Asia Pacific

South China Sea PR campaign falsely suggests British lawmaker backs maritime claims

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

Beijing has taken its fight over the disputed South China Sea to a whole new arena — New York’s Times Square — leasing a giant electronic billboard to showcase its claims in a video that falsely suggests a British lawmaker supports its position.

In a bid to explain what state media calls the “historical and legal basis” backing its “indisputable territorial sovereignty and rights” in the region, Beijing has been running the more than three-minute video about 120 times a day since July 23, according to state-run media.

The ad is being displayed just weeks after a July 12 ruling by an international arbitration tribunal in The Hague in The Netherlands rejected Beijing’s historic claims to much of the South China Sea. China rejected the decision, which it has vowed to ignore, blasting the case brought by the Philippines as a “farce” and calling the ruling “wastepaper.”

More than 1.5 million people see the billboards on the Bow Tie Building in Times Square each day.

China has conducted a massive land-reclamation project in the waters, creating man-made islets upon which it has built extensive infrastructure, including military-grade airfields and radar facilities.

The ad, which features several “experts” and officials who “defend China’s position” and urge the dispute to be settled through bilateral negotiations, is due to run through Wednesday, the official Xinhua News Agency has reported.

But one of the officials in the video, Catherine West, a British member of Parliament and the Labour Party’s shadow foreign minister, told The Japan Times via email that she was “perplexed and deeply concerned” by the video’s assertions.

“I was unaware that these comments would be used in this manner,” West said of the video, which also misidentified her title as shadow foreign secretary.

West said that while she was happy to give an interview on her “concerns regarding the militarization of the South China Sea and the need to work together to secure a peaceful resolution,” she was upset that footage was used in a way that suggests that she supports China’s current approach toward the man-made islands.

“I would hope my parliamentary record has demonstrated that I have consistently raised concern over Chinese island-building and military deployment in the South China Sea and indeed I have urged the U.K. Government to do all it can to ensure international law is upheld and that the region is stabilized for all parties concerned,” she said.

Regarding her comments used in the video, West said that while she maintained that dialogue is crucial to securing peace in the region, “the arbitration process at The Hague would have been such an opportunity for the dispute to have been settled in a grown-up way.”

The video also features John Ross, a former economic adviser to then-London Mayor Ken Livingstone during his term in office from 2000 to 2008 and a current fellow at Renmin University in Beijing.

In a Pentagon report released in May, Washington said that while Beijing had paused its land-reclamation work in the disputed Spratly Islands late last year after adding more than 3,200 acres (1,280 hectares) of land to seven features it occupies there, the man-made islets give it long-term “civil-military” outposts from where it can project power.

China has unleashed an unprecedented English-language public-relations push to tell its side of the South China Sea story both before and after the tribunal ruling.