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China fakes diplomatic success in South China Sea island dispute

  • Author: Cain Nunns
  • Updated: September 29, 2016
  • Published November 25, 2012

Not happy with your diplomatic situation? Fear not. Simply create a stronger bargaining position, promote it through state media and then act as if it were true.

That was Beijing's tactic at the Asean and East Asia summits in Cambodia this past week, where some members of the 10-party bloc pushed again for talks over the increasingly volatile South China Sea.

Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia claim dominion over large blocks of the sea extending off their shorelines. China, however, says virtually all of the nearly 2.2 million square miles of the oil and gas-rich body of water is theirs based on "historical evidence" that Chinese fishermen once plied its waters.

Beijing has said it's only interested in bilateral talks with competing claimants, while the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei want unilateral negotiations to take place between the fractured body and the world's second largest economy.

Analysts say China, which is keen to keep the United States out of what it calls the "internationalization" of the issue, would be in an advantageous position if bilateral talks went ahead.

At the Asean and East Asia summits in Phnom Penh, Beijing showed it would go to great lengths in order to keep the South China Sea out of multilateral forums.

Cambodian strongman and staunch China ally Hun Sen announced that Asean, which set itself the herculean task of transforming into a European Union-style collective by 2015, had come to a consensus that the South China Sea would be dealt with by Asean and China alone.

But in order for Asean to reach a consensus — in order for Hun Sen's words to be true — the entire bloc would have had to have backed the decision. And it didn't.

"We think that it is the inherent right of any sovereign country to be able to protect its national interest," said Philippine President Benigno Aquino. "As far as we are concerned, the rules on consensus means everyone must be on board. Obviously we're not on board, so there is no consensus."

Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam lodged complaints against 60-year-old Hun Sen, who is known for exiling or jailing his political rivals and has said he will rule until he's 90.

"I've never seen anything like it. It really was amateur night. Did they really think they were going to get away with that? Perhaps in their world black is white and no means yes," said a veteran Southeast Asian diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the talks.

Despite the protests, Beijing's foreign ministry and Chinese state-run media still trumpeted the supposed consensus. Regional hackles were raised again when Foreign Ministry Spokesman Qin Gang praised Hun Sen's subterfuge, telling reporters: "Actually Cambodia's efforts are to safeguard Asean."

China's state-run media went further still, blaming everybody else for sabotaging talks and praising its own diplomatic credentials.

"Countries like the Philippines are attempting to make Asean politically antagonistic toward China, and the US and Japan are also inducing a tough attitude … on China," wrote The Communist Party of China owned Global Times in an editorial this week.

"That countries should rely on the US to balance China is tempting, but Asean countries lack experience in dealing with great powers. They may risk becoming the puppet of … the US and Japan."

Beijing-based Xinhua, a news wire service that has come under fire for alleged intelligence gathering, said the Philippine president was at fault for defying "basic diplomatic rules to blatantly rebuke … Hun Sen."

In another story on Thursday, Xinhua wrote that Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's attendance at the meetings "consolidated good neighborliness and promoted regional cooperation," adding that "China's stance has gained widespread understanding and respect. Asean countries said they are willing to keep communication and consultation with China and that the South China Sea issue should not be internationalized."

Analysts say the statements reveal a China that is becoming increasingly assertive.

"The Cambodia and China statements show pretty brutally just what little regard China has about issues when it comes to dealing with Asean. The bottom line is that it brushes Asean out of the way, and Asean lacks the unity to push back," said Kerry Brown, who heads the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

"Asean is a noble aim, but multilateralism is still a distant aspiration in the region, and probably will remain so for a long time to come."

Beijing has had success in the past when it comes to moving diplomatic goalposts.

"Divide and conquer is hardly a new concept. By negotiating bilaterally, Beijing can leverage its position and introduce new negotiating starting points that would become prerequisites when at the table with other member states," said George Wen, a China expert at National Taiwan University.

"They use this technique frequently with Taiwan and also used it the last time Asean managed a show of solidarity regarding the South China Sea. But of course former Philippine President Gloria Arroyo broke ranks and Asean's position hasn't recovered since."

Arroyo is facing corruption charges in Manila for allegedly accepting multimillion dollar kickbacks from controversial Chinese telecom firm ZTE. Prosecutors say the bribes were paid after Arroyo changed policy tack and allowed a state-run Sino oil company to explore in disputed waters inside the Philippines' exclusive economic zone.

China considers Taiwan a breakaway province and has repeatedly threatened to annex the island republic. However, ties have warmed considerably since Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou came to power in 2008. Critics say the Harvard grad has been too conciliatory in dealing with China.

Taiwan's claim to the South China Sea, under its official moniker The Republic of China, mirrors Beijing's.

In other news, Vietnam and the Philippines lodged fresh complaints with China's foreign ministry after Beijing unveiled new passports this week that included its South China Sea territorial claims on their pages.

Worried about yet another precedent, officials have said China is trying to force immigration officers into recognizing Beijing's claims every time a visa is granted in one of the new passports.