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Bully behaviour

Publication Date : 11-06-2014

 

It’s classic bully behaviour: You confront the aggressor for his propensity to throw his weight around and elbow everyone out of his way, and he tries to turn the tables on you by painting himself as the victim and complaining that you started the whole fight. You band together with others who have been at the receiving end of his boorish moves, and he claims he’s being ganged up on. Everything is about ,him; he’s right and everyone else is wrong.

Such is China these days. The resurgent country is becoming less and less inhibited in displaying its sense of entitlement and hubris, never mind if its muscle-flexing is creating a flashpoint of instability and disorder in the corner of the world it inhabits with other countries. Its latest broadside against the Philippines and Vietnam, two countries with which it has been in dispute over the ownership of certain islands and atolls in the South China Sea, smacks of the arrogance and disingenuousness that have characterised its treatment of its neighbours over this highly sensitive issue.

Reacting to news that Philippine and Vietnamese troops recently engaged in friendly sports matches on a disputed island controlled by Vietnam in the Spratlys, the Chinese foreign ministry let loose with tart remarks. “Don’t you think that these small tricks conducted by the Philippines and Vietnam are nothing but a farce?” said spokeswoman Hua Chunying. She insisted that the two parties should “refrain from taking any actions that may complicate or magnify the dispute.” After all, she claimed, using China’s term for the  Spratlys, China “exercises indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha Islands and adjacent waters.”

If this weren’t a tinderbox of an issue that could spell violent conflict in the region, one is tempted to laugh off China’s ridiculous protestations. The “farce” is not that two smaller countries have chosen to forge ties in the face of a common aggressor, it’s that the bully in their midst is unable, or unwilling, to see how his brusque, destabilising behavior is in fact what’s goading those around him to find common cause and strength.

What has the Philippines and Vietnam in common these days? They’ve both had run-ins with the Chinese—the Philippine Coast Guard nearly blockaded and chased off from bringing supplies to the Filipino troops stationed on Ayungin Shoal, and two Vietnamese ships attacked with water cannon and damaged in the latest confrontation between the two countries.

China’s fishermen have been discovered wantonly harvesting endangered marine animals from waters that are within the Philippines’ 370-kilometre exclusive economic zone, which is recognised under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Nearer Vietnam, in the Paracel chain of islands, China has deployed an oil rig, angering Hanoi and inevitably heightening tensions in the area. And the latest reconnaissance photos disclosed by Philippine authorities show China apparently reclaiming land around Gavin and Calderon reefs—all actions that, as any reasonable observer would know, can only “complicate or magnify the dispute.”

But China continues to maintain its bully posture, belligerently refusing to submit to the arbitration case filed by the Philippines in the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, and constantly insisting on its “indisputable sovereignty” over nearly 90 per cent of the 3.5-million-square-kilometre South China Sea, never mind that such a sweeping claim is precisely the root of the dispute.

The Philippines has chosen the honorable, peaceful road by asking the United Nations to arbitrate the conflicting claims; China insists it would consider bilateral talks only, but that any negotiation would have to proceed from that one “indisputable” premise—that China has historical ownership of the waters and islands, and other claimant-countries can only beg for scraps like vassal states. Farce? Right.

Shinzo Abe, the prime minister of Japan, has cautioned about “efforts to alter the territorial status quo through force or coercion.” China should take heed of that warning, as more and more countries around it are forced into a defensive stance by its bully behavior. If the Middle Kingdom wants to be a respected superpower, then it must learn to respect its neighbouring countries, and more importantly, the rule of law at sea.

 

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