By Bill Hayton
The National Interest, May 16, 2016
There’s a new Chinese charm offensive underway in Southeast Asia. Two years after their uncharming offensive to drill for oil in waters disputed with Vietnam, and with their massive proto-military artificial islands almost complete, Beijing’s officials are trying to spread love. They’re trekking around the world spinning a story in which China is the virtuous actor in the South China Sea, suggesting that the only reason for all the trouble there is Washington’s arm-twisting of its dupes in the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia.
From London to Jakarta, I’ve heard stories of Chinese officials seeking meetings with Southeast Asian diplomats to peddle this line. We’ve also seen a cack-handed attempt to bounce Brunei, Cambodia and Laos into apparently endorsing a joint statement supporting China’s position on the disputes. Unfortunately for Beijing, Cambodia and Laos immediately denied the story—and Brunei remained as silent as ever. Most recently, we’ve been treated to a very long article on the National Interest site by two of China’s most charming diplomats: Fu Ying, chairperson of the Foreign Affairs Committee of China’s National People’s Congress, and Wu Shicun, president of the National Institute of South China Sea Studies.
The article is fascinating because of the way it recasts China’s South China Sea narrative for an age in which many of its old myths have been destroyed by new historical research. The historical account it presents is much less bad than similar Chinese accounts used to be. In places it’s almost accurate. However episodes are recast and crucial facts omitted in order to make China appear the victim of imperialist perfidy. Its silky style and conciliatory tone is likely to win over many who don’t know the full facts.
This narrative is unlikely to convince many Americans, however, nor those Southeast Asian governments that have been on the receiving end of China’s rising “assertiveness” over the past seven years. To me, it reads like a narrative deliberately crafted to win over ASEAN states that aren’t claimants in the South China Sea, along with officials in other parts of the world who have little knowledge of the disputes. The purpose is to show that the ASEAN “claimants” have only themselves to blame, either because of their provocative actions or because they allowed themselves to be used by Washington.
There are many parts of the Fu-Wu narrative that an informed reader can dispute, but the hinge of the article is what happened in 2009. Fu and Wu are trying to rewrite the history of this crucial year to erase the memory of how China’s own actions caused its current difficulties. In the words of their article, “the general situation was under control before 2009.” The nub of the Fu-Wu story is that the new Obama administration, particularly its evil henchwoman Hillary Clinton, strong-armed the Philippines and Vietnam into taking provocative actions. They pin part of the blame on the “official deadline set by the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS)” for states to submit their maritime claims. However, they also argue that “an even greater factor [was] the introduction of the American Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy.”
Read the full analysis at http://nationalinterest.org/feature/charmless-offensive-beijings-bogus-south-china-sea-pr-16220