China Power

Beijing’s South China Sea Rhetoric Is Fooling No One

China’s anti-Japanese rhetoric only masks Beijing’s own misbehavior in the Asia-Pacific region.

Beijing’s South China Sea Rhetoric Is Fooling No One
Credit: China’s Yantai frigate image via Pres Panayotov /

Last week Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying commented on the passage of the controversial Legislation for Peace and Security by the lower house of the National Diet, urging Japan to “draw hard lessons from history […] respect the major security concerns of its Asian neighbors, and refrain from […] crippling regional peace and stability.”

This last accusation in particular has been picked up by The Japan Times, The New York Times, France24, The Telegraph and others, and it deserves critical public reflection. China’s sermons on history are undermined by the aggressive repression of its own historical truths, such as the Tiananmen massacre, just as the call to respect neighbors’ security concerns are undermined by Beijing’s flagrant disrespect for such concerns in the South China Sea. Let’s consider these two points independently.

As for historical grievances, Beijing isn’t likely to stop beating this drum anytime soon. For one thing, it’s a highly effective emotional cattle prod. As noted by The Washington Post on July 22: “China’s propaganda machine has been ratcheting up the anti-Japanese rhetoric […] to focus attention on a foreign threat rather than Xi’s own ruthless efforts to centralize power.” Authorities did the same thing, the article notes, after the Tiananmen massacre, hoping to “legitimize the leadership and stoke national unity.”

Playing the history card also legitimizes the nation’s problem with anti-Japanese racism, suggesting such bigotry is directed at the authors of wartime genocide, torture, slavery, and rape. But the truth of the matter should be obvious to anyone with a knowledge of pre-war Chinese writings concerning Japanese. For example in The Chinese and the Japanese: Essays in Political and Cultural Interactions, Samuel C. Chu quotes one statesman under Governor-General Liu Kunyi who, in 1894, wrote of “the island barbarian Japanese,” stating “it took them 48,000 years before they made contact with China,” as if this proves their inferiority. Japan’s selective adoption of Chinese culture, Chu adds, “was seen only as evidence of their failure to model themselves upon the Chinese more perfectly” whereas “the Koreans had been more slavishly faithful to the Chinese model, and were thereby regarded by the Chinese as obviously superior to the Japanese.” Indeed, when England attacked China in the 1840s, Chu observes, this was actually considered an act of rebellion; however the Japanese, “being a yellow people,” and therefore superior, should never have made such a mistake in the first place. So rather than create anti-Japanese bigotry, the evils of World War II added a new layer to an already existing hatred based partly on the belief that Japan should have remained eternally subservient to China.

As for respecting neighbors’ security concerns, China’s actions in the South China Sea are partly what led Japan to pass the Legislation for Peace and Security in the first place. During a May 29 press conference, Defense Minister Gen Nakatani said the South China Sea dispute and regional “peace and security” are “directly connected to the concerns of the entire international community.” One reporter at the conference noted that the previous day, during a special committee of the lower house on the Legislation for Peace and Security, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe specifically cited the South China Sea situation as an example of the kind of scenario this new legislation is designed to address.

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Meanwhile, the other South China Sea claimants (Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Taiwan) have voiced support for settling claims in accordance with international law. China circulated its claim, centered on the infamous “nine-dash line,” in the UN in 2009 but this claim was largely rejected. According to the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to which China is a party, territorial sea claims depend on baseline territories, and China has none in the region. China responded by calling international arbitration irrelevant and then began transforming reefs into islands, as if believing it could fabricate baseline territories (according to UNCLOS, artificial islands cannot be used as baselines).

So China snubs the security concerns of its Asian neighbors, then criticizes Japan for passing legislation that will give it the same security rights China already enjoys. While Japanese ministers emphasize the need for “peace and stability,” Beijing practices its invasion of the South China Sea and ignores international protocols to which it is a signee, then accuses Japan of “crippling peace and stability.”

Hopefully, the Chinese public will not be fooled by anti-Japanese rhetoric. The future belongs to the Asia-Pacific region and China has the potential to become its leader, but it should first demonstrate it can maintain peace. As Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said at a press conference on Tuesday: “no nation can maintain its own peace and security alone.”