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  • Jul 13, 2014
  • Updated: 10:22am
CommentInsight & Opinion

Bad public relations hides fact China has a good case in territorial rows

Trefor Moss says negative publicity hides the fact it has a strong case

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 September, 2013, 10:50am

China has a secret concerning its territorial disputes with neighbouring countries that it clearly doesn't want you to know about. To keep it concealed, Beijing and its agencies have a policy of blanketing territorial issues in bad publicity and charmless displays of bravado. This is usually very effective in keeping us all distracted from the underlying truth.

Over the weekend, for example, China again succeeded in portraying itself as the aggressor in its row with Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, when two Chinese H-6 bombers flew too close to Okinawa for Japanese comfort. It was a needless gesture of provocation.

But at least Japan can stand up for itself. In its ongoing territorial dispute with the Philippines, by contrast, China usually ends up looking like a bullying power picking on a smaller country.

China is angry with the Philippines because Manila elected earlier this year to refer the dispute over Scarborough Shoal to a UN tribunal. This incensed Beijing, even though it has signed the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, under whose auspices the tribunal is being conducted. Peevishly, China has refused to take part.

To chasten the Philippines, China has effectively adopted a new two-speed Southeast Asia policy: isolate and punish the Philippines, and be nice to the rest. Yet this goal only makes the other Southeast Asian states even more fearful of China.

When the facts are more or less on your side, you can afford to state your case calmly

Philippine President Benigno Aquino tried to free up the locked diplomatic machinery with a conciliatory gesture: he signalled his intention to visit a trade fair in Nanning . Beijing told him he wasn't welcome. Meanwhile, Manila was releasing aerial photography of Scarborough Shoal showing around 30 concrete blocks in the shallow water - a precursor to Chinese construction, it believes, in contravention of agreements barring new building in disputed territories.

So China, again, has succeeded in framing itself as the bad guy. This is surprising when you dig deeper into the historical and legal arguments of these disputes, to uncover that well-kept secret: China actually has a good case in many of the territorial rows.

If an international tribunal were to rule today on the future of the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, for example, it may well find in China's favour because - to put a complex case very simplistically - the islands were probably administered from Taiwan long before Japan annexed them. But these arguments are drowned out by the deafening blare of bad PR. By insisting forcefully that their case is "historically and legally indisputable", rather than suggesting more honestly that their case is "pretty persuasive", government spokesmen time and again turn a strong position into a losing argument in the court of international opinion.

In much the same way, China arguably has a decent case regarding Scarborough Shoal. Here's one important element of the case: China publicised its claim in 1948, and it took the Philippines five decades to object and counter with a claim of its own. Prima facie, that strengthens China's claim quite substantially.

It is hard to see this point, however, through the blizzard of negative publicity. When the facts are more or less on your side, you can afford to state your case calmly and confidently, and put your faith in the process.

What a shame, then, that China didn't meet the Philippines at the UN tribunal. It might have won not only Scarborough Shoal, but also the respect of its neighbours.

Trefor Moss is an independent journalist based in Hong Kong and a former Asia-Pacific editor of Jane's Defence Weekly. He can be followed on Twitter @Trefor1

