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Justice Antonio T. Carpio (Ret.)

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China’s three warfares

In 2003, China adopted the Three Warfares strategy to seize the South China Sea for economic and military purposes without triggering a war. The Chinese Communist Party, the Central Committee, and the Central Military Commission approved the strategy. China’s actions in the South China Sea must be viewed in light of its Three Warfares strategy.

The First Warfare is a propaganda campaign, declaring to the world that the South China Sea belonged to China since antiquity. In the Position Paper it submitted to the Arbitral Tribunal at The Hague, China stated: “Chinese activities in the South China Sea date back to over 2,000 years ago. China was the first country to discover, name, explore, and exploit the resources of the South China Sea Islands and the first to continuously exercise sovereign powers over them.”

This is, of course, the fake history of the millennium. The Tribunal ruled: “The Tribunal sees no evidence that, prior to the Convention, China ever established a historic right to the exclusive use of the living and non-living resources of the waters of the South China Sea, whatever use it may have made of the Spratly Islands themselves.” China’s First Warfare is now dead in the water.

The Second Warfare is a blatant intimidation of other coastal states in the South China Sea. From 2013-15, China built three huge air and naval bases in the Spratlys that project overwhelming military power, intimidating other claimant states into accepting China’s nine-dash line as China’s national boundary in the South China Sea. However, the Tribunal ruled that China’s nine-dash line cannot serve as basis to claim maritime zones, and thus in the South China Sea there are high seas which belong to all mankind, and there are exclusive economic zones which belong exclusively to the adjacent coastal states.

Consequently, the naval powers of the world can sail and fly, and conduct naval drills, in the high seas and exclusive economic zones of the South China Sea. The freedom of navigation and overflight operations of the US, UK, France, Australia, Japan, India, and Canada have prevented China from enforcing its nine-dash line as its national boundary in the South China Sea. Other states, like Germany and the Netherlands, have also expressed their intention to assert freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

The Third Warfare is China’s legal argument that its sovereign rights to the South China Sea predated the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) which China claims cannot prejudice sovereign rights that had vested prior to 1982. This is part of China’s continuing effort to introduce “Chinese characteristics” into international law, and those characteristics are naturally designed to serve solely China’s national interest. However, the Tribunal ruled that all states that ratified Unclos had agreed that all historic rights to maritime resources beyond what Unclos allows were extinguished when Unclos took effect.

The Tribunal held: “The Tribunal concludes that China’s claim to historic rights to the living and non-living resources within the ‘nine-dash line’ is incompatible with the Convention xxx. [A]ny historic rights that China may have had to the living and non-living resources within the ‘nine-dash line’ were superseded, as a matter of law and as between the Philippines and China, by the limits of the maritime zones provided for by the Convention.” Thus, this legal warfare of China is also dead in the water.

Recently, China enacted a new law that authorizes its coast guard to fire on foreign vessels operating outside of China’s Unclos-recognized maritime zones but within its notorious nine-dash line. This means that Chinese coast guard vessels can fire on Vietnamese, Malaysian, Philippine, and Indonesian vessels engaged in fishing or surveying within their own countries’ exclusive economic zones that fall within China’s nine-dash line. This is a grave violation of the UN Charter, which expressly outlaws the use or threat of force to settle territorial or maritime disputes between states. The whole world must oppose China’s latest attempt to reshape international law to serve solely China’s national interest. Accepting China’s promise that it will “exercise restraint” in implementing its new law is a fool’s assurance, for China’s new law not only violates the UN Charter, it can also be used by China at any time against any coastal state.

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