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  • Oct 31, 2014
  • Updated: 12:09am
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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pslhk
Yes,
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”
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.
ashleyhk
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/
dienamik
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".
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
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.
pslhk
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
lexishk
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.

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