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Beijing Grapples With PR Crisis After S. China Sea Ruling

A protester from a local pro-China party chants slogans against the United States supporting an international court ruling that denied China's claims to the South China Sea, outside U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong, China July 14, 2016.

China is facing a communication crisis following an international tribunal's sweeping rejection of Beijing's claims over much of the South China Sea.

For nearly three years, China carried out a relentless attack on the legitimacy of the arbitration tribunal constituted under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) and its rival, the Philippines. Beijing claimed sovereign, legal and historical right over 90 percent of the sea area. But the strident language leaders have used to try to bolster their claims and undermine the tribunal make it more difficult to forge a path forward.

"China has painted itself in a corner, and is likely to continue slapping paint on the wall with no effect but to separate themselves from most countries," said Scott Kennedy, deputy director at the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.

Domestic audience

While the tribunal's case was underway, the Philippines elected President Rodrigo Duterte, who has appeared to be more open to negotiating the issue one-on-one with Beijing, abandoning the more hardline approach of his predecessor. But analysts say years of nationalistic messaging through state propaganda constrain Beijing's ability to engage with Manila.

Filipinos cheer moments after the Hague-based U.N. international arbitration tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines in its case against China on the dispute in South China Sea, July 12, 2016, in Manila, Philippines.
Filipinos cheer moments after the Hague-based U.N. international arbitration tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines in its case against China on the dispute in South China Sea, July 12, 2016, in Manila, Philippines.

"Chinese authorities now face a major propaganda challenge within the country," said David Kelly, research director of the Beijing-based advisory group China Policy, adding, "The public knew the tribunal would not find in China's favor, but after the Duterte election, followed by the U.S. dispatch of carrier groups into the region, the official response swung from resignation to outrage, allowing the populist temperature to rise."

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has said he is ready to negotiate the issue with the Philippines. But it is going to be very difficult for the government to start negotiations after painting the Philippines as a villain that had "robbed" China of a part of its territory in South China Sea.

"The authorities need now to persuade the public that negotiations with the Philippines is not abject appeasement. The challenge is to persuade the public to allow for a give-and-take negotiation," Kelly said.

International clout

On Tuesday, China's Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs Liu Zhenmin claimed that 70 countries and 230 political parties across the world have supported China's case on the South China Sea issue. But Beijing has not provided the names of these countries. Official broadcaster, CCTV, only named Cambodia and five African countries as supporters.

At stake is China's influence as the world's second biggest economy, and the biggest trader for the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Vietnam, one of the five countries engaged in territorial dispute in the South China Sea, has welcomed the tribunal's ruling and reiterated its case. China is desperate to ensure the other claimants and members of ASEAN either stay silent or speak in its favor.

"Beijing is attempting to demonstrate the international community's solidarity for its position by enlisting the support of other nations," said Paul Haenle, director of the Beijing-based Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy. "Many of China’s supporters are in Africa and the Middle East, where states have little to no direct stake in the conflict in the South China Sea, but have a large stake in relations, especially economic relations, with China."

What next?

There has been a barrage of domestic media programs, articles, and viral memes on social media, press conferences and interviews for foreign media on the South China Sea issue. The Chinese strategy appears to continue to try to undermine the legitimacy of the tribunal and pour scorn on the Philippines for bringing up case.

Liu Zhenmin, the vice minister, even questioned the integrity of the five tribunal members, four of whom came from Europe, saying that they offered "paid service."

Some analysts believe China will continue to take an aggressive nationalistic stance and try to use its economic clout to win support of the weaker countries.

"We can expect China to continue to make tough statements in response to the tribunal's award and look to counter the narrative that this issue is 'China against the world,'" Haenle said.

"If China continues to reject the ruling, it could cause long-term damage to their relationship with ASEAN and their bid for leadership in the region," Scott Kennedy of CSIS said.

Others see signs of softening, and a gradual change in attitude. This was evident on Thursday in an article published by the nationalist Global Times newspaper, which advised the government not to attack the Philippines through economic sanctions or military means.

"But since neither the U.S. nor China is willing to wage war against the other, at least at the present stage, in my opinion the most efficient and sustainable tools for a riposte by China will be the economy and technology," wrote Zhao Yongsheng, vice president of the China-France Association of Lawyers and Economists.

"That is to say, in the long run those who have more funds and better technology will win out in the South China Sea 'competition.' For example, with sufficient funds and advanced technology, China can carry out reclamation and build new islands in this region."