George Orwell’s  novel “1984” is brilliant simply on how it accurately portrays the mutability of truth in a totalitarian society. Today there are only a few examples of a dystopia similar to the nation of “Eurasia” depicted in the novel; at the top of one’s head, China is the first in the list.

The stand of China in its claims in the South China Sea is simple: it is ours, and there is no need to explain it to anyone – what’s the fuss all about?

The claim of our Big Brother up north is based on the supposed history of discovery of the islands in 23 A.D. and 220 A.D by the Han dynasty. The validity of such historical claims, however, was put in doubt when Vietnam, in the 1940s, argued the same “historical” claim in the islands of Paracels where it says it has ruled since the 17th century.

Enter Taiwan, Philippines, Brunei, and Malaysia, and we have a military flashpoint that pulls the Doomsday Clock closer to the dreaded midnight.

The weight of history

Historical claims among disputed territories have been influential in the resolutions of important conflicts in the past. According to Alexander B. Murphy of the University of Oregon, justification of the use of arms in territorial disputes is mainly due to the belief that they are merely attempting “to recover land that has been ‘wrongfully’ taken away.”

Murphy’s paper proceeded by saying “historical arguments have come to ascendancy as claims based strictly on ethnic, strategic, and economic considerations have become less acceptable.”

But what if history itself is disputable, like in the issue of the South China Sea? It’s difficult to ascertain for sure with everyone playing the tough card in this fragile game. But let’s look closely at China’s historical claim and assess its validity.

Caption: The Nine-Dashed Line

The ‘weak link’

Analysts have repeatedly debunked the historical claim of China over the Spratlys and the Paracels since time immemorial. The basis of the rebuttal rests mainly on the nature of the territorial inconsistencies of the different Chinese dynasties and unconvincing evidence provided by China.

The “ever changing frontiers” of Chinese dynasties were described by Mohan Malik, a professor of Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, as “neither carefully drawn nor policed but were more like circles or zones, tapering off from the center of civilization to the undefined periphery of alien barbarians”.

Bruce Jacobs of the American Enterprise Institute describes a key document that was used by Beijing in solidifying its claim in the South China Sea, entitled the “Historical Evidence to Support China’s Sovereignty over Nansha Islands,” issued by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs on November 17, 2000.

The document, however, merely states the claim is valid because “Chinese textbooks mention them”, like the one written by a certain Yang Fu who described the region in these words: “There are islets, sand cays, reefs and banks in the South China Sea, the water there is shallow and filled with magnetic rocks or stones (漲海崎頭. 水淺而多磁石)”.

There is no mention that it is part of Chinese sovereign territory, nor even the existence of the nine-dashed line.

The claim gets weaker as one reads the document due to the mention of certain parts of the South China Sea as a place of the “barbarians”, clearly conceding that parts of the area are not Chinese territory, further debunking the veracity of the nine-dashed line.

UNCLOS and Doublethink

The UNCLOS, or the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, was ratified by nations in 1982 and put to effect in 1994 as the final solution to complicated historical disputes on territory similar to the case of the South China Sea.

One of the most prominent signatories of the law is China itself.

However, China, so it seems, is the one who’s first to break diplomacy in favor of direct muscle-flexing. Believing one thing (ratifying the UNCLOS), while also believing another (historical claim over law), is a propensity for contradictory beliefs also known “doublethink”.

Doublethink is believing in two contradictory things at the same time, using only the more convenient belief at a particular moment. It is both a conscious and unconscious process, setting it apart from brainwash and hypocrisy. The concept is introduced in the novel “1984”and has since then entered the common tongue, and eventually the Oxford Dictionary.

The context of doublethink’s invention as a word is based upon the dire prediction of George Orwell’s 1949 novel that if the post-World War II nuclear arms race (Cold War) between the Soviet Union and the United States continued, by the year 1984 we would have lived in a world of historical revisionism, party politics, eternal state of war, and the perpetual subjugation of the proletariat.

Sounds like something that only a totalitarian regime could do? Not really. Doublethink’s entry into the English language recognizes the fact that it can be used by virtually any kind of government – yes, even democracies.

In this context, it’s just easier to see how communist China seems to be using the same sort of self-psychology in justifying its claims over the islands.

