China’s intrusions and public opinion

FROM FAR AND NEAR - Ruben Almendras - The Freeman

China’s intrusions in the Philippines territorial waters are getting more aggressive and more often that they are in the news every week in the main and social media. The recent use of water cannons and hitting of Philippine re-supply vessels have been the most dangerous and damaging, and got the attention of other Asia-Pacific and European countries. There is international condemnation of China’s escalating actions, as China’s expansive claims on the South China Sea are in violation of the UNCLOS definition of the territorial seas of nations. Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia have also protested the claims of China that overlaps their waters although China has not entered these areas, which they have done in Philippine waters since 2007. The US, Australia, Japan, and Germany are becoming more vocal and increasing in their support for the Philippines on this issue for geo-political and ideological reasons, even as they are avoiding another “flash point” for global conflict/war.

China’s massive multi-directed propaganda campaign on these issues which has been going on for many years has now become ineffective and counter-productive. Aside from the lack of moral and legal basis for their intrusions, the actual verifiable real-time visual footages of the incidents are all available in all media. Official and unofficial denials are hollow and of no value. No country or government believes the “nine-dash line” or the “10-dash line” survey of China’s coastline. The Chinese government’s bullying of developing countries who borrowed on the “belt and road” financing has also turned off many governments. Add to these, China’s flagrant official and industrial espionage and human rights abuses of their minorities have soured global public opinion of the Chinese government.

Earlier public opinion surveys in the Philippines had more than 60% of the Filipinos objecting to the territorial intrusion of China in Philippine seas, especially in the fishing grounds. These sentiments even spread to anti-Chinese entry in some Philippine businesses, and the entry of Chinese gambling (POGOs) and criminal gangs. A recent survey of Filipinos sentiment on the Chinese incursion showed a 77% objection and willingness to defend Philippine territory. This is very significant as China propagandists have enlisted “troll” armies, and have cultivated political allies to promote pro-China perceptions among Filipinos.

Geo-politically and ideologically it seems battle lines are already defined on this issue. UNCLOS has defined territorial waters conclusively and made it a linchpin for world economic and geographic order. Ideologically, China is with Russia, Iran, and North Korea as autocratic/authoritarian governments and supported or did not object to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. These seem like differences that are hard to reconcile or even complement. The only possibility is for an “economic bridge” to overwhelm these differences, which China had used/shown in its rapid economic growth in the last 35 years. All the countries need each other to source raw materials and to sell their products. This is the globalization that has propelled economic growth, reduced poverty, and lifted standard of living.

At this juncture and timeline of China’s intrusion into Philippine territorial waters, it seems China is now on the defensive on moral dimension and public opinion. Diplomatic double-talk, fake news, and paid trolls are diminishing offensives. The Philippines, US, Taiwan, Australia, and Japan are already physically contesting with naval and air power their territories. In fact Chinese ships have not gone back to the Vietnam territorial waters they claimed, as the Vietnamese Navy will surely fire on them

Historically, global conflicts have been resolved by world wars or peace talks with varying degrees of success, with wars generally disastrous. Small localized wars have a diffusing effect on conflicts as these demonstrate the futility of a bigger war. In a world war, in the end it does not matter who was right, it will be a question of who will be left living some kind of life.

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