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  • Dec 21, 2014
  • Updated: 11:26am
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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This article is now closed to comments

You may be perfectly correct. But the commercial media are not interested in inconvenient facts for their customers who consider China as enemy. So China is between a rock and a hard place.
Aggressors losing wars have to suffer the consequences. Germany had to give up Koenigsberg (now Kaliningrad), its former Prussian capital and birthplace of Kant and Hilbert, to the Soviet Union. Territories owned by Prussia since 1772, 1793, 1795 were given to Poland, even including Silesia, which Prussia took from the Hapsburgs in 1742. Now Austria could be considered also a victim of der Anschluss, therefore the rightful owner should be Austria. No matter, the purpose is to punish all German speaking peoples. Austria gave up Tyrol to Italy and Trieste to Serbia after WW1.
How come Japan was allowed to keep its spoils stolen from China except Taiwan? It should have no right to Okinawa and other islands if the spirit of English common law were to prevail.
Philippines didn't have a written language to document its history, let alone sovereignty to this disputed island. The islands were colonized by Spain and then the US. Apparently, Phillippines has forgotten the US atrocities in the Philippine-American War (1899-1902).
I am afraid of the hatred stirred up by hostilities. Filipina(o)s are some of the nicest people I know. I was a sponsor at a Filipina's wedding and later godfather to her first born. Yes, I love her like a daughter.
Let's see, when China sends a few patrol ships to the East Sea, it's bad PR and display of bullying aggression. But when the US conducts military drills off the coast of the Korean peninsular, it's routine exercise and demonstrate of power. I don't think this bad publicity stems solely from the clumsy diplomatic stance of the Chinese gov't. Virtually identical actions can be construed differently depending who is implementing them, and haters gonna hate. And those haters will care even less about what legal basis China has on those territorial disputes, because legality, along with logic and reasoning, are applied only when it's in the hater's favor. After all, the US has invaded whole other countries without UN authorization, and its little bro states still kiss up to it like the good little bi@tches.
It is well known that Japan was nowhere near the islands until they illegaly invaded the independent Ryukyu Kingdom. Between China and the Ryukyu Kingdom, it was on the Chinese side. Japan specifically asked the Ryukyu whether they had historical claims and were told no. That is why Japan pursued "terra nullius".
I respect your point of view, but this is part of the same issue. The way China alternates between aggressive, non-negotiable self-assertion and whining about slights which occurred in the distant past endears it to nobody. On the other hand, a willingness to engage in a sensible, reasonable dialogue represents far better PR on the world stage and may even result in long-standing issues being finally addressed and resolved to China's advantage. It really is just a matter of displaying some maturity.
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.
"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.
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?
What do you know about Chinese history? Perhaps using the title Admiral, which was nonexistent in China, for Zheng He as fact betrays the hidden origin of your opinion.
Did China's gargantuan treasure ships, which dwarfed those "kayaks" of Spanish Armada of later vintage, and its 27,000 strong naval fleet subjugate and enslave the peoples of Southeast Asia and along Indian Ocean?
Freudian projection of the West never takes into consideration a relatively benign China in yesteryear. Worse, Western media bent on demonizing China today are busy rewriting history by disputing all chronicles of China's administration during its suzerainty as fictitious.
"why did China not become the dominant world power?"
May I suggest the answer being it's not in the nature of the Chinese to exercise imperialism and colonize all over? Your statement is self-contradictory in that a people that has been in isolation cannot be imperialistic at the same time. As for racism, the maximum level of racism practiced by Chinese is limited to verbal implementation. I can't find anywhere in Chinese history where people of another race had been enslaved en masse like 19th century US. It's ludicrous for you to portray others through your small-mind, while calling others' history "self-serving" and "one-sided".
Well said, whymak
But as can be seen herebelow
it’s not that easy to open the mind of those brainwashed with cold war biases
those who ridiculously presume that they alone can arbitrate what is right and proper
such that it’s the duty of others to please and their right to be pleased
those who mistakenly present naivety as maturity



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