How China Maintains Strategic Ambiguity in the South China Sea


China’s official government reactions to the recent U.S. Navy “freedom of navigation” (FON) operation within 12 nautical miles (nm) of a Chinese-occupied constructed island in the South China Sea are a multilingual puzzle. A careful examination of Chinese-language versions of Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Defense Ministry statements, however, reveals extreme subtlety in wording and an apparently coordinated effort to maintain strategic ambiguity on key questions about China’s position.

Do Chinese officials believe the U.S. Navy violated Chinese sovereignty? Unclear. Do they claim maritime rights surrounding constructed islands that go farther than the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) provides? Not explicitly. Will they specify exactly why the U.S. action is described as illegal? Not quite—but the door just cracked open.

Chinese official statements have been almost flawless in keeping these questions unanswered, with one exception discussed below. Doing so required a change in language between earlier statements warning against FON operations and this week’s protests following the event itself. In May, Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Hua Chunying warned the United States against “violation (qīnfàn) of China’s sovereignty and threat (wēihài) to China’s national security.” Earlier this month, Hua opposed “infringement (qīnfàn) of China’s territorial sea (lǐnghǎi) and airspace (lǐngkōng).”

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