Beijing Takes its South China Sea PR Campaign to Washington
As China braces for a ruling from an international court on its dispute with the Philippines, a former top Chinese diplomat delivers a blunt message.
Facing a potentially damaging ruling from an international court in its dispute with the Philippines, China has cranked up a public relations offensive to defend its stance in the court of world opinion. The sledgehammer-subtle PR campaign came to Washington on Tuesday, with a former top Chinese official warning that Beijing will reject the tribunal’s authority and cautioning the United States to tread carefully in the contested waters.
Dai Bingguo, former Chinese state councilor, said the tribunal’s ruling on the South China Sea dispute, scheduled to be released next Tuesday, “amounts to nothing more than a piece of paper.”
Speaking at a conference at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Dai urged countries not to carry out the court’s decision and warned that his government would not tolerate any further “provocation” from the Philippines. “Otherwise, China would not sit idle,” Dai said.
The former senior diplomat, now chairman of Jinan University, accused the United States of raising tensions with its naval and air patrols in the region and allegedly encouraging Southeast Asian countries to take a more confrontational approach with Beijing.
“We in China would not be intimidated by the U.S. actions, not even if the U.S. sent all 10 aircraft carriers to the South China Sea,” he said. “The risk for the U.S. is that it may be dragged into trouble against its own will and pay an unexpectedly heavy price.”
The Chinese Foreign Ministry promptly posted the full text of Dai’s speech after he delivered it.
The speech, which repeated Beijing’s frequent talking points on the issue, was the latest salvo in China’s PR blitz on the South China Sea, where it has built up an array of artificial islands through vast dredging operations in recent years. Beijing claims that up to 60 countries have endorsed its view of the case before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. But the Wall Street Journal found the charm offensive has mostly fizzled.
Only eight countries have issued public statements backing up China on the issue, and a number of governments denied Beijing’s claims of support, the Journal reported. The countries backing China are not exactly maritime powers in Southeast Asia: Afghanistan, Gambia, Kenya, Niger, Sudan, Togo, Vanuatu, and Lesotho.
The United States and most governments in the region have called on both sides to abide by the court’s decision, but the tribunal has no way to enforce its writ.
The Philippines took its complaint to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2013 after a series of confrontations with China around the disputed Scarborough Shoal off its coast. The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which China has ratified, provides for the tribunal as a way of settling maritime disagreements. Manila, like other countries, has questioned China’s far-reaching claims to the South China Sea, contested its claims that various reefs, atolls, and rocks qualify as islands, and argued that Beijing’s tough tactics toward Philippine fishing boats and Coast Guard vessels violate international law.
It’s unclear how China will react to the court’s decision when it comes, but Dai’s remarks in Washington will feed speculation that Beijing might decide to launch dredging work around Scarborough Shoal. Such a move would ramp up tensions and possibly trigger a confrontation with Manila, which could then turn to the United States for military assistance, experts say.
The newly elected president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, said earlier Tuesday that his country would be ready to hold talks with China and avoid conflict after The Hague court issues its verdict.
“When it’s favorable to us, let’s talk,” he said. “We are not prepared to go to war; ‘war’ is a dirty word.”
China, which claims most of the South China Sea, indicated it would be open to starting negotiations with Manila as long as the Philippines ignores the court ruling.
Along with its public relations efforts, China is flexing its naval power. On Tuesday it launched a week of military exercises around the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.
Photo credit: MIKHAIL JAPARIDZE/TASS via Getty Images