarked on an expansion of its regional power in East Asia. The PRC—under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)—has modernized and expanded its military footprint and aggressively confronted its regional neighbors at sea and on land. China has built artificial islands to dominate the South China Sea while the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), coast guard, and maritime militia have encroached on contested islands and sea space in the East China Sea. Beyond its physical actions, the Chinese government has deployed narratives invoking historic claims to legitimize the country’s actions over these maritime territories. As its political, economic, and military might increases, China has sought to rewrite history and frame its expansionist activities in the South and East China Seas as reclaiming its rightful territory from weaker regional nations, many of whom are allies of the United States. China’s employment of this “narrative warfare” aims both to muddle rival claims and to domestically and internationally reinforce its long-term strategy for regional hegemony in east Asia.
The weaponized use of narratives to legitimize a nation’s own political ambitions is as ancient as conflict itself. This “narrative warfare” is an aspect of broader information dominance to reinforce political objectives, whether in war or through nonmilitary means.[i] To dominate the information environment through strong narratives lays the groundwork for victory both in the field of “battle” –political or military—and reinforces support from the domestic population.
Today, the CCP has weaponized political narratives to shape both international and domestic opinion in its favor and lay the informational groundwork for its expansionism. The use of narratives falls in line with the CCP’s concept of “three warfares” which emerged in 2003: warfare for public opinion, psychological warfare, and legal warfare.[ii] One narrative type China employs is references to “historical” claims, often referring back to Chinese imperial hegemony in eastern Asia during past millennia. For instance, since 2003, the PRC has conducted a historiography of the Qing Dynasty, which ruled from 1636 to 1912, that draws from historiographies, adds nationalism, and rejects international comparative historical research on the old empire.[iii] This revision of Chinese history, not only of the Qing but both more ancient and recent, includes claims to the East and South China Seas, deploying the narrative that those areas are “historically Chinese.” These narratives, in concert with the PRC’s expansion into these seas, gives the country political cover for territory grabs.
For the East China Sea, China asserts that the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands and the resource-rich surrounding seas have long been part of Chinese maritime territory. The uninhabited Senkakus are part of the Ryukyu archipelago, which includes Okinawa and smaller islands under Japanese jurisdiction. The Ryukyus were once an independent kingdom that from its founding in the fourteenth century was influenced by Japan and China and was a tributary state to the Qing. Japan annexed the Ryukyus in 1879, and an unsigned Sino-Japanese agreement finalized Japanese sovereignty in 1895.[iv]. The U.S. seized control of the Ryukus during World War II, they were recognized as Japanese in 1952 ,and control was returned in 1972.[v] Since 1971 and discovery of resources near the Senkakus, the PRC has claimed the small islands as “historically Chinese.”[vi] This assertion stokes nationalist fervor in China’s population, as in 2012 when Chinese launched anti-Japanese protests and boycotts over the Senkakus.[vii]
Moreover, the Chinese government recently hinted at claims to the entirety of the Ryukyus. In 2013, several Chinese government officials, scholars, and journalists perpetuated—without rebuke—the narrative that China should lay claim to the Ryukyus due to their historical tributary status.[viii] This narrative sought to pressure Japan during a time when the two countries engaged in sabre rattling over the Senkakus.[ix] Likewise, the claims sought to leverage against the more than fifty-thousand U.S. military personnel on Okinawa that the local population largely opposes.[x] This drives a wedge between the Japanese and U.S. on one side and Okinawans and China on the other, exploiting an internal issue in Japan to weaken both that country and the position of the PRC’s strategic rival, the United States. Despite this, China’s assertions over the Ryukyus are borne of fanciful strategic dreams—the archipelago is a barrier to Chinese access to the Pacific—with little grounding in reality. Claims to the Senkakus, too, rely on a narrative that disregards the PRC’s own real history, wherein official maps in the 1950s showed the islands as Japanese.[xi]
More aggressively, the PRC’s South China Sea narratives rely on fabrication of historical control to justify maritime territorial expansion. China and weaker regional claimants to the sea’s islands and reefs have argued that their nationals have fished there for thousands of years. For the PRC, the quest to reinforce this narrative has subsidized archeological digs to find evidence of “exclusive Chinese usage… since time immemorial.”[xii] In 2015, a top Chinese naval commander asserted that the waterway belonged to China since the Han dynasty ruled the country from 206 B.C. to 220 A.D.[xiii] The current territorial claim, known as the “nine-dash line,” is allegedly based on a 1940s map drawn by the then-ruling Nationalist government, which was later driven from the continent by the Communist Party.[xiv] Another map found from 1951 is also cited to justify the expansive maritime border.[xv]
Reliance on history-based narratives muddles the international information environment to the PRC’s benefit. This is particularly true of late, as the Hague ruled that under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), China’s claim to the seas illegitimate.[xvi] By continuing to proclaim its historic control of the South China Sea’s reefs and islands, China undermines the effectiveness of the allegedly binding ruling as the country continues to change the facts on the ground in its favor. Unlike the East China Sea, China faces far weaker opposition from Vietnam, the Philippines, and others. Moreover, the South China Sea islands not only lay in economically lucrative waters but are strategically located along a critical energy trade route for China and other east Asian countries.[xvii] Domestically, by President Xi Jinping has claimed the historical narrative and rapid expansion of island bases as major achievements, reinforcing his rule in the Communist Party Congress and rallying Chinese patriotism.[xviii]
PRC’s use of narratives appealing to imagined history serves an important role in China’s justifications for its maritime expansion. These narratives wrap the kernel of truth that Chinese sailors and maritime explorers visited those areas and extracted tribute into a case that these seas belong to China. They distort international political perceptions, allowing the PRC to pursue strategically favorable positions while simultaneously shoring up domestic support for these policies. China’s weaponization of narratives serves its long-term strategic political interests, and furthers the country’s regional power.
