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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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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
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.
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.
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.
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..
uhh, maybe because the U.S. is there at the invitation of South Korea? Did you ever think of that?
that's their idea of maturity
that's what they expect to see
“little bro states kiss up to it like good little bi@tches”
It is not bad PR but making claims to others territories with no legal standing. I have seen no evidence that the Senkau/Diaoyu islands were ever administered from Taiwan. Please provide some. The 9, 10 or 11 (take your pick) dotted line has no legal standing.
For an excellent discussion of China's position see ****thediplomat.com/2013/08/30/history-the-weak-link-in-beijings-maritime-claims/



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