MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – China says nearly 60 countries support its opposition to the case filed by the Philippines over the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea). But an independent think tank says otherwise – only 10 countries publicly do.
Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), told Rappler that China is trying to project "that it has far more explicit support than it actually does."
On top of this supposedly bloated figure, most of China’s public supporters come from Africa, a continent to which China has pledged billions of dollars in aid.
In its Arbitration Support Tracker, the AMTI of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) listed the following as countries publicly supporting China's position:
This is based on data as of Monday, July 11.
Seven of these 10 countries (Gambia, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Niger, Sudan, and Togo) are in Africa.
The AMTI said these countries publicly support China’s position which regards as "illegitimate" the arbitral tribunal handling Manila’s case against Beijing.
China: More African supporters
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei on Friday, July 8, said more African countries have publicly supported China's position.
He said that "the government of the Central African Republic, the government of Madagascar, the Prime Minister of Guinea-Bissau, the foreign ministry of Zimbabwe, the foreign ministry of Angola, and the foreign minister of Liberia" have also "made statements and endorsed China’s position on the South China Sea issue."
Hong said on Friday: "To date, more than 30 African countries have expressed their explicit support to China’s position through various channels, for which we would like to express our high appreciation."
"It also stands as a strong proof that standing for justice and objectiveness and upholding international rule of law is the mainstream of the international community. The arbitral tribunal and its ruling will not gain popular support and will only prove to be delusional," the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said.
The additional countries mentioned by Hong have not been reflected in the AMTI's database as of Saturday.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, Netherlands, is set to announce the tribunal’s ruling on Tuesday, July 12.
Same arguments, same words
While waiting for this ruling, China’s supporters have separately issued strong statements against the Philippine case in The Hague.
They echoed China’s position, sometimes even using the same words.
Gambia, for one, said the tribunal in The Hague "has no jurisdiction in pronouncing a verdict on maritime boundaries in the South China Sea."
Kenya, for its part, said that "disputes over the South China Sea should be peacefully resolved through consultations and negotiations in accordance with bilateral agreements and the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea."
Curiously, Lesotho said the same thing, with roughly the same phrasing: that "disputes in the South China Sea should be resolved peacefully through friendly consultations and negotiations, in accordance with bilateral agreements and the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea by parties directly concerned."
Part of 'PR campaign'
Experts, however, downplay the support of these countries.
For Poling, Beijing’s claim that it has almost 60 supporters is part of "a public relations campaign to try to deflect the reputational cost it will suffer after the ruling" on July 12.
Of the countries reportedly supporting China, Poling less than a dozen countries "have actually done so in public."
Most others "have said only vague niceties about peacefully resolving disputes or engaging in consultation." He said this is "something that either Manila or Washington would probably agree with."
Poling added, "Most of those supporting China’s position on the arbitration are heavily dependent on Chinese aid and investment, and many are small or land-locked, making them less invested in the regime of international maritime law."
Poling also pointed out that most countries supporting China "rank low on indices like Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index and Freedom House’s Freedom in the World Index."
"In other words, there is a correlation between respect for rule of law at home and support for this arbitration and international law more broadly," Poling said. This simply means that the higher the respect for rule of law at home is, the higher the support for arbitration is, too.
China’s 10 supporters have the following rankings in the Corruption Perceptions Index in 2015. In these cases, the higher the number, the higher the perception of corruption:
US, UK support ruling
On the other hand, Poling said, those supporting the Philippine case have higher rankings in the indices he cited, meaning, they are perceived to be less corrupt.
The AMTI Arbitration Tracker said 40 countries "have voiced support for the arbitral proceedings, said the award will be legally binding, and/or called on China and the Philippines to respect it."
The AMTI Arbitration Tracker listed the following countries as "publicly supporting" the upcoming ruling as binding:
Supporters of the upcoming ruling include 7 countries in the Top 10 of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index for 2015. They are seen as relatively "clean" countries.
Ruling 'the most important thing'
Lionel Jensen, an Asian studies expert from the University of Notre Dame, agreed that majority of the countries supporting China "are largely undemocratic in their political conditions."
In an interview on Thursday, July 7, Jensen added, "I think Africa has had a unique degree of indebtedness to China in recent years." (Watch the video below)
A source privy to the case of the Philippines told Rappler: "China has huge investments in Africa. You can just imagine that China will leverage its investments there, in exchange for supporting them."
An Asian diplomat, who refused to be named for lack of authority to speak, said getting the support of African countries "is part of China’s efforts to consolidate their arguments." The diplomat, however, said that "the most important thing is the ruling."
Now the question is, why does China want so many countries on its side?
Experts say it has something to do with the enforcement of the upcoming ruling.
If the tribunal favors the Philippines and China refuses to heed the ruling, the Asian giant runs the risk of being called an international outlaw, according to the Philippines’ lead counsel, Paul Reichler.
"International pressure is the court’s only enforcement mechanism," the AMTI said. – Rappler.com
Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He obtained his MA Journalism degree from Ateneo and later finished MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.