Published daily by the Lowy Institute

The propaganda war over maritime rights

The propaganda war over maritime rights

'China will work with other countries to further promote a harmonious maritime order.' Even after years of studying the maritime tensions on China's periphery, I had to check that I had not misread the 9 December Xinhua dispatch quoting Liu Jieyi, China's Ambassador to the UN.

These reassuring words come on the heels of a position paper issued just two days earlier by China regarding the Philippines' appeal to international arbitration over South China Sea disputes. The position paper not only dismisses the grounds for the Filipino appeal; it also forcefully states that the arbitration case will not 'shake China's resolve and determination to safeguard its sovereignty and relevant maritime rights and interests.'

This dual-track approach of China to the tensions in its near seas has become the norm. China constantly sends mixed signals. On the one hand, China assures the outside world of its intentions to promote a peaceful settlement of maritime disputes. On the other hand, China upsets its neighbours by provocative actions in disputed areas. These include new land reclamation projects, light houses, piers, fishing bases, rescue centres, tourist attractions and resource exploration.

Part and parcel of this dual-track approach is messaging. A ferocious propaganda war rages over the disputes in the East and South China Seas. [fold]

As I argue in a new Lowy Institute Report about China's maritime security actors, each government with a claim tries to manipulate perceptions, apply psychological pressure and publicise 'legal' arguments to assert its claims to resources and territory. A key aim is to convince domestic and foreign audiences that rival claimants are acting unlawfully. Governments are aware that 'Twenty-first century warfare — where hearts, minds and opinion are, perhaps, more important than kinetic force projection — is guided by a new and vital dimension, namely the belief that whose story wins may be more important than whose army wins.'

In this regard Vietnam and the Philippines – though at a disadvantage militarily – have proven to be a good match for China diplomatically and on the propaganda front. The Philippines put Beijing on the defensive in 2013 by filing a case against China at an arbitration tribunal in The Hague (China's 9 December position paper was a response to this case). Manila seeks a ruling to confirm its right under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea to exploit the waters in its Exclusive Economic Zone, which China contests because it has a counter-claim to maritime rights in parts of those waters.

Vietnam, in turn, caused China a loss of face in May this year by its all-out effort to shame Beijing internationally after China's HYSY 981 oil rig was parked near the disputed Paracel Islands at a location about 120 miles off Vietnam's coast. Several Chinese interlocutors interviewed for the Lowy report, including government officials, were of the view that China miscalculated the strong resistance by the Vietnamese; and that was why the rig was withdrawn ahead of schedule. The interviewees also said that Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan have all been more skillful than China in garnering international support for their position.

The claim that some Asian governments have been on a 'blame and shame' campaign that demonises China as an arrogant and dangerous bully is partly accurate, although China does not do itself any favours with some of it actions. As I say in the conclusion of the Lowy report: 'The more outsiders perceive China as a bully, the more difficult it is for anyone to write objectively about the maritime disputes in China's vicinity.'

Photo courtesy of Reuters.

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