Tea Leaf Nation

Chinese State Media to Pacific Fleet: We Won’t Be Pushed Around in South China Sea

A U.S. admiral boarding a spy plane got the reception China-watchers might expect.

Swift_Plane cropped

The temperature in the South China Sea’s testy waters may just have risen a degree or two. On July 18, the website of the U.S. Pacific Fleet posted an image (above) showing Scott Swift, the fleet’s new commander, onboard a U.S. P-8A Poseidon spy plane for a seven-hour-long flight over the South China Sea. Chinese official statements on Swift’s flight have thus far been moderate; the country’s Ministry of Defense has responded with relatively anodyne and boilerplate language, expressing “hope that the Americans fulfill their promise not to take sides in the South China Sea question, and do more that advantages peace and stability in the region, rather than the opposite.” In a signal China is treating the flight as a military and not diplomatic matter, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has stayed mum. But Chinese state media has sent a signal of its own that’s considerably less restrained.

On July 20, the website of People’s Daily, which almost exclusively runs content given prior sanction within the government, ran an interview with Zhang Junshe, a frequent commenter on military affairs in Chinese state media who works at the China Naval Research Institute. The article’s colloquial title says that other countries won’t be able to take advantage of China in the event of a conflict. In the piece, Zhang tells the Daily that while the U.S. has been patrolling the South China Sea with spy planes for “several decades,” it was unusual to see public reports of the same. In words that echo the Defense Ministry’s statement and aren’t directly attributed to Zhang, the article characterizes Swift’s actions as “completely contrary” to U.S. assurances that it’s not choosing sides in China’s South China Sea-related territorial disputes with its neighbors, including the Philippines and Vietnam. The article asserts that “the true American motivation is spreading the ‘China threat theory’ to create an excuse to raise the temperature in the South China Sea and to pivot to Asia.”

The presence of American spy planes near China has been a highly sensitive subject within China for some time. An April 2001 U.S. spy plane crash landing on the Chinese island of Hainan marked a recent low point for U.S.-China relations and required a high-level detente. More recently, China has exchanged fierce rhetoric with its neighbors in the South China Sea, and views stated U.S. policy of a rebalance to Asia as part of an effort to contain Chinese influence in its own backyard.

Like many in China, Zhang blames the United States for upsetting a “previously tranquil” South China Sea. “The controversy over islands and reefs in the South China Sea isn’t as tense as the United States says it is, [but] the U.S. is encouraging trouble from border countries in order to maintain its hegemony in the Asia-Pacific,” Zhang is quotes as saying. He underscores China’s emphasis on bilateral negotiations as the way to solve conflicts, and says that from his experience, he believes that “over 80 percent” of international disputes can be solved this way.

And if they’re not? The article — possibly paraphrasing Zhang — turns truculent. “We don’t cause trouble, and we don’t fear trouble. Other nations must understand China’s standpoint clearly: if the actions of other countries threaten China’s core interests, we will resolutely react,” it reads. It characterizes China as a “power” and a “backbone protecting regional peace and stability.” The article concludes, “some countries ceaselessly [try to] blacken China and attack it; as soon as a military conflict with China happens, these countries will not be able to take advantage [of China.] We will take resolute actions to protect our rights, interests, and sovereignty in the sea.”

Those are strong words, but not enough to placate some readers. Many Chinese military fanboys, a vocal minority colloquially referred to as junmi, can be counted upon not only to defend all Chinese territorial claims, but to lambast a Chinese government that they feel has not matched strong rhetoric with action. The most popular comment to the official online article complains that “the United States has already entered China’s nine-dash line,” part of an ambitious claim China has staked to much of the South China sea, “but up until now they haven’t sunk any ships or shot down any aircraft.” If only, the commenter muses, “China would act on its words.”

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian contributed research.

Image via U.S. Pacific Fleet

David Wertime is a senior editor at Foreign Policy, where he manages its China section, Tea Leaf Nation. In 2011, he co-founded Tea Leaf Nation as a private company translating and analyzing Chinese social media, which the FP Group acquired in September 2013. David has since created two new miniseries and launched FP’s Chinese-language service. His culture-bridging work has been profiled in books including The Athena Doctrine and Digital Cosmopolitans and magazines including Psychology Today. David frequently discusses China on television and radio and has testified before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. In his spare time, David is an avid marathon runner, a kitchen volunteer at So Others Might Eat, and an expert mentor at 1776, a Washington, D.C.-based incubator and seed fund. Originally from Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, David is a proud returned Peace Corps volunteer. He holds an English degree from Yale University and a law degree from Harvard University. @dwertime

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