- By Keith JohnsonKeith Johnson is Foreign Policy’s acting managing editor for news. He has been at FP since 2013, after spending 15 years covering terrorism, energy, airlines, politics, foreign affairs, and the economy for the Wall Street Journal. He has reported from Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia and, contrary to rumors, has absolutely no plans to resume his bullfighting career.
In the wake of last month’s legal curb stomping of China’s sweeping claims to nearly all of the South China Sea, observers have been anxiously watching to see how Beijing would digest the ruling. This week they got their answer: Not well at all. And apparently all Beijing’s troubles are America’s fault.
In the past few days, all three Chinese naval fleets have taken to the sea to practice for a “sudden, cruel, and short” conflict. China’s Defense Minister, Chang Wanquan, called for a “people’s war at sea” to fend off any threats to Chinese “sovereignty” over distant reefs and rocks.
More ominously, perhaps, China has also changed its laws to arrest and jail anyone caught fishing in waters Beijing considers its own, even though many of those waters are precisely the bits that are disputed among China’s neighbors in the South China Sea. Before, Chinese coast guard vessels would just chase away foreign fishermen, perhaps confiscating their boats. The stiffer penalties now, according to Chinese media, are meant to provide a legal justification for more aggressive Chinese patrols around the disputed shoals and islets.
That’s a real concern because fishing is one of the flash points in a watery tinderbox. Chinese fishermen, subsidized by Beijing and escorted by coast guard vessels, have been ranging further afield, enraging neighbors. Those neighbors, in turn, are striking back: Indonesia has blown up hundreds of illegal fishing boats, not just from China. Now Malaysia is getting in on the act.
And just to make sure the message was heard, Beijing also made sure to escalate the ongoing war of words with Japan — whose most recent defense white paper noted “concern” over the South China Sea — and sent more ships into disputed waters in the East China Sea. China’s defense ministry blasted Japan for “sowing discord” among China and other Asian states.
And just to round out the week, Chinese state media slammed Australia for its public support of the July 12 ruling by the international arbitration panel in The Hague. Calling the land down under an “offshore prison” of the United Kingdom and a “paper cat,” the Global Times newspaper identified Australia as the “ideal target” of a strike in the event Canberra meddles in the South China Sea fracas. Then the paper doubled down with further threats.
As Peter Dutton, the director of the China Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College tweeted: Chinese president Xi Jinping “had to choose between escalation and accommodation. Escalation it is.”
All this saber rattling isn’t just a result of the Hague ruling, of course. Even before Xi took office, China had started to take a harder line on territorial and sovereignty disputes, especially in the South China Sea, where Beijing’s claims clash with those of a half-dozen other claimants. For party leadership, reversing what it calls the “century of humiliation,” especially at sea, has been a constant refrain and a staple of its appeal to nationalist citizens, especially those that are active online.
But as Dutton notes, there has been an uptick in anti-American propaganda since that July ruling, which handed Beijing a resounding and very public loss. One recent video paints a dystopian vision nearly worthy of the Republican convention, complete with clashes at sea, ambushed peacekeepers, rampaging separatists, and terrorists in far western provinces.
“Behind everything we can always glimpse the deep shadow of the Stars and Stripes,” it concludes.