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ejmciii
Perhaps the Philippines has not challenged China's absurd claim up until now because China has only recently been sending warships into Philippine territory. If Spain claimed that it has rights to Florida, would the US be required to respond or else be deemed to have accepted the claim as valid? Italy as to the nations that formerly were within the Roman Empire? Germany to Tanzania? Nations make claims all the time to territory that has been controlled by others. The Falklands and Gibraltar come to mind. Making a claim based on a group of hand drawn lines on a map against a sovereign nation that never agreed to those lines is absurd. It would be like China being forced to accept borders set when it was colonized by other nations.
whymak
Some racist folks living here in HK are accusing us Chinese of racism. Let's list a few quotes from the greatest democratic hero ever lived, Winston Churchill:
“I do not admit... that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America, or the black people of Australia... by the fact that a stronger race, a higher grade race... has come in and taken its place.”
“It is alarming and nauseating to see Mr Gandhi, a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the east, striding half naked up the steps of the viceregal palace, while he is still organising and conducting a campaign of civil disobedience, to parlay on equal terms with the representative of the Emperor-King.”
“The choice was clearly open: crush them (Irish) with vain and unstinted force, or try to give them what they want. These were the only alternatives and most people were unprepared for either. Here indeed was the Irish spectre - horrid and inexorcisable.”
“I do not understand the squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poisonous gas against uncivilised tribes.”
Still want to hear more why all other forms of governments are so much worse than Democracy?
Indeed, Democracy Cult is devoutly to be wished by some in HK! Martin Lee, James Lai, Emily Lau, Benny Tai, are you listening?
ejmciii
So I guess that means that there is no racism of Chinese in China including Hong Kong against other races. Good point. Other people did something different at other times in completely different contexts and thus what exists in China now has unhappened. Look at your treatment of minorities in your city and you can say there is no racism? Did not think so. Sad to say that in this day and age racism of Chinese in China against others, Asian and others, is the worst I have seen, having traveled extensively in every continent other than Antarctica. It is pervasive in your TV, government service announcements and media. All others are subordinate to Chinese.
pslhk
Such cogency, so persuasive
Undoubtedly Nobel material
not for peace but for literature
-
And the writer knew there are always fools
so hankering after sweet English sounds
that they’ll miss realities hitting their faces
In the WC words:
“History will be kind to me for I intend to write it”
-
"greatest democratic hero" he was
WC spoke for his people
A nation's democracy
can be another's holocaust
pslhk
pseudotriton,
your murderous joke is probably the decade’s best
-
“Empires of the Sun or The Bridge Over River Kwai,
which greatly exaggerates British participation in the Pacific Theater”
-
The Brits participated as Kempei’s earnest students,
diligently practicing the biblical lesson of turning the other cheek
caractacus
Your argument is shallow and factually insupportable. You brush over the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea as if China is not bound by it. Go back to school.
Just because China laid claim to Scarborough Shoal in 1948 (if your facts are even correct) and it took the Philippines decades to challenge it, does not mean the place belonged to China in the first place just because China says so. Assertion and force do not confer legitimacy.
China's new found arrogance is that if it says an area of international waters or air space is China, hey presto! it is China's. Next you will be saying that the discredited Gavin Menzies' ridiculous book is correct.
By the same logic any country saying it has an ancient (and inaccurate) map of a part of the world means that area belongs to it. In antiquity Greece and Rome had maps and drawings of the world which showed the River Styx, the Sun and the Moon, so do the Sun and the moon belong to them?
China IS a bullying power picking on a smaller country and not just on one country. It is insisting on negotiating with one at a time in order to divide them so it can bribe, or if that fails, bully each into acquiescence. This is not a new strategy; they have used it since the Han dynasty.
Whose backside are you trying to shine?
whymak
pslhk:
It's not my intent preaching to the choir. However, I like to call your attention that the Philippine-American War mentioned in my first posting coincided exactly with the Second Boer War.
Isn't this historical coincidence interesting? The Empire then was trying to realize its objective of Pan-African control. The whole nation cheered to shed Boer blood. A little more than a century later, Pax Americana with its pivot to Asia seems like a fitting tribute to the English speaking gene pool.
I start to wonder. Had the racist scumbag Churchill, then a war correspondent and a prisoner of the Boers, been executed, would the world be a better place today?
caractacus
The ignorant, spiteful racist Pierce Lam again. Winston Churchill was one of the most vociferous critics of the Amritsar massacre of 379 civilians in 1919. If he had been executed and Britain defeated in WWII, the Chinese nation would be speaking Japanese today.
The English speaking gene pool? What gene pool do you come from? The bottom of a pond.
pseudotriton
"If he had been executed and Britain defeated in WWII, the Chinese nation would be speaking Japanese today."
It's been a while since my high school history class but remind me what are some of the major battles the Brits fought the Japanese in WW2? And don't be quoting me stories like Empires of the Sun or The Bridge Over River Kwai, which greatly exaggerates British participation in the Pacific Theater (talk about self-serving). The British troops supposedly defending HK surrendered promptly when the Japanese imperial army arrived and rendered HK under Japanese imperialist rule for 3 years and 8 months. And the British themselves owe it to the Americans and USSR for not having to speak German today, so I don't think they are in any position to mock others.
clc2
To judge the validity of Chinese claims, I suggest that Trefor Moss take a gander at a map.
Where the disputed location looks like it falls into someone else's territory, it generally does. China is the big power in the area, now, so she can do what she wants to do, but there will be costs for that.
Meanwhile, the U.S. would be wise to restate its claim to the Hawaiian Islands, lest China claim that Admiral ZhangHe landed there in, say, 1425, and claimed them for China.

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