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  • Dec 27, 2014
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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

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
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
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.
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...
dienamik
The "diplomat" article you quoted was very poorly written. It is not Chinese that claim Yuan and Qing are Chinese, it was Yuan and Qing. Upon abdication of the throne, the Qing officially transferred everything to the Republic of China. There are no issues historically or legally in regards to Qing claims. Even without the abdication, the areas were re conquered by the PRC anyway. Even Mongolia would have been under PRC rule if not for Russia.
Sovereignty/administration was defined in the modern era and no claimant in the disputes properly fulfilled the requirements of how often they had to visit and protest etc. What is clear is that there are no claims that predate Chinese ones.
The idea of Taiwan being austronesian originally and therefore it means Filipinos get to have claim (why not Malaysians or Indonesians) is hilarious. Might as well claim African land with that argument. The point is continuity. The original Austronesians were not only NOT Filipinos (just related), but they lost through conquest.
Kind of like how America only exists because they stole native land. Square your own conquests first before blabbing about China. Chinese claims predate America's existence.
lexishk
A simple and sensible critique which applies equally well to most acts of the Chinese government on the world stage. I guess this is what we should expect from a unitary, sometime-communist government that still maintains a 'ministry of propaganda'. Wonder when they'll grow up and figure it out.
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.

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