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Media diplomacy in the South China Sea disputes: Vietnam, China and the Philippines 2012 – 2016

After shelving tensions for development until the 2000s, the South China Sea (SCS) issue re-emerged with three notable crises: the Scarborough Shoal dispute, the oil rig crisis and the SCS arbitration case. During the period of the crises (2012 – 2016), although the claimant states avoided conflicts at sea, they changed the status quo pertaining to the control and the nature of some of the maritime features in the disputed zone. More importantly, public perceptions about the SCS issues, especially the crises, have been re- shaped as tensions occurred, due to the battle in the media between the disputants. In order words, the SCS issue became more complicated, not only because of the overlapping claims of the disputants, but also due to the conflicting media narratives of the claimant states. This situation raises questions as to how, what and why these claimant states released media narratives about the crises, and a need to inquire into the impact of these conflicting narratives on the SCS issues. Correspondingly, a significant area for research inquiry emerged, which provided the rationale for the current study. This study is timely, significant and relevant to the states directly concerned as well as regional states. It uses a complex method including critical discourse analysis, framing and theme creating to collect media reports, and deployed the theoretical framework of media diplomacy to analyse the media tactics of the three claimant states, China, the Philippines and Vietnam, at the time of these three crises. According to Gilboa (2001), media diplomacy occurs when a government sends its diplomatic messages to its target audiences through speeches, press conferences, interviews, visits, media events, or even leaks. To succeed, the government needs to have the ability to predict how its message will be consumed by different stakeholders and how its target audiences are likely to respond. It was hypothesised that the governments in China, Vietnam and the Philippines utilised media diplomacy to affect public opinion, domestically and internationally, during the SCS crises. The research had two major objectives: examining how the states deployed media diplomacy in the crises and understanding how the SCS disputes have been complicated by the media battle between the states. At the escalation stage, all three states projected principles and preconditions via the media. To manage the crises, the states then used the media to explain their policies and actions, to criticise the rivals’ ones and to balance or counter the rivals’ propaganda. The study showed that the media can impact on the moods of both government and the public, positively influencing the states’ foreign policy decision-making processes of de- escalation (Mowlana, 1997). In particular, the media provided a channel to break deadlocks between the states. Before and during bilateral meetings to resolve the tensions, the media were used to try to create a good atmosphere and support communication between the states until a consensus was gained to end the crises. Less positively, since the SCS has a symbolic value for the peoples in the claimant states, during the crises, the governments utilised media diplomacy to recount the sovereignty claims and to turn the territorial controversy into violent protests. Consequently, the tactics led to a deterioration in bilateral relations, not only at the government-to-government level but also at the people-to-people one. This evidence clearly shows how the media narratives impacted on the SCS issue. In the end, the research found that the states could not resolve the SCS disputes by relying only on media diplomacy. However, it is argued, the disputants needed the media to manage and resolve the SCS issue over the long-term. In this respect, deploying media diplomacy as a peace process is a collaborative effort that requires efforts from all the claimant states, third-party stakeholders and all audiences.
Type of thesis
The University of Waikato
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