‘China will work with other countries to further promote a harmonious maritime order.’ Even after years of studying the maritime tensions on China’s periphery, I had to check that I had not misread the 9 December Xinhua dispatch quoting Liu Jieyi, China’s Ambassador to the UN.
These reassuring words come on the heels of a position paper issued just two days earlier by China regarding the Philippines’ appeal to international arbitration over South China Sea disputes. The position paper not only dismisses the grounds for the Filipino appeal; it also forcefully states that the arbitration case will not ‘shake China’s resolve and determination to safeguard its sovereignty and relevant maritime rights and interests.’
This dual-track approach of China to the tensions in its near seas has become the norm. China constantly sends mixed signals. On the one hand, China assures the outside world of its intentions to promote a peaceful settlement of maritime disputes. On the other hand, China upsets its neighbours by provocative actions in disputed areas. These include new land reclamation projects, light houses, piers, fishing bases, rescue centres, tourist attractions and resource exploration.
Part and parcel of this dual-track approach is messaging. A ferocious propaganda war rages over the disputes in the East and South China Seas.