FIT TO PRINT

China’s latest weapon in the battle for the South China Sea is newspaper advertising

Obsession
The Sea
Obsession
The Sea

Readers of Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper might have spotted an unusual advertisement over the weekend. Courtesy of the Chinese consulate in Vancouver, it complemented restaurant reviews and other light reading with a half-page, all-text ad entitled “The South China Sea Arbitration Case Initiated by the Philippines Violates International Law.”

China claims most of the South China Sea as its own territory, based partly on a “nine-dash line” that it drew on a map after World War 2, even though the line conflicts with international norms and overlapping claims by nearby nations. Each year about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes through the sea, which is rich in natural resources—including oil, fish, and natural gas—and holds great value from a military-strategy standpoint.

The Philippines brought a legal challenge against the claim in January 2013 to the Permanent Court of Arbitration, in The Hague, under the United Nations’ Convention on the Law of the Sea. The court was established in 1899 and has settled numerous maritime disputes between nations, but China has refused to recognize its authority. The court is widely expected to rule in the Philippines’ favor when it makes a decision in coming weeks.

Beijing’s position is that territorial disputes in the sea should be resolved by the countries directly involved, not by a tribunal, and it’s persuaded an odd assortment of countries to agree, some of which are far away from the sea in question, including Gambia, Cambodia, and, more recently, Slovenia and Mozambique.

The ad, which likely cost less than $10,000 Canadian, argues that “the Philippines, by initiating the arbitration, has violated international law.” It’s difficult to see how taking legal action can be a violation of law. But then again, Beijing has also argued that merely talking about its activities in the sea makes the area unsafe.

Beijing seems to be trying any and all methods to bolster its case, mixing the civilian and military spheres along the way. It recently sent a song-and-dance troupe to its new man-made island at Fiery Cross Reef, where it’s also also built tennis courts, a running track, and basketball courts to go along with military barracks, runways for fighter jets, and harbors deep enough for warships.

It’s also hired foreign talent to help with public relations and media training, and it subsidizes its “fishing militia” to operate near contested areas.

More predictably, it’s unleashed a torrent of columns and articles in state-controlled media outlining is position. A piece will often focus on one particular expert, quoting him throughout on why Beijing is right. An item this weekend from the Xinhua newswire cited Liu Xiaoming, China’s ambassador to Britain.

Expounding on China’s position and policy, Liu said that the islands and reefs in the South China Sea have belonged to China since ancient times.

China was the first to discover the islands in the South China Sea, the first to name the islands, the first to exercise administrative jurisdiction in the South China Sea, and also the first to develop the islands, he said.

“The aforementioned four ‘Firsts’ are based on substantial and concrete historical evidence. They testify to the fact that the islands of the South China Sea have long been Chinese territory,” added the ambassador.

Like the ad run this weekend, the article offered up no dissenting views.

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