"Is Beijing Preparing to Wage a ‘People’s War’ in the South China Sea?
China’s leaders might have to — or risk a backlash at home
by JAMES HOLMES
Last week China’s defense minister, Gen. Chang Wanquan, implored the nation to ready itself for a “people’s war at sea.” The purpose of such a campaign? To “safeguard sovereignty” after an adverse ruling from the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.
The tribunal upheld the plain meaning of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, ruling that Beijing’s claims to “indisputable sovereignty” spanning some 80–90 percent of the South China Sea are bunk.
A strong coastal state, in other words, cannot simply wrest away the high seas or waters allocated to weaker neighbors and make them its own. Or, at any rate, it can’t do so lawfully. It could conceivably do so through conquest, enforced afterward by a constant military presence.
Defenders of freedom of the sea, consequently, must heed Chang’s entreaty. Southeast Asians and their external allies must take such statements seriously — devoting ample forethought to the prospect of maritime combat in the South China Sea.
That’s the first point about a people’s war at sea. A clash of arms is possible. Statesmen and commanders in places like Manila, Hanoi and Washington must not discount Chang’s words as mere bluster.
Indeed, it’s doubtful China could comply with the UNCLOS tribunal’s ruling at this stage, even if the Chinese Communist Party leadership wished to. Think about the image compliance would project at home.
For two decades now, Beijing has invested lavishly in a great navy, and backed that navy up with shore-based firepower in the form of combat aircraft, anti-ship missile batteries, and short-range warships such as fast patrol craft and diesel submarines.
Party leaders have regaled the populace with how they will use seagoing forces to right historical wrongs and win the nation nautical renown. They must now follow through.
It was foolish to tie China’s national dignity and sovereignty to patently absurd claims to islands and seas. But party leaders did so. And they did so repeatedly, publicly and in the most unyielding terms imaginable. By their words they stoked nationalist sentiment while making themselves accountable to it.
They set in motion a toxic cycle of rising popular expectations. Breaking that cycle could verge on impossible.
If Beijing relented from its maritime claims now, ordinary Chinese would — rightly — judge the leadership by the standard it set. Party leaders would stand condemned as weaklings who surrendered sacred territory, failed to avenge China’s century of humiliation despite China’s rise to great power, and let jurists and lesser neighbors backed by a certain superpower flout big, bad China’s will."
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