Government Narratives in Maritime Disputes


Chinese mapmakers recently published a new map that extended China’s traditional nine-dash line in the South China Sea into a ten-dash line, expanding the maritime territory it considers to be part of its “core interests.” Mapfare in East Asia is nothing new, and mapping the geobody was an integral part of how European colonizers established their Westphalian mode of international relations around the world. Yet while China frames its disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei as historical border issues, it is anachronistic to extend the concept of maritime boundaries backwards into time. East Asian rulers of centuries ago did not conceive of sovereignty in the way the Western invaders did, nor did they particularly care about claiming specks of rock that had little economic or political value in an age before the advent of this industrialized and globalized era. Because of their small size and geographic distance, the disputed islands lack both indigenous voices and historical baggage – and this is what makes these islands perfect for government manipulation.

As Robert D. Kaplan argues in his book, Asia’s Cauldron, the very “emptiness” of these islands makes them the ultimate patriotic symbols, or “logos of nationhood in a global media age.” This manipulability gives disputant states great flexibility in choosing how to respond to China’s demands. Because it is difficult for civil society actors or independent journalists to access these sites without government permission, Southeast Asian politicians have much freedom to define what these territorial conflicts mean to their respective populations, as evidenced by contrasting the cases of Malaysia and Vietnam. The Malaysian government chose to downplay the nationalist significance of these disputed features because doing so gave them an advantage in the form of closer ties with China. The Vietnamese Communist Party emphasized China’s breach of its sovereignty, hoping that this narrative would help revive the party’s relevance to the populace.

The Malaysian government sees the South China Sea disputes as an opportunity to grow closer to China and gain economic, political and diplomatic benefits by strengthening bilateral ties and cooperating with China, particularly in ASEAN. Malaysia’s “quiet diplomacy” remains popular with its citizens as a “practical” approach and the best route to peace and stability in the region – a principled alternative to the confrontational and public anger expressed by the Philippines and Vietnam. Malaysia and China’s established modus vivendi on the issue appears to be, “China has high regard for [Malaysia’s] position and [Malaysians] don’t simply make public statements.” Malaysia hopes that by working with China in the present, China will be responsive to Malaysia’s claims in the future.

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However, this strategy could fail, if accommodation forces Malaysia to give up more of its real interests than acceptable. Malaysian politicians may be trying to backpedal even now. At the keynote address opening the 28th Asia Pacific Roundtable in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak stated that he wanted to remind and call on “ASEAN, as much as … other engaged parties” to “address the South China Sea in a measured and calm manner. The rule of law must reign supreme.” While the ambiguity of “other engaged parties” blunts the blow, the call for respecting international law closely parallels the language used by U.S. Defense Secretary Hagel and Japanese Prime Minister Abe against China at the Shangri La Dialogue.

Malaysian statesmen decided to keep their territorial disputes with China void of any meaning. For the statesmen, and hence the population, these are disputes based on economic and security considerations, far removed from the nationalist imagination of what “Malaysia” is. Malaysia does not have the violent maritime clashes with China that the Philippines and Vietnam do, but even if such a situation arose in the future, it is unlikely to stir up public sentiment to the same degree. Malaysian diplomats sacrificed their position on the island disputes to promote Malaysia’s interest within the greater relationship with China. Though divorcing the disputes from the nationalist rhetoric has had many advantages for Malaysia, the statesmen may now wish they had kept the debate alive – if only to have it as insurance in case China becomes too unresponsive. As it stands, Malaysia’s claims in the South China Sea depend entirely on China’s goodwill.

In contrast to Malaysian politicians’ passivity, the Vietnamese Communist Party sees the South China Sea dispute as an opportunity to actively revive its historical role as “defender of the nation” and restore its popularity and legitimacy by deliberately stoking the Vietnamese people’s passions. When in May 2011 Chinese maritime surveillance vessels cut off the exploration cables of a Vietnamese oil survey ship, the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry released videos of this act of “Chinese aggression.” Because it is impossible for journalists to access these visuals, it gives the government much greater control over what the people see and how they interpret it. The state’s official narrative for any maritime conflict is the only one acceptable because the state is the only entity capable of producing the evidence to back up its position.

The party chose a narrative that resonates well with Vietnamese understanding of history. An important aspect of Vietnamese identity is its centuries of struggle against outsiders, especially the Chinese. An opinion piece written for the Vietnam News highlights this sentiment: “Over thousands of years, we have shown that we never cease fighting aggressors. We are proud of our freedom-fighter forefathers and resistance is in our blood.” This sentiment is echoed in another piece: “Viet Nam is a peace-loving nation, but it has never knelt down before any hegemonic forces. … For the Vietnamese nation, national sovereignty is supreme.” Therefore, it is only natural that in addition to making claims based on the UN Convention on the Law Of the Sea, Vietnam makes its claims based on historical contact with the islands during the Nguyen dynasty. This concept of defending Vietnam’s sovereignty against the hereditary Chinese enemy is an important frame through which Vietnamese people understand the South China Sea dispute, as exemplified by the anti-China protests this past May in response to Haiyang Shiyou 981.

The party made the conscious choice to frame these conflicts as Chinese encroachments on Vietnamese sovereignty. It tapped into the historical image of China the oppressor by laying claims to the Paracel and Spratly Islands based on a nostalgic image of an idealized, unified Vietnam under the Nguyen dynasty. However, this nationalism the party unleashed has gotten dangerously out of control. After all, Vietnam relies on China for its economic development. An overemphasis on the Vietnamese party’s role as defender of the nation could damage relations to the extent that the Vietnamese economy stagnates – and the party loses credibility as modernizers of the nation.

How the public perceives the South China Sea disputes depends on the parochial interests of the agents that have the power to mediate access to these sites. While the underlying interests at stake are economic and geopolitical, politicians can ratchet up or down the nationalist significance of these disputes as it suits them (at least in the beginning). In Malaysia, government officials who prioritized development and stability suppressed the salience of the issue in the public consciousness, subsuming it to other priorities within the broader Malaysia-China relationship. In Vietnam, party officials who sought to revamp their legitimacy loudly broadcast Chinese “infringements” on Vietnam’s sovereignty to build a groundswell of support for the party and their position. However, these frames have proven sticky and may end up being counterproductive to the officials’ original purposes. Playing with nationalism has unintended consequences in the long-term.

Mina Pollmann studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, majoring in International Politics/Foreign Policy.

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