Western nations 'playing political games' with China | Connect Asia

Western nations 'playing political games' with China

Western nations 'playing political games' with China

Updated 5 June 2013, 13:07 AEST

From its skirmishes in the South China Sea to its conduct in international trade, China is often accused of failing to play by the rules of international law.

But those accusations come from Western nations which are not much better than China itself, says Dr Ben Saul, international law professor at the University of Sydney.

He says like most comparable western nations - including the US and Australia - sometimes China breaks the law, but a lot of the time China respects it.

So why has China been singled out as the bad guy?

Presenter: Joanna McCarthy

Speaker: Dr Ben Saul, professor of International Law at the University of Sydney

SAUL: Well I think it's true that many western countries seem to cast China as an outlaw in order to de-legitimise it politically, so this is part of the usual kind of geo-political story where international law is used as often another form of politics against one's adversaries. I think if you take a step back though and look at the longer sweep of history, actually it's pretty remarkable how rapidly China has become socialised into international law. I mean China's earlier experience of international law was as really colonial repression whereby the western powers used international law to get what they wanted out of China through forced treaties and opium concessions and so forth. And then after the communists came to power China really only entered the international community from the 1970s onwards. So in about three or four decades China has become deeply engaged in many of the international law rules which the rest of the international law community has been involved in for much, much longer; from trade to environment, human rights, international security and so on. And in terms of where China's come from, that's a pretty remarkable story.

MCCARTHY: So in fact China should be given some kudos for having made these remarkable strides rather than live constantly having the finger pointed?

SAUL: Well certainly any state which doesn't respect its international obligations should be called to account for that. The problem is that the moral authority of the west is often in doubt when it tries to hold China to standards which the west doesn't hold itself to. And you can think of all kinds of recent examples from the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003 by the United States, to many other examples where the west has been doing things which are utterly inconsistent with international law. And yet seeks to hold China to account for often what are lesser violations of international law. At the same time of course there are well known areas where China is plainly not in conformity with its international obligations. I mean human rights in Tibet and Xinjiang in western China are good examples. But many other areas, environmental law, territorial disputes and so on are much more nuanced issues I think.

MCCARTHY: Well you mentioned territorial disputes and we often hear from China's aggrieved neighbours about its conduct in the South China Sea. It's accused of being aggressive, erratic, unpredictable, is that a fair criticism?

SAUL: I think you need to break down the disputes in the South China Sea. Certainly this infamous 'nine-dash line' whereby China has claimed most of the maritime and land areas in the South China Sea as its own is pretty hard to reconcile with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which China by the way is a party to, whereas the United States is not. On the other hand other parts of the South China Sea are much more complex. So for example this current dispute between Japan and China over what Japan calls the Senkaku Islands, what China calls the Diaoyu Islands, actually is an example where both countries have some pretty strong historical claims to those islands where over a long period of time both countries have exercised various forms of administrative or sovereign authority over those areas. There are all kinds of treaty arrangements which complicate the picture. The settlement after the Second World War is part of that story. And so actually these aren't clear-cut cases where China is simply claiming stuff which doesn't belong to it. These are as is often the case with maritime disputes really complicated factual historical disputes going back often centuries.

MCCARTHY: And you've also pointed out when it comes to territorial disputes that the west is fairly inconsistent in the way it takes positions on China's territories. Tibet and Taiwan for example?

SAUL: Yes, look like any country China is obviously concerned to protect what it sees as its inalienable sovereign territory, and clawing back bits of Chinese territory which were taken from it or imposed upon it by colonial powers in the past is something pretty important to the Chinese leadership. But that doesn't mean that they're expansionist and trying to grab bits of other people's territory. And this is where the position of the west has sent mixed signals to China I think. On the one hand, pretty much every country, well every country in the world accepts that Tibet is part of mainland China and that the Tibetans don't have a right to self-determination, and that's despite the fact that historically there's actually some pretty good evidence that Tibet was relatively autonomous from China for a very long time. On the other hand, the west opposes China taking back Taiwan or did for a very long time and yet Taiwan is simply a part of traditional Chinese territory which was lost during the Civil War, it's the bit of China which the communists never could take from the nationalists. And that's really no different than if there was a civil war in Australia, Tasmania breaks away and suddenly other countries are telling Australia you can't take Tasmania back. I mean this is a pretty traditional part of sovereign Chinese territory. So I think that tells the Chinese leadership that the west is playing political games in some ways over China's sovereign rights.

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