South China Sea: How Beijing is trying to tape mouths shut

April 18, 2016 18:29
G7 foreign ministers pose for a photo after their summit in Hiroshima last week. The group issued a joint statement on maritime security, taking aim at China. Credit: Reuters

China failed last week to pressure Japan and other G7 countries into not discussing the South China Sea when the group met in Hiroshima.

Instead, foreign ministers from the seven countries issued a joint statement on maritime security which, without mentioning China by name, emphasized the "fundamental importance of peaceful management and settlement of disputes".

The timing of the statement -- April 11 -- was particularly important, coming as it did weeks before an expected ruling by an arbitral tribunal of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea on an action brought by the Philippines against China in 2013.

China has announced that it will ignore the tribunal’s decision but the G7 statement called on all nations to "fully implement any decisions rendered by the relevant courts and tribunals which are binding on them, including as provided under UNCLOS".

Despite world leaders' comments, China continues to wage a campaign against any public discussion of its actions in the South China Sea.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who just finished a trip to China, experienced it first hand during his visit on April 15-16 and, this week, it is the turn of the New Zealand Prime Minister, John Key. Both men were warned not to discuss South China Sea issues or face possible consequences.

As the Sydney Morning Herald reported, "In an attempt at intimidation timed for Mr. Turnbull’s arrival, the China Daily warned Australia of financial consequences if it offered resistance to Beijing’s territorial ambitions in the region."

The paper quoted various figures, including Han Feng, deputy head of the National Institute of International Strategy of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, who said that the territorial dispute was not Australia’s concern and Canberra’s response would be "a test of Australian leaders’ political wisdom".

The Australian leader held a two-hour meeting with Premier Li Keqiang, at which he reiterated his position that anything that had the potential of disturbing peace and stability would work against the interests of all nations in the region. He also asserted that South China Sea territorial disputes should be settled in accordance with international law.

At a dinner with President Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader proposed that China and Australia should respect each other's core interests. This, to China, means turning a blind eye to China's actions in the South China Sea, where it is embroiled in territorial disputes with four countries – the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei – and, in the East China Sea, where China has a territorial dispute with Japan.

As an American ally, it would be difficult for Australia to side with China on these disputes or even to remain silent, especially when China ignores rulings by international tribunals.

China's warning to New Zealand was, if anything, more explicit than the one to Australia. The official Xinhua news agency, on the day of Prime Minister John Key’s arrival in China for a six-day visit, published a commentary warning him that, for his trip to be successful, he should avoid talk of territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

"The consecutive visits" of Turnbull and Key, Xinhua said, "highlight the importance they attach to China's growing middle class." But, Xinhua said, relations between China and New Zealand "haven’t been entirely rosy".

It recalled that in February "Key made some remarks against China regarding the South China Sea". Such remarks, it said, "went against New Zealand’s pledges not to take sides in the region’s territorial disputes."

"New Zealand should chart its own course in its relations with China rather than have its agenda hijacked by the ambitions of its military allies," Xinhua asserted. "The future of bilateral ties between New Zealand and China, to some extent, depends on Wellington itself."

China’s attempts to silence first the G7 and now Australia and New Zealand reflect its strategy of isolating claimants, such as the Philippines, and Manila's ally, the United States. By peeling away countries like Australia and New Zealand, China hopes to isolate the US.

"Key should be reminded that New Zealand is an absolute outsider in the dispute and not a concerned party," Xinhua said, adding that "any attempt by Wellington to break its promise not to take sides on the issue would risk complicating the flourishing trade ties between China and New Zealand".

Since China is the only country that has vowed to ignore an international court ruling, it is natural that any call for implementing decisions of courts and tribunals is seen by Beijing as criticism of its actions and "taking sides".

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.