China in public relations campaign to push case over territorial disputes

HONG KONG - In a rare move, China invited the international media in Hong Kong to a briefing during which it sought to lay out its stance on foreign relations, the first step in what some observers believe could be a new public relations campaign to push its case over prickly territorial disputes and improve its image.

Ms Jiang Yu, the deputy commissioner for foreign affairs in Hong Kong, spoke extensively at the session on Thursday, insisting that China has never engaged in provocative actions, and "would not want anything that does not belong to us".

Asia Report dispute islands special report

In dulcet tones and politely-couched terms, she also touched on Sino-United States relations, reiterating that the Asia-Pacific region is vast enough to accommodate both powers.

At the same time, she called on Asian countries to "step up mutual trust, abandon obsolete Cold War mentality, treat neighbours as partners and constantly deepen mutual trust".

"We need efforts from Asians themselves," she said in what appears to be a gentle lob at the US' Asia Pivot, seen by many in China as a ploy to encircle and contain its growing power.

China's reassurances and explanations follow heated debates at the Shangri-La Dialogue, a security forum, in Singapore over the weekend, which saw sharp exchanges between representatives from China, the US and Japan over disputes in the South and East China seas.

In its wake, the US consulate in Hong Kong this week also approached China watchers here on how US-Sino relationship can shift back on a more even keel.

It is as yet unclear if China's media briefing on Thursday marks the start of an orchestrated charm offensive, even as it deploys increasingly assertive moves in disputed waters. But spokesman Tang Rui tells The Straits Times it is possible that regular sessions will be held in future.

If so, it is not without precedent. Last year, China organised a series of overseas PR moves after Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine. Its envoys penned essays and organised press conferences in their respective countries to slam the move, while lobbying China's case over the disputed Diaoyu islands, or Senkaku islands.

Political scientist Joseph Cheng of the City University of Hong Kong says he believes the latest move came about because "the Chinese authorities are aware that the international environment is becoming less favourable to it and so requires a more active response".

This comes within a broader shift towards "pro-active PR" under President Xi Jinping, whether in the form of Premier Li Keqiang taking his wife on a trip to Africa last month, or his own visits to local noodle eateries, adds Prof Cheng.

On why Hong Kong was chosen as the venue for the briefing this time, he attributes it to the high concentration of foreign media here.

The last time such a briefing was held is believed to be about six or seven years ago.

Ms Jiang appears an apt choice for such sessions.

Speaking in fluent English, the 50-year-old diplomat, who has been based in Hong Kong the past two years, said that China hopes to resolve the disputes "in an objective rational way and through consultations".

She added that it is "quite normal" that China and the US have different views on some issues.

"The China-US relationship should be mature enough," she said. But she also warned against "taking extreme confrontational actions because anything can be a double-edged sword".

Ms Jiang later fielded questions from the journalists, numbering about 15, in an off-record session that lasted for over an hour.

Separately, the Chinese media reported on Thursday that a new Chinese ambassador to Vietnam had been appointed. Mr Hong Xiaoyang took over from Mr Kong Xuanyou who had been in the position since 2011. The handover took effect in May.