The South China Sea propaganda video playing in New York City misrepresents me—featured UK lawmaker

A strange place to argue about the South China Sea.
A strange place to argue about the South China Sea.
Image: Flickr/Andrés Nieto Porras, CC-BY-SA-2.0
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It’s one thing to have your comments from an interview taken out of context. It’s another to have them taken out of context and then run over and over again in a big video above Times Square in New York City.

Catherine West
Catherine West
Image: Catherine West

Just ask Catherine West, a member of the UK parliament for Hornsey & Wood Green and Labour Party shadow foreign minister.

China is running a video ad above Times Square defending its position on the South China Sea. That is unusual in itself, but then Beijing has been trying all manner of ways to argue its case that nearly the entire sea is its own territory—a stance that was largely invalidated by an international tribunal’s ruling on July 12.

The video shows scenes around the sea, interspersed with talking heads voicing their support for China’s position. When Quartz informed West she was among them, it was news to her. The video first appeared in Times Square on July 23, and will be played 120 times a day until Aug 3.

West’s press secretary, Matthew Whitty, noted she gave interviews to several stations in Beijing while at the 5th China-Europe High-level Political Parties Forum in May. The footage was taken from one of them.

West did mean what she says in the video. It’s just taken out of context. The video shows her saying, “I think talks are crucial. And that’s why we have to be careful that yes, we need to resolve something very locally, and have a grown-up approach to dialogue” (starting at the 2:25 mark).

Her comment probably sounded perfect to those who produced the video because Beijing wants disputes in the sea to be resolved through bilateral negotiations between itself and the nations directly involved. What it didn’t want was the involvement of the tribunal, in this case the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which it has tried to discredit. Indeed it refused to participate in the case, brought by the Philippines in 2013.

West, however, backs the tribunal’s ruling.

In an email to Quartz, West stands by what she says in the video: “I maintain that dialogue is crucial to securing peace in the region. The arbitration process at The Hague would have been such a opportunity for the dispute to have been settled in a grown-up way.”

Here is the rest of her email:

Thanks for bringing the video to my attention—I have now seen it and I must say I am perplexed and concerned by its assertions. I was unaware that these comments would be used in this manner. Although I was of course happy to give an interview on my concerns regarding the militarisation of the South China Sea and the need to work together to secure a peaceful resolution, I am not happy for the footage to be used in a way that suggests that I support the current approach adopted by China towards these islands. I would hope my parliamentary record has demonstrated that I have consistently raised concern over Chinese island-building and military deployment in the South China Sea, and indeed I have urged the UK Government to do all it can to ensure international law is upheld and that the region is stabilised for all parties concerned.

I had the pleasure of attending the The 5th China-Europe High-level Political Parties Forum in Beijing held in May 2016. I attended this conference as Shadow Foreign Minister (with responsibility for the Asia-Pacific Region)—not as the video has reported as Shadow Foreign Secretary.

Securing peace and stability in the South China Sea is an issue I care deeply about. Indeed I raised this very issue with the Chinese delegation I met whilst at the conference, and I specifically voiced concern that island-building and the deployment of military forces on the Islands of the South China Sea was of great concern to the UK and our European neighbours, as well as those parties affected within the South China Sea Region.

I have consistently raised this issue in the House of Commons, tabling a number of Parliamentary Questions in the Chamber, one in February 2016, in advance of my visit to China: “To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, what reports he has received of deployment by China of surface-to-air missiles on the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.”

I have also written directly to the Hugo Swire, the Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, requesting him to outline what his assessment of the situation was and urging him to outline what steps his department was taking to prevent the militarisation of the South China Sea region.

Most recently (and most importantly), at Foreign Office Questions in July 2016 I challenged the Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond again on this issue when I asked him:

“Earlier today, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague ruled against Chinese claims to territorial rights in the South China sea, backing a case brought by the Philippines. Does the Secretary of State agree that the PCA’s ruling must be respected, and that any non-compliance by the Chinese Government would not only cause severe reputational damage to China but constitute a serious breach of international law?”

I maintain that dialogue is crucial to securing peace in the region. The arbitration process at The Hague would have been such a opportunity for the dispute to have been settled in a grown-up way.

Press secretary Whitty was also surprised by West’s inclusion in the video. He noted that she also expressed concern over the militarization of islands in the sea during her interviews at the forum in Beijing.

“It is rather bizarre,” he wrote Quartz, “that the footage was used in support of the Chinese position.”