Source: Dingding Chen

Both Chinese and U.S. think tanks are making big efforts to influence world opinion and it is a long game.

As the date for the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s release of its ruling in Philippines v. China nears, Asia’s attention is focused on how the ruling will affect China’s claims and behaviors in the South China Sea. It is safe to say that the ruling will have a big impact on China’s strategic behavior in Asia, as well as the United States’ role in Asia (not to mention other claimant states’ positions and likely actions).

Although it is correct to focus on the likely strategic consequences of the ruling, we should keep in mind that there is another battle that has been ongoing for quite some time: the struggle over discursive power and the narrative with regard to the South China Sea. This is so because the South China Sea is not only strategically important for China, the United States, and other claimant states; it is also significant in terms of who controls the global discourse on international law and global order.

So far China has been in the defense when it comes to international law as many international analysts believe that its non-participation in the arbitration case hurts Beijing’s international image very badly. The U.S. and its allies can easily attack China for demonstrating a lack of respect for international law, even though the U.S. itself has not ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, despite strong domestic support.

Of course, whether China’s non-participation and non-compliance with the arbitration ruling even constitute real violations of international law is debatable. There is evidence to support either position.