BRIDGES: Language as a battleground


THE Chinese government is using language as a battleground by distorting certain terms and words to fit its arguments, particularly on certain maritime issues. Such tactic can be cataclysmic and could even affect the outcome of the territorial dispute between the Philippines and China over the West Philippine Sea.

Ceding control of the words we use can be fatal to diplomacy and we should do something to keep China from congealing into international custom and, eventually, law.

If you let someone define the words used in an argument how he pleases, or if you let him use terms so imprecise that they lose all meaning, you let him establish the assumptions from which the argument proceeds.

And once he sets the assumptions, he can prove whatever he wants. You will lose every time. Call it rhetorical battle space preparation, or call it “three warfares.” Whatever the name, it’s a never-ending campaign for Beijing. Blunting it demands similar persistence.

Consider last month’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force interception and harassment of a US Navy P-8 anti-submarine-warfare jet east of Hainan Island as an example of Beijing’s effort to coopt the language of maritime law.

In an interview, Wang Dong, director of the School of International Studies-Center for Northeast Asian Strategic Studies at Peking University, was quoted as saying that “there is a strong sense” in China that “the US has abused the definition of ‘innocent passage’ under UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas).”

We must point out that under the UNCLOS, innocent passage refers to the right of ships to pass through a coastal state’s territorial sea – that is, within 12 nautical miles of its shoreline – provided it refrains from doing things that could infringe on the coastal state’s security. The treaty text lists such activities as military surveillance.

Innocent passage is a “meaningless term” beyond the territorial sea.

It has no bearing on the coastal state’s exclusive economic zone, or EEZ, which extends from 200 to 350 nautical miles offshore depending on the underwater geography where freedom of the sea prevails.

We must debunk the use of the term “innocent passage” every time Beijing applies it to the EEZ.

It would be a bad idea if the term seeps into common parlance; it will find its way into the legal debate over the EEZ, and the international community will have yielded a crucial point to the wily Chinese.

We would have let China redefine a legal precept.

Another example of how Beijing is trying to distort terms was when, during the same interview mentioned earlier, Wang said “US spy planes are not doing sightseeing or picnicking; rather, they’re engaged in intensive, intrusive military intelligence gathering on a massive scale and sustained manner, which not only severely threatens China’s national security, but also violates China’s law.”

In this instance, like all coastal states, China is sovereign only over its territorial seas and airspace.

Chinese law does not govern what shipping or aircraft do within its exclusive economic zone, let alone within Beijing’s (absurd) nine-dashed line enclosing most of the South China Sea.

If US Navy air pirates are poaching fish or drilling for oil, then China has a case.

That its leadership wants to control sea and sky so very, very much doesn’t make its policy law./PN