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Territorial row: High-pitched China

Publication Date : 19-07-2012


If there was any doubt that last week’s ministerial conferences in Phnom Penh was a failure for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, surrogates of the Chinese government immediately erased any ambiguity by trumpeting the meetings as a success.

What an extraordinary state of affairs: Even after other Asean countries led by Indonesia raced to contain the damage from the regional grouping’s unprecedented failure to issue even the blandest of joint communiqués, Beijing was congratulating itself on its successful muscle-flexing. We have the feckless host Cambodia to thank for that.

The Global Times, an English-language tabloid newspaper published by the People’s Daily and therefore controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, ran a remarkable editorial the other day arguing that “provocative neighbours”—the Philippines, Vietnam and Japan, in the newspaper’s own ranking of troublemakers—“brought disgrace to themselves” by seeking to confront and then losing those confrontations with China.

The Philippines came in for special scorn, even though the Global Times had to resort to an obvious lie to make its point. “Manila attempted to exert pressure on China through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, but the request was rejected by the majority of Asean members,” the editorial read.

The first part is certainly true, but the second is certainly, and equally, false. The position of the Philippines (and Vietnam) was not rejected by the Asean majority; in fact, and as the first inside accounts show convincingly, both Manila and Hanoi were ready to accept even a simple mention of the territorial disputes with China on the narrowest terms, as phrased by other Asean foreign ministers, but it was Cambodia which decided to exercise its host’s privilege to leave any mention of the competing territorial claims out. Manila’s “request,” in other words, was rejected by a majority of one.

The editorial also took aim at Vietnam for announcing “its new sea law in late June” (exercising greater rights over what Vietnam calls its Eastern Sea) and at Japan for revealing “plans to nationalise the Diaoyu Islands” (the territory Japan calls the Senkaku Islands).

“These countries are only humiliating themselves,” it said, because, in the case of Vietnam, “China reacted by formally establishing the city of Sansha and putting nine oil and gas exploration blocks in the South China Sea area up for bidding” and, in the case of Japan, “A mainland patrol vessel has entered the territorial waters claimed by Japan. In addition to growing public passion for protecting Diaoyu, China is equipped with more countermeasures against Japan’s ploys.

As a glance at the comment thread in the newspaper’s online edition will readily prove, many (presumably non-Chinese) readers saw the editorial’s arguments as mere spin. In truth, however, what lies revealed in the rhetoric is the new China’s overriding belief that might makes right.

The Global Times argues against the Philippine position on the South China Sea issue not by pointing to provisions in international law or undisputed facts of history, but by ridiculing the country’s lack of clout.

“The Philippines has been the most embarrassed by its futile actions. Manila didn’t have the military or diplomatic influence to match its high-pitched verbal provocations. It hoped to embarrass China, which on the contrary has enhanced its actual administration over Huangyan Island and increased its presence in the disputed waters.”

The newspaper describes Beijing’s countermoves against Vietnam not in terms of diplomatic precedent or righteous conduct but simply as helping “implement China’s sovereignty, [thus dealing] a blow to the Hanoi administration.”

Not least, the Global Times evaluated Japan’s territorial claims in similar naked-power terms. “Though Japan is relatively powerful, China enjoys greater economic leverage. Chinese society is unanimous in not compromising with Japan. A few Japanese politicians think they can profit politically through challenging China. Eventually they will understand it is a bitter deal.”

These sentiments are not merely high-pitched; they are outright screams. We lament these verbal provocations because they betray China’s own commitment to a “peaceful rise.”


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