China has claimed to have unmasked Japanese malfeasance and “manipulation” amid a campaign to discredit an international tribunal ruling two weeks ago that largely invalidated Beijing’s claims to most of the South China Sea.
In the days since the July 12 ruling on a case brought by the Philippines before the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration, top Chinese officials and state media outlets have unleashed a blistering and sustained attack on Japan over what Beijing has described as “meddling” in its affairs.
From warnings to unsubstantiated claims, the scathing attacks have targeted both the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Japanese officials involved in the PCA legal process on an almost daily basis.
Experts say China’s verbal onslaught has mainly been for domestic consumption, as Beijing seeks to assuage the loss of face it was dealt with the ruling. Japan — long used by China’s ruling Communist Party as a tool to stoke nationalism in the country over Tokyo’s past militarism — has been the perfect foil.
In an interview posted to the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s website just a day after the ruling, State Councilor Yang Jiechi, one of the country’s top diplomats, railed against a conspiracy by the former head of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, Japanese national Shunji Yanai, who was forced to chose four of the five members of the tribunal after China refused to participate in the arbitral proceedings.
“If you look at the composition of the arbitral tribunal, most of the arbitrators were appointed by Shunji Yanai, the then-president of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) and a right-wing Japanese intent on ridding Japan of postwar arrangements,” Yang said. “In the proceedings, some arbitrators and experts even backtracked from their long-held views to make the case for the Philippines. Anyone with good sense can see the tricks.”
Just days later, Beijing again assailed Yanai, a longtime bureaucrat and former Japanese ambassador to the United States, this time trumpeting what essentially amounted to defamation.
Labeling him the “manipulator” behind the “illegal South China Sea arbitration,” an article by the state-run Xinhua News Agency on July 17 appeared to link Yanai’s retirement to an embezzlement scandal.
In it, the state-run agency, the country’s largest and most influential media group, claimed that Yanai “had to leave the Foreign Ministry along with three other officials amid a series of embezzlement scandals.”
In an interview with The Japan Times last Tuesday, Yanai, 79, denied this claim, saying that he had simply retired after serving in various government posts since 1961.
“As a whole, their statements are ungrounded and irrelevant” in regards to the ruling, Yanai said. “It’s slander. It’s not a good thing for a country to make such a statement.”
Yanai, however, said he will not seek legal action over the Xinhua article.
State media has also blasted Tokyo’s “high-profile stance” on the South China Sea issue, with the hawkish Global Times criticizing Japan on July 18 for “hyping” the dispute in a bid to shift attention away from the East China Sea dispute. Those waters are home to the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, which are also claimed by China, where they are known as the Diaoyus.
“The more chaotic the South China Sea is, the more strategic attention China has to pay to it. Japan is keen to see such a scenario as it can ensure its actual control of the Diaoyu Islands,” the editorial said.
Just a day later, Xinhua echoed these comments in an article entitled “Japan’s meddling in South China Sea not to help ease tensions in East China Sea, experts say.”
A Global Times report published July 19 appeared also to threaten possible talks between Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of next month’s Group of 20 talks in Hangzhou, China, citing Tokyo’s “growing interference in regional tensions in the South China Sea.”
The Abe administration has pinned hopes of improving ties with China on such a meeting.
State-run media has also targeted Japanese security officials over the country’s defense white paper, which the China Daily said was “trying to play up the China threat theory as an excuse for the country’s military expansion” in a July 22 article.
And on Thursday, after a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ foreign ministers failed to mention the arbitration ruling in its statement, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang took Tokyo to task over the issue.
“Japan seems reluctant to give up its fancy of forcing China to accept the so-called award, despite the South China Sea littoral states, including the claimants, have expressed willingness to cooperate with China,” Lu said, adding that further pressing of the issue could leave Tokyo “isolated.”
But perhaps the most inflammatory claims made by Beijing were the words spoken by the country’s vice foreign minister shortly after the maritime ruling was announced.
Speaking at a news conference in Beijing on July 13, Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin denigrated the tribunal and the process, alleging that arbitrators may have been bribed so as to favor the Philippines in the ruling.
“The arbitrators are paid by certain parties, but who?” Liu asked. “Maybe by the Philippines or other countries. This system is completely different from the ICJ (International Court of Justice ) or the ITLOS.
“Judges of the ICJ or the ITLOS receive salaries from the U.N. for the sake of independence and impartiality,” he added. “But these five judges of the arbitral tribunal are doing it for a profit, and their payments come from the Philippines and probably others, too. We are unsure about the details but they do provide paid services.”
Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the expenses of an arbitration case should typically be split equally between the disputing parties. In this case, the tribunal said its expenses — including the arbitrators’ remuneration — were covered by deposits from the Philippines, since China did not take part and has refused to pay its share.
“As a matter of principle, both parties have to pay the expenses,” Yanai said. But in this case, the Philippines “had to pay because China didn’t. They had to act” under the rules of the convention.
“It stems from the fact that China didn’t participate,” he added. “So, if they defrayed the expenses for the time being, China cannot say that the Philippines are ‘buying’ the judges.”
Julian Ku, a professor of constitutional law at Hofstra University in New York, said the claims by Liu — who like Yanai is on a United Nations roster of arbitrators available for appointment by the PCA — were “outrageous on so many levels.”
“There is no evidence, and Liu cites none, that any government other than the Philippines paid the arbitrators,” Ku wrote on Opinio Juris, an online forum discussing international law and international relations.
Such payments, Ku said, are almost always made in advance of the award being issued, or even before the proceedings begin. In other words, he said, the payments could not influence the award’s contents because the Philippines did not know the content of the ruling before they made their payments.
“Vice Minister Liu is not a party hack who doesn’t know anything about arbitration,” Ku wrote. “Liu knows exactly how arbitration works, and he is feigning ignorance in order to defame the character of the UNCLOS arbitrators.
“Liu’s borderline defamatory remarks matter even if China and the Philippines eventually work out a settlement of their dispute. Liu has knowingly denigrated the integrity of five arbitrators — three of whom continue to sit on the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea — using facts he almost certainly knows are false,” Ku wrote.
Professor Steve Tsang, head of the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham in England, said that Beijing is trying to distract attention within China from the ruling without appearing weak domestically.
“By taking a robust stance against Japan and other states, it projects a position of strength to its citizens without immediately appearing too aggressive toward the court or to the Philippines,” Tsang said.
“The very strong response shows how much Beijing is not willing to let the ruling go unchallenged but at the same time wanting to avoid a direct confrontation with the USA, which Beijing believes is the ‘black hand’ behind the whole thing,” he added.
Jessica Chen Weiss, an associate professor of government at Cornell University who has studied grass-roots nationalism in China, said that Beijing hopes to pursue a bilateral approach to calming tensions in the South China Sea. Japanese involvement, however, makes it more difficult for China to keep the East and South China sea issues separate and prevail in such negotiations, she said.
“The warnings against Japanese ‘meddling’ should be understood in the context of the 2012 anti-Japanese protests” in the wake of Tokyo’s nationalization of the Senkakus, Weiss said. “So far, the Chinese government has been able to contain popular anger at the United States” over the ruling. “But the more publicly Japan gets involved in the South China Sea, the more pressure the Chinese government will face from nationalists at home, and the greater the risk to stability in China’s relations with Japan and the rest of the region.”