Bad public relations hides fact China has a good case in territorial rows | South China Morning Post
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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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