[i]Jon Herrmann, “Nine Links in the Chain: The Weaponized Narrative, Sun Tzu, and the Essence of War,” The Strategy Bridge, July 27, 2017, https://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2017/7/27/nine-links-in-the-chain-the-weaponized-narrative-sun-tzu-and-the-essence-of-war.
[ii] Peter Mattis, “China’s ‘Three Warfares’ in Perspective,” War on the Rocks, January 30, 2018, https://warontherocks.com/2018/01/chinas-three-warfares-perspective/.
[iii] Pamela Kyle Crossley, “Xi’s China Is Steamrolling Its Own History,” Foreign Policy, January 29, 2019, https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/01/29/xis-china-is-steamrolling-its-own-history/.
[iv] Seth Cropsey, Jun Isomura, and General James Conway, U.S.-Japan Cooperation on Strategic Island Defense, Washington, DC: Hudson Institute, 2018, Available at https://s3.amazonaws.com/media.hudson.org/files/publications/RyukyuFINAL.pdf, page 10.
[v] Cropsey, Isomura, and Conway, U.S.-Japan Cooperation on Strategic Island Defense, page 10.
[vi] Tadashi Ikeda, “Getting Senkaku History Right,” The Diplomat, November 26, 2013, https://thediplomat.com/2013/11/getting-senkaku-history-right/.
[vii] Alan Taylor, “Anti-Japan Protests in China,” The Atlantic, September 17, 2012, https://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2012/09/anti-japan-protests-in-china/100370/.
[viii] Michael Peck, “China Claiming Okinawa Is Like Japan Claiming Hawaii,” The National Interest, April 29, 2016, https://nationalinterest.org/feature/china-claiming-okinawa-japan-claiming-hawaii-15996
[ix] Jane Perlez, “Calls Grow in China to Press Claim for Okinawa,” The New York Times, June 13, 2013, https://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/14/world/asia/sentiment-builds-in-china-to-press-claim-for-okinawa.html
[x] Hannah Beech, “The Tense Relationship Between Japan and the U.S. Military,” TIME, June 8, 2016, time.com/4360940/us-military-navy-japan-okinawa-alcohol-bases/
[xi]Ikeda, “Getting Senkaku History Right.”
[xii] Sean Mirski, “South China Sea Dispute: A Brief History,” Lawfare, June 8, 2015, https://www.lawfareblog.com/south-china-sea-dispute-brief-history
[xiii] Hannah Beech, “The South China Sea Is Ours Because It’s Got ‘China’ in the Name, Chinese Admiral Says,” TIME, September 15, 2015, http://time.com/4034455/south-china-sea-admiral-yuan-yubai-maritime-dispute/
[xiv] Hannah Beech, “Just Where Exactly Did China Get the South China Sea Nine-Dash Line From?,” TIME, July 19, 2016, http://time.com/4412191/nine-dash-line-9-south-china-sea/
[xv] Richard Javad Heydarian, “China’s ‘new’ map aims to extend South China Sea claims,” Asia Times, April 29 2018, http://www.atimes.com/article/for-weekend-chinas-new-map-aims-to-extend-south-china-sea-claims/
[xvi]Heydarian, “China’s ‘new’ map aims to extend South China Sea claims.”
[xvii] Taylor Fravel, “Why does China care so much about the South China Sea? Here are 5 reasons,” The Washington Post, July 13, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/07/13/why-does-china-care-so-much-about-the-south-china-sea-here-are-5-reasons/?utm_term=.1abd2ba1f3bb ; U.S. Energy Information Administration, “The South China Sea is an important world energy trade route,” April 4, 2013, https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=10671
[xviii] Andre Chubb, “Xi Jinping and China’s maritime policy,” The Brookings Institution, January 22, 2019, https://www.brookings.edu/articles/xi-jinping-and-chinas-maritime-policy/ ; Fravel, “Why does China care so much about the South China Sea?”