Danielle Cave and Greg Raymond, theage.com.au
Image from article, with caption: South China Sea claimants and key regional players are using targeted public diplomacy to promote their interests
Goats and bento lunch boxes don't spring to mind when considering Asian maritime security, but this unlikely pairing is part of a propaganda battle that is taking place in the South China Sea. Earlier this year Taiwan flew international journalists to Taiping, the largest natural land feature in the Spratlys chain in the most contested archipelago in the South China Sea.
As Taiwan administers Taiping and seeks recognition of its claim, this was a genius move by a country not well known for soft power or global influence. The fact that most states and all South China Sea claimants fail to recognise Taiwan as a country makes its position in this dispute complicated. But even before the Air Force C-130 had returned from Taiping, the trip had paid for itself. Journalists had live-tweeted and Instagrammed the visit to online followers. Among the photos of military installations appeared bento box lunches made from locally grown ingredients and videos of unusually cute goats. Within hours a long string of media reports were bouncing around the world.
South China Sea claimants and key regional actors are using targeted public diplomacy like this to promote their interests. The Philippines government, which is awaiting an arbitration case concerning the legality of China's "nine-dashed line" claim, has taken a different tack. They televised a well-made three-part documentary and pushed it out through social media networks, including in China. To raise awareness domestically their foreign affairs officials have toured university campuses to outline maritime claims. A comic book is now in the works.
But these efforts are minuscule compared with the Chinese government's. Through its state-controlled mass media assets – available around the world and in multiple languages – China is able to widely and regularly communicate its policy positions.
Australia, with a genuine interest in the resolution of the South China Sea dispute occurring through peaceful and respectful negotiations, does not agree with China's unstinting land creation programs. But there is no denying that China's message is heard around the world, loudly and clearly.
In contrast Australia's message is quiet and cautious. When talking to the media, politicians and senior officials carefully stick to a rigid list of talking points. Questions about US-led freedom of navigation operations are answered. Behind closed doors, candid exchanges of views between officials may be occurring. But private diplomacy is only one lever of influence and in order to more effectively contribute to deterring further militarisation in the South China Sea, Australia needs to explore and invest in other levers.
A recent Lowy Institute report titled "Shifting Waters: China's new passive assertiveness in Asian maritime security" suggests concerned nations, including Australia, step up diplomatic criticism of China's activities and question whether its actions are those of a good international citizen. We agree and believe that China's growing sensitivity to reputational costs offers an important point of leverage.
While we do not recommend crass shaming, megaphone diplomacy or covert Cold War style propaganda efforts, we do recommend that Australia and regional actors do far more to highlight the inconsistency of China's actions with its former vows to "never seek hegemony".
If China is confident in the merit of its claims vis-a-vis others and wishes to avoid a reputation as a regional bully, it should be encouraged to submit its case to an independent umpire. We also believe much more needs to be done to increase awareness among the populations of the disputant countries of the multiple historical perspectives at the heart of this dispute. To do this, creative public and digital diplomacy offers a vast and barely tapped resource.
First, the Australian government should more proactively explain and communicate its South China Sea policies. Beyond the monologue of media releases and official statements, departments responsible for national security and foreign affairs have traditionally been digital stragglers. But the government now has access to a growing online infrastructure of social media accounts and new publishing platforms. These should be better used to help articulate its point of view at home and overseas. Former Foreign Minister Gareth Evans, in a recent op-ed in The Australian, has shown that a pithy but detailed account of Australia's position on the legalities of the dispute is possible.
Second, the government should work with universities and think-tanks to encourage Australian-perspective policy research that is accessible, timely and interactive. For example, the government could fund research institutes to geo-code reported South China Sea maritime incidents, track official statements and tag satellite imagery on an online map in real-time or establish a website to explain the claims of each disputant. Such online research would prove a powerful resource for journalists, policymakers and academics and help sort fact from fiction.
Third, the Australian government and influential foreign policy actors should use counter messaging to strategically highlight inconsistent and false assertions made by China in the South China Sea. The Chinese government's expanding presence on foreign social media networks and recent moves to hire a western public relations firm reveal a country that cares increasingly about its international reputation. Providing a fact-check mechanism to illuminate on-the-ground realities would help better inform Australians and strengthen global public discourse.
Our current stance of talking quietly while continually boosting defence spending and alliance cooperation may be dangerous longer term – it is how security dilemmas are spawned. Australia will always have to tread a fine line in the South China Sea, but we shouldn't be afraid to foster sensible debate and discussion through public diplomacy and greater public investment in more strategic and creative policy thinking. Once a multi-dimensional approach to the South China Sea is in place, Australia will be in the best possible position to proactively pursue what we desperately want. And that is the uninterrupted continuation of a peaceful and prosperous neighbourhood.