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Overturning unfair treaties is part of good statesmanship

by Dr Ong Hean Teik

The decision by the new Pakatan government of Malaysia to renegotiate unfair agreements and to postpone the high-speed railway was derided as unethical and not in keeping with ancient Chinese morality by a Singaporean analyst. In fact, ancient Chinese history is full of examples where treaties are broken and far from condemning such behaviour, they are held up as examples of good statecraft.

During the Spring and Autumn period, Yue state's prominent strategist FanLi was held captive together with his king Guojian by the state of Wu. For 3 years, both men on numerous occasions and in every way possible pledged loyalty to Wu, with Guojian even feigning insanity to win release. Upon return to Yue, both men work to rebuild their country, finally successfully destroying the state of Wu in 493BCE.

In 207BCE, the future founder of the Han dynasty, Liu Bang found himself in a greatly inferior position relative to his rival Hsiang Yu. At the famous HongMen banquet, Liu Bang pledged total subservience to Hsiang Yu, even leaving a pair of precious jade tablets and cups as tokens of his good faith. Barely 5 years later at the battle of Gaixia, Liu Bang destroyed the army of Xiang Yu, whose suicide was immortalised in the opera, Farewell to my Concubine. Had Liu Bang kept his word, the Han dynasty, the longest in Chinese history, would never have existed.

Again during the era of the Three Kingdoms, Liu Bei assisted by his famed advisor Zhuge Liang, went into Yi province supposedly to help governor Liu Zhang against Cao Cao. Barely two years later, Liu Bei's army defeated Liu Zhang's and took over full control of Yi province. Rather than seeing this as a display of treachery, the battle of Yi Province is considered a wonderful display of military strategy.

More recent examples of successful renegotiation of unfair treatment also abound in Chinese statecraft. HongKong island was ceded permanently to Britain under the infamous Treaty of Nanking, when opium traders were legally able to traffic in addictive substances and even win territorial concessions. And in the 1980s, the British government initially tried to enforce this unfair treaty before accepting the inevitability of total withdrawal given the practical reality of China's rise. Similarly, while China has signed onto the UN Law of the Sea, faced with unjust actions when territorial arguments were brought to this court, China did not participate in the proceedings nor recognized the verdict.

As Mao Zedong said, a revolution is not a dinner party. Malaysia has undergone nothing less than a democratic revolution and change of goverment. It is totally appropriate and in keeping with the finest tradition of Chinese statecraft that Malaysia's government seeks to overturn unfair treaties and treatment.

Dr Ong is a practicing Consultant Cardiologist in Penang, Malaysia.