Conflicts - TensionsFree and Open Indo-Pacific/FOIPNortheast Asia

CCP weaponizes law to gain strategic advantage

FORUM Staff

Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping’s slant on international conventions favors the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) objectives, often to other states’ detriment. These unilateral “lawfare” tactics are among the CCP’s gray-zone techniques in seeking global hegemony, analysts say.

The CCP increasingly employs lawfare to gain leverage in Indo-Pacific waters, including the Taiwan Strait, and the South China and East China seas. Shipping channels critical to international commerce and security traverse those waterways, and the CCP also claims maritime territory in other nations’ exclusive economic zones (EEZ). Under international law, a nation has sole sovereign rights to natural resources, such as fish, oil and gas, and minerals, within its EEZ.

A Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy vessel cuts in front of the U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Chung-Hoon as it conducts a routine patrol in the Taiwan Strait in June 2023.
VIDEO CREDIT: LT. J.G. ABIGAIL RUSSELL/U.S. NAVY

Xi and the CCP ignore or misinterpret laws that conflict with their goals in order to coerce without resorting to traditional warfare. “Increased use of lawfare can conserve military resources, prevent destruction of civilian property, and save civilian and service members’ lives,” Jill Goldenziel, an international law professor at the National Defense University’s College of Information and Cyberspace, wrote for the Cornell Law Review in September 2021. “Law is a non-lethal but potent weapon that leaves fewer bodies on the battlefield.”

Relying on ambiguous Chinese laws and self-serving interpretations of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Xi claims the PRC has sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the Taiwan Strait, which separates mainland China and Taiwan, the self-governed island that the CCP claims is part of the PRC and threatens to annex by force. However, many nations assert that UNCLOS makes clear that the strait, which is up to 400 kilometers wide, is considered international waters and, therefore, a vital and universally accessible passage for vessels.

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy aggressively pushes the CCP’s claim, including deploying armed vessels to confront other nations’ ships in the strait. When a Chinese navy ship veered across the bow of a United States Navy destroyer conducting a routine transit in June 2023, the encounter drew worldwide attention. The reckless maneuver violated the “rules of the road of safe passage in international waters,” U.S. officials said.

Beijing angered Taiwan in January 2024 when it altered a commercial airline route to cross the strait’s median line, which has long served as an unofficial demarcation between mainland China and Taiwan. The CCP said it does not recognize the median line, Reuters reported. A Taiwan official said the new route ignored flight safety, disrespected Taiwan and tried to “package” civil aviation for political or military purposes.

“Throughout 2022, the PLA increased provocative actions in and around the Taiwan Strait, to include ballistic missile overflights of Taiwan, significantly increased flights into Taiwan’s self-declared air defense identification zone, and conducted a series of large-scale military exercises around Taiwan,” the U.S. Defense Department stated in its 2023 report to the U.S. Congress on military and security developments in the PRC.

Maj. Gen. Sun Li-fang, Taiwan’s chief Defense Ministry spokesperson, said the PRC’s actions could have devastating effects, The Associated Press reported in February 2024. “Any unilateral irrational action could very easily escalate tensions and sabotage stability in the Taiwan Strait region,” Sun said.

The PRC’s claim to almost the entire South China Sea, based on widely dismissed maps, has triggered disputes with Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, which say Chinese vessels have intruded in their EEZs.

Hanoi repeatedly has demanded that Beijing remove Chinese research ships, coast guard vessels and fishing boats from Vietnam’s EEZ, Reuters reported following an incursion in May 2023. The CCP’s intrusions into Vietnamese waters have “become routine,” Ray Powell, who directs Stanford University’s Project Myoushu on the South China Sea, told Voice of America.

The Philippines and Vietnam, which have overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea, agreed in January 2024 to enhance cooperation between their coast guards and strive to settle disputes peacefully. The CCP’s growing assertiveness looms over the accord. “We are firm in defending our sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction against any provocations,” Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said before signing two memorandums of understanding with Vietnamese President Vo Van Thuong.

Chinese coast guard ships and paramilitary boats have harassed Philippine vessels in Manila’s EEZ, in part of the South China Sea that Filipinos call the West Philippine Sea. Since early 2023, Chinese coast guard ships have bumped, fired water cannons at and pointed a military-grade laser at Philippine vessels in attempts to prevent resupply missions to a Philippine military outpost on Second Thomas Shoal. The number of Chinese vessels involved in these incidents increased dramatically in 2023, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a U.S.-based think tank, reported in January 2024.

The CCP continues to ignore an international tribunal’s 2016 ruling that Beijing’s claims of “historic rights” in the South China Sea are incompatible with UNCLOS.

Tokyo also has condemned intrusions by Chinese vessels into Japanese waters in the East China Sea. In December 2023, the Japan Coast Guard clashed with Chinese coast guard vessels that approached a Japanese fishing boat near Japan’s Senkaku Islands, which Beijing claims as its territory, Reuters reported.

In such confrontations, the CCP relies on lawfare — creating law or selectively interpreting existing international norms — to make its case. “When something occurs that they don’t like, they tend to take actions,” Adm. John Aquilino, Commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, said at a conference in Hawaii in January 2024.

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