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  • Jul 30, 2014
  • Updated: 3:22pm
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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whymak
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.
caractacus
What do you know about Chinese history, apart from a self serving, one sided version? It is very usual in documents from the same era for historians to grossly exaggerate numbers and size. If Zheng He's Chinese armada was so powerful and rich, why did China not become the dominant world power? Well, might I suggest it is because China was technologically only equal with the West until the 15th Century and fell behind when the Ming Dynasty put China into isolation, shutting out original ideas from other cultures.
Benign China? Don't fool yourself. The rest of the world is learning to see it for what it is: a new racist, imperialism.
pseudotriton
"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".
whymak
For a welcoming change, I am impressed by SCMP readers arguing so sensibly well for China. Keep in mind a huge gray area exists between independence and sovereignty - generally known as suzerainty. Implicitly, you suggest the relative degree of suzerainty and its duration as the legal basis for China. Unfortunately, in the real world, only might is right.
Let's examine this moral suasion objectively. Sovereignty is vaguely recognized internationally as an indisputable claim, e.g., Boston is part of the US. Short of revolution, its city entity remains unchallenged.
For a while, Western imperialists claimed sovereignty over foreign lands. Yet they achieved that only through armed aggression and exploitation. The relations of vassal states with the China suzerain by comparison were much gentler and kinder. This fact is amply demonstrated by Korea, Indochina and others' relationships with China before the onslaught of colonialism.
BTW, China has been a suzerain of Tibet since the Yuan dynasty when the West was still in the Dark Ages.
India annexed Sikkim in 1975 and attempts to consolidate suzerainty over Nepal without a single complaint from the media. The subcontinent with different entities wasn't even a sovereign until 1947.
A reader's stereotyped putdown argument - China's victim mentality - shows he is a brainwashed zombie from the media echo chamber.
Some HKers even refuse to recognize China as suzerain in one country two systems. A revolution under way?
caractacus
"The relations of vassal states with the China suzerain by comparison were much gentler and kinder.............. amply demonstrated by Korea, Indochina and others.........."
Who says? Have the Chinese ever asked the people of Korea, Indochina, Tibet, Xinjiang and other minority regions, where practically everyone hates the Han?
At least the Western Imperial Powers gave their former subject colonies independence, which China never has.
This is characteristic ignorance and racial conceit.
pseudotriton
"At least the Western Imperial Powers gave their former subject colonies independence"
Really? There is an independent state of Native Americans in North America? I must have missed it on the map.
clc2
If the Tibet and Xinjiang were historical parts of China, then their cultures would be fundamentally Chinese. Chinese culture is very, very strong, so if the relations were close, then they would both speak a Chinese dialect and write Chinese.
If China's current relations with its historical "vassal states" were as gentle and kind as alleged to have the case in the past, then China wouldn't be encountering the problems that it is encountering in those places, now..
pseudotriton
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.
honkiepanky
uhh, maybe because the U.S. is there at the invitation of South Korea? Did you ever think of that?
pseudotriton
hmm, I wonder how the US would feel if Cuba invited Russian or Chinese navies for an exercise near the coast of Florida... oh wait, didn't something like that happen back in the 60's? Oh yeah, the Cuban missile crisis...

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