‘Transparentizing’ - A new tool for ‘information warfare’ in the South China Sea

A Chinese coast guard ship and a Philippine vessel in the South China Sea, April 2023. Photo: AP.

Tool for “transparentizing”

Official channels (of the militaries, coast guards, foreign ministries and other government agencies) are usually the to-go option when countries want to publish information on the ground. The Philippines has been utilizing these channel. For example, after the incident in February 2023 which a Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) vessel was accused of using laser against a Philippine ship, Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) Commodore Jay Tarriela said that PCG would publicize all incidents of Chinese incursions in the South China Sea. After that, it has released photos of Chinese naval, coast guard and militia ships in the Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal. The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs also got involved and issued statements rejecting China’s explanation of the incident. The time gap between when the incident took place and when it was annouced, in some cases, were significantly shorter, indicating a stronger internal consensus on “transparentizing”.

The US often combines official statements with evidence of developments on the ground. US military publishes footage to accuse China of having “unsafe” or “unprofessional” activities in the South China Sea (the US also uses this tactic against Russia). For example, in December 2022, the US Indo-Pacific Command released a video that purportedly showed that a Chinese Navy J-11 fighter performed an “unsafe maneuver” during an intercept of a RC-135 aircraft of the US Air Force over the South China Sea, with the minimum distance is less than 20 feet. In May 2023, the US one more time accused a Chines J-16 fighter of performing “an unnecessarily aggressive maneuver” against its RC-135 aircraft. The US also continued to publicize its FONOPs via its 7th fleet’s media channels, exercises or aircraft carrier activities in the region, rejecting China’s claim that its navy “expelled” US vessels.

Chinese official channels rarely actively publish activities of other countries in the South China Sea. However, they often respond to other parties’ information or when their rivals have activities that China considers “infringing” its waters. For example, after the US published the video of the above-mentioned December 2022 incident, China released another video to claim that the RC-135 engaging in dangerous maneuvers against the J-11. In some cases, the information from China was even faster or more detailed than from the US. For example, on March 23, 2023, China claimed that the destroyer USS Milius had “trespassed” into “Chinese territorial waters off the Xisha Islands”. However, the US only claimed that they had conducted a FONOP in the Paracels a day later. When the US Navy cruiser USS Chancellorsville (which has been renamed USS Robert Smalls) conducted a FONOP near Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands in November 2022, Chinese Southern Theater Command released a map showing the ship’s route, while the US didn’t even mention which feature in the Spratly was the location.

Besides official channels, stakeholders also utilize other channels such as the press - both domestically and internationally - to target rivals. On February 24, the US military invited journalists from some American news outlets such as CNN, Wall Street Journal and NBC News to take part in a reconnaissance flight near the Paracels and to witness the aircraft being approached by a Chinese aircraft at close range. Two months later, on April 23, the Philippines also invited international new agencies and newspapers such as AP, BBC, AFP and CNA to a PCG patrol vessel in the South China Sea to record what BBC called “cat-and-mouse sea chase” at sea. The international public opinion after the incident was quite favourable to the Philippines, some countries such as the US, the UK, Canada, France and Japan had statements supporting Manila.

Countries also continue to use academic publication and social media to “transparentize” rivals’ activities. The China-based South China Sea Strategic Situation Proning Initiative (SCSPI) releases monthly and yearly reports on US activities, as well as publishes information about the location of US vessels in the South China Sea. SCSPI also regularly monitors and publishes activities of Vietnamese fishing vessels at sea. Meanwhile, the US-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) has reports on activities in the South China Sea, especially China’s, throughout the past 12 months. Some scholars or key influencers also share information about activities in the South China Sea from satellite images and AIS data on their social media accounts.

Some observations

All three countries promote “transparentizing” on the ground, however, the US and the Philippines are more proactive. First, the US and the Philippines are more ready and easier to attract international media and invite reporters to their vessels and aircraft than China. On the other hand, China is mainly dependent on domestic media. Chinese news outlets often publish information - including images and videos - of China's military and civilian activities in the South China Sea but seemingly targeting domestic audiences rather than international viewers. Second, China usually says that the situation in the South China Sea “generally remained stable”, which is different from other countries’ viewpoint (that tension has been increasing). As a result, China has less incentive to “transparentize” the “destabilizing” activities on the ground. Third, the majority of “transparentizing” campaigns of China aimed at the US - not other claimants - possibly because China wants to demonstrate that the US is the factor inciting instability in the region.

“Transparentizing” can help manage disputes better but it can also be a tool for parties to conduct “information warfare” in the South China Sea. First, countries may fabricate or misinterpret data on other countries’ activities for propaganda purposes. For example, SCSPI once accused Vietnam fishing vessels of swarming the waters off Hainan but this report was questioned by Vietnamese scholars. Second, countries tend to focus only on “transparentizing” others’ activities, not their own. The example about US FONOPs in 2023 above shows that US activities in the South China Sea were not fully “transparentized”. Third, countries also have other goals such as reassuring their citizens (Philippine public opinion often demands that the government be tough on the South China Sea), preserving international reputation as an abider and defender of international law (the US has not ratified UNCLOS but always said it already abides by the Convention) or showing their military might (China may want to assert that its navy is capable of dealing with US activities at sea).

It is also important to note that not all countries promote “transparentizing”. Although China deployed coast guard vessels to operate near Malaysia’s Kasawari gas project and sent the Haiyang Dizhi 08 survey ship to Malaysia’s EEZ in June 2023, Malaysia seems to continue its “quiet diplomacy” strategy - deploying ships to respond without actively releasing information.

In general, several stakeholders in the South China Sea are promoting the trend of “transparentizing”, increasingly releasing information about the situation on the ground, especially activities of other countries, to win the quest for favourable public opinion. However, it is still too early to assess whether this trend will stir up or calm down the South China Sea disputes.

Việt Hà

Commented and edited by HD

The article only reflects the author’s personal perspective.

The original Vietnamese version can be accessed here