South China Sea

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Beijing’s response to the unfavorable South China Sea arbitration outcome has highlighted an important aspect of its military strategy, the “three warfares” (三战).

Consisting of public opinion warfare (舆论战), psychological warfare (心理战), and legal warfare (法律战), the three warfares have been critical components of China’s strategic approach in the South China Sea and beyond.

On July 12, a tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague issued its long-awaited ruling on Manila’s case against Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea. How many countries recognize the decision as legally binding on both parties and call for it to be respected will determine its ultimate value, as international pressure is the court’s only enforcement mechanism.

Civilian planes landed on Subi and Mischief reefs for the first time on July 12, giving China three operational runways in the disputed Spratly Islands. Except for a brief visit by a military transport plane to Fiery Cross Reef earlier this year, there is no evidence that Beijing has deployed military aircraft to these outposts. But the rapid construction of reinforced hangars at all three features indicates that this is likely to change. Each of the three islets will soon have hangar space for 24 fighter-jets plus 3-4 larger planes.

Russia's disinformation follows a pattern which can be viewed as 4D: dismiss, distort, distract, dismay. China's reaction to the ruling by a tribunal of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague appears to have followed a similar pattern.  Chinese official and media statements attempted to dismiss the credibility of the tribunal, including personal attacks on its members. Officials appeared to distort the legal situation and distract attention from the core findings, and some used apparent dismaying tactics, raising the spectre of war.