The Legal War behind the Impeccable Incident

The ancient strategist Sun Tzu stated that the acme of military skill consists of defeating one's enemy without actually engaging him in battle. China's strategy for advancing its domination of the South China Sea resembles a modern-day attempt to put that advice into practice.

With a weak but growing blue-water capability, China is carefully and deliberately promoting a vision that de-legitimizes the forward presence of the U.S. Navy in the region. Last week's bold and dangerous maneuvers by Chinese government vessels to disrupt a military survey mission 120 km from its coastline is the latest example of that effort. The manufactured "incident" comes packed in an unorthodox but effective misinterpretation of the international law of the sea. Combined, they feed a narrative trumpeted by the country's efficient public diplomacy campaign, one that leverages a number of powerful story lines, including fanning Chinese nationalism and a sense of historical injustice inflicted by the West.

The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea is the "constitution" for the world's oceans, to which China and more than 155 states are parties. The plain terms of the law of the sea regarding military activities are actually quite clear, and the consensus view that emerged from the negotiations is reflected in the convention.

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