Legitimacy by cinema: China's 'civilianisation' of the South China Sea



On 23 July 2017, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported the opening of China’s southernmost cinema on Yongxing, or Woody Island, in the Paracel Island Chain of the South China Sea. The grand-opening of the Sansha Yinlong Cinema saw over 200 residents and soldiers attend the screening of a documentary titled ‘The Eternity of Jiao Yulu’. The documentary pays homage to the late Chinese Communist Party Secretary Jiao Yulu, whose devotion to the political work of the party in the 1960s reportedly drove him to die of exhaustion. According to local cultural authorities in the administrative centre of Sansha, located on Woody Island, the cinema is part of a broader plan to establish community services to enrich the lives of local residents, and will see the establishment of other cinemas on surrounding islands. Not surprisingly, amongst the ongoing and often loud narrative of the Chinese militarisation of the South China Sea is a softer, yet just as effective cultural approach to normalising Beijing’s presence in disputed waters.

As the largest of the Paracel Island Chain, Woody Island is home to the administrative centre of Sansha, which administers all of China’s claimed territories in the South China Sea, namely the Spratly Islands; the Paracel Island Chain; Macclesfield Bank; and the Scarborough Shoal. Woody Island—claimed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam—has been controlled by China since a naval confrontation with Vietnam in 1974. The current population of Woody Island remains unknown. However, Chinese state media has quoted a figure of 1,000 in the past, with three-quarters believed to be military personnel. The island’s civilian population reportedly consists of fishermen, Sansha City government officials—including their staff and families—and military families. The civilian population is further supplemented by a regular tourist cruise liner which operates between Hainan in China’s south and several islands in the Paracel Island Chain.

In addition to the establishment of China’s southernmost cinema, the Sansha City government has ensured the development and publicising of civilian infrastructure as an offset to the island’s inherently militaristic purpose. These have included local government buildings, a post office, a bank, a supermarket, a barbershop, a cafe, a public library and a stadium, which reportedly hosts cultural events. Softer approaches such as the ‘civilianising’ of Woody Island through creature comforts such as cinemas and supermarkets, ironically in juxtaposition with surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and fighter aircraft, serves to underline and normalise the legitimacy of China’s claim on the island.

Whilst Beijing’s softer approaches have reinforced its overall aim of establishing a ‘new status quo’ in the South China Sea, China predominantly relies on passive assertiveness in order to achieve its strategic goals. China’s assertive posturing in the South China Sea, most recently evident between 2009 and 2014, saw the seizure of territory at Scarborough Shoal and a willingness to react with force when challenged by other claimants. Although China has now adopted a less aggressive strategy of passive assertiveness, Beijing sent a clear message in February 2016 in deploying both SAMs and fighter aircraft to Woody Island.

The deployment of SAMs, assessed as being HQ-9 missiles and J-11 and JH-7 aircraft, served two purposes. The HQ-9 acts as both a strategic deterrence with its 200 km operational range, and symbolically reinforces China’s sovereignty over the island should it act as an extension of China’s broader anti-access/area-denial (A2AD) strategy. Furthermore, the balanced deployment of the JH-7, a maritime strike aircraft, and the J-11, designed for air superiority, further enhances Beijing’s force projection into the region and its ability to intercept other aircraft. Most recently, falling short of escalating beyond the confines of passive assertiveness, Beijing reportedly threatened Vietnam with force should it continue oil exploration in the Spratly Islands.

Beijing’s strategy is a two-pronged one in its long game of establishing a ‘new status quo’ in the South China Sea. First and foremost is a cycle of aggressive posturing, which may see the seizure of territory and confrontation of other claimants, followed by a shift to passive assertiveness in order to consolidate its strategic gains. This is foreshadowed by the ongoing development of civilian infrastructure, which serves to legitimise and normalise Chinese sovereignty over disputed territory. Although China’s militarisation of islands in the South China Sea can be counteracted with equal acts of escalation, it is the simplicity of legitimacy by cinema and the ‘civilianisation’ of disputed islands that will best serve China’s regional strategic goals in the long run.

Patrick Dupont is the Indo-Pacific Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.

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