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Today in the West Philippine Sea: China, Lawfare, and Stick Diplomacy

sam-galope-philippines-china-big-stick-diplomacyChina is waging “Lawfare” – China’s implementation of the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), that requires all aircraft passing over Japanese occupied Diaoyu islands and the seas surrounding it to register with Beijing or else face “defensive measures,” is a clear example of Lawfare or the “Act of Using International Laws as a Weapon of War.” The term was coined by Air Force General Charles Dunlap in 2001 at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy in Harvard.

The same policy is also reported to be in the pipeline for the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea – this, China ambiguously denies. Claimant countries such as the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam that have Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) within China’s nine-dash-line territorial demarcation, are outraged by the pronouncement. They call on Beijing to clarify its intentions. In desperation, PNoy, the Philippine’s President, even went as far as citing similarities between China to pre World War I-II Germany.

The US calls it “provocative.” In defiance, it ordered two B-52 bombers to do a fly-by over the East China Sea ADIZ without notification. The act clearly states the US’s stand on the policy.

China’s aggressive stance on the enforcement of fishing laws within Philippine controlled seas is another example of Lawfare. Recently, the Hainan Province fisheries ministry stated that China has always enforced fishing laws. The current law merely extends the coverage to the nine-dash-line. It reassures that given the vast area of the South China Sea, enforcement is very difficult. Thus, it suggests that the fisheries law is a toothless dictum. However, the presence of Chinese warships chaperoning Chinese fishing vessels as well as blocking-off Filipino fishermen in Philippine seas is a clear indication of China’s intent and capability to enforce.

To sum it all up, China wages lawfare by (1) enforcing ‘soft’ but provocative policies outside of their jurisdiction; (2) it then expects ‘victim’ countries to raise the issue to arbitrating bodies such as the UNCLOS; (3) during the proceedings, which takes quite a substantial amount of time, it prods and irritates the victim country; (4) If the victim, in desperation, reacts violently, China condemns it then uses it as a justification for war. Therefore, the victim country not only loses territory and sovereignty but also international support.

In the article “Small-Stick Diplomacy in the South China Sea” from “the National Interest” website, China’s overall strategy is called “small stick diplomacy.” It argues that non-military Chinese vessels (small stick) that regularly poach and squat in Philippine seas are there to provoke local law enforcement. However due to the fear of retaliation from the PLAN (big stick) and the threat of war, the invaders are treated leniently – if not ignored outright. In the process, a new staus quo is established thus it becomes the norm. In the end, territory and rights are lost.

Lawfare is the driving force behind China’s small stick strategy. It is a formidable tool for invasion. Victim countries should set aside their differences to find ways to thwart this threat.


The question here is, how do we go about it? How do we treat with China? If we don’t cry wolf, they will invade us. If we confront , still we get invaded. Are we this impotent? Will we forever rely on the US to protect us?

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