Is China doublethinking the issue? It’s obvious. We think that China is a bully, but China doesn’t. She merely thinks that she’s doing what is right based on what is convenient on this issue – what’s worse is that  she may not or may be aware of it (or both).

Let us take a look at an excerpt of one of China’s state-controlled Global Times’ articles:

“As for China’s refusal to participate in the international arbitration of UNCLOS, Beijing is not to blame.

It is widely accepted in the international community that either political negotiations or international law can be used to resolve territorial disputes. In reality, because of the complicacy and sensitivity of territorial disputes, most successful solutions were achieved by political negotiations.”

See what I mean? On one hand we have a concession for international law, on the other we have a claim on “political negotiations” which suggests bilateral talks with the Philippines instead of our current track on international legal remedies. China doublethinked the latter.

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Understanding China

Make no mistake, China is not only using arms race to prepare for a possible defense against the threat of the West. It is also using its unique grasp on the minds of its constituents in instilling contradictory beliefs for the benefit of the communist state – and to irk the outside world in what seemingly is just stupid bullying. In the Chinese mindgame, we are losing simply because we don’t have the capacity to understand a continuously changing belief system that functions only for the benefit of its all-powerful state.

In George Orwell’s novel, the prime example of such belief is the power of the state to impose a new arithmetic truth if it wants to: that 2 + 2 = 5. It does not make sense, but if China says so, then it constituents, including its state-controlled media, will behave that it “is the most natural thing there is”, and “has always been so”, ringing the bell of China’s historical claim:

“The Spratlys has always been ours”, says China.

And here we are exasperated at the fact that we are being “bullied”. We are not. China is simply taking what it thinks is theirs. Try to think of giving up the island of Luzon to be a part of Japan. It’s not easy right? Well China has the same sentiments over the South China Sea.

The problem is we don’t, and China does not and will not get it unless its State says otherwise.

A key strategy

The weakness of the Chinese historical claim – but its relative convenience over the less desirable UNCLOS – does not matter to someone who is doublethinking it. No amount of explanation or logic will be able to convince China to say “hey, let’s talk”. Objective reality does not exist for them.

As of writing, China is creating an air strip in one of the islands of the Spratlys. Global Times described it simply as a reactivation of the “legitimate rights” it holds over the islands.

And we have the US and the Philippines making speeches on how China “should not do this”, “should not do that”, which is noble but will not really do anything unless we ourselves flex our own diplomatic muscles more aggressively.

Is it valid to think that this could be the nidus of the next World War? It is possible, but even the level of reality distortion that doublethinking China does to itself,  she will not be able to deny the consequences of a nuclear war. China knows how harrowing it can be for its own interests.

Thus, waging a full-blown conflict with another superpower is not likely and will not solve any problem for both sides.

But neither does a constant barrage of speeches condemning China.

The key here is simply a better coordination among the region, especially among the ASEAN, a group constantly thrown with criticisms of disunity and passivity.

Howard W. French’s article in The Atlantic quotes Edward N. Luttwak in his book The Rise of China vs. the Logic of Strategy by saying “The German action [in WW I] in building oceanic warships resulted, not in the acquisition of oceanic naval power in an otherwise unchanged world, but in a global strategic transformation that ensured the ultimate nullity of German naval power, and then Germany’s defeat.”

The threatening actions of China should thus elicit a “global strategic transformation”. China has to recognize that its actions will only force other players to create a greater strategic advantage against its one-man march in claiming disputed territories.

A unified show of power even among the weaker countries of the South East Asia should deter the Chinese away from making unwise moves.

Howard French then proceeded to liken the then fast rising Germany in World War I to the rise of China. Only today, China is granted with the precedence of history of avoiding the cataclysm of an all-out war.

Thus, the more that China is forced to look at its current thinking as “inconvenient”, the more she will be forced to confront either of the two choices: (1) a deadly, apocalyptic World War III or (2) a safer slide to diplomacy and the rule of law.

Use doublethink against its head. [x]

‘Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them. The Party intellectual knows in which direction his memories must be altered; he therefore knows that he is playing tricks with reality; but by the exercise of doublethink he also satisfies himself that reality is not violated. The process has to be conscious, or it would not be carried out with sufficient precision, but it also has to be unconscious, or it would bring with it a feeling of falsity and hence of guilt…To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies—all this is indispensably necessary.’

  • Winston Smith, “1984”by George Orwell