February 3, 2012

The Economist and the South China Sea: It is "complex" if I can't understand it

The Economist is often held prisoner by its own prejudice arising from its whatever-China-does-internationally-is-wrong stance, and a recent article on the South China Sea disputes proves it. Behold the latest offering from intellectual dungeons of the The Economist: "The devil in the deep blue detail".

Sadly, but not surprisingly, the newspaper warns against the dangers of viewing the dispute through cold war lenses, and then proceeds to do exactly that.  In a nutshell, the article can be summed up as follows: China is the bad guy. (Of course, that applies to most articles about China that it publishes).

The article repeatedly quotes a recent report by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). And in its zeal to portray China as the aggressor clearly camouflages one aspect: The author was dying to mention a couple of proverbial incidents in the South China Sea where China "detained" or "harassed" some Vietnamese or The Philippines' fishing boats (which is the staple diet of every "analysis" of the South China Sea disputes), but, much to his chagrin, couldn't, because the CNAS report also says (which he didn't quote): 
Although China’s detention of foreign fishing boats receives a great deal of media attention, confrontations involving fishing boats from other claimant states are also common. According to one Chinese source, more than 300 incidents have occurred since 1989 in which Chinese trawlers were fired upon, detained or driven away. In 2009, for example, Vietnamese vessels reportedly fired three times on Chinese boats, wounding three Chinese fishermen. That same year, 10 Chinese trawlers reportedly were seized. Similarly, Vietnam and the Philippines routinely detain fishermen from each other’s countries
Of course, it will be hearsay for The Economist to talk about the fact that smaller countries are in dispute with themselves too, and not only with China. But then, this would impede on its standard editorial stance of painting China as the bully. Hence, it does the opposite:
Of all the claimants to islands, reefs, rocks and waters there, the one with which the Philippines is in active dispute is China. That was certainly how the news was taken by China’s Global Times newspaper, which called for sanctions against the Philippines.
No, Global Times does not see it that way. That is called for sanctions against The Philippines does not mean that it thinks that the country is not in active dispute with any other nation. 

Another interesting thing that many such articles harp on is that  China has expressed an interest in negotiating with each country separately. This is excellent fodder for journalists, who portray this as China trying to "pick of" its rival claimants one by one. Obviously, nobody talks about the fact that the "smaller" countries are ganging up against China, or that they have disputes over the same area with each other too. This just serves to further their agenda of portraying China on one side (as the" aggressor") and the other smaller countries on the other (as the "victims"). 

The article doesn't stop there. It goes a step further and attempts to describe China's claims in the "complex" dispute, oblivious to the fact that it contradicts itself:
Third and most important, China’s position continues to unnerve the other claimants. It is unclear, for example, what the dotted-line claim is based on. And, refusing to countenance serious negotiations with the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), to which four of the claimants belong, China appears to want to pick off its members one by one. Until recently, its fiercest rows were with Vietnam. That relationship seems to be going through a relatively mellow phase as it bullies the Philippines. And last July it did agree with ASEAN on “guidelines” for implementing a “declaration” on a code of conduct agreed on by the two parties back in 2002 to reduce tensions in the South China Sea.
So, presumably, the 2002 ASEAN declaration, which stated, in part, that "the parties would resolve their territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means, without resorting to the threat or use of force … in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea [and] to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability.” was a farce. The article dismisses this as a "stalling tactic"; presumably it thinks that international disputes such as this one should be resolved in a matter of months, with a sort of fast-food approach to diplomacy perhaps. 

In 2003, China became the first non-ASEAN country to sign the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, signaling its nominal acceptance of ASEAN’s security norm of peaceful settlement of disputes. But this is not "serious" enough for The Economist. (After all, what better proof of China's aggressive intentions than declarations of peace?)
The point here is not whether China is aggressive, but that if China is aggressive, it is given more attention in the media than if any other country displayed the same (or higher) amount of aggressiveness. 

South China Sea claims Vietnam Philippines
Claims in the South China Sea

It is also not "unclear" what the dotted line is based on. It is based on historical claims dating as far back as the Han dynasty in the 2nd century BC, as a simple Google search would have revealed to the author. Like China, Vietnam's claims are also historical, and
other countries involved in the dispute too have overlapping claims as seen above, which, obviously, The Economist forgot to mention. Now one is welcome to debate those claims (a task that it finds too "complex" to undertake), but claiming that it is not clear what the line is based on is not only a display of ignorance, but also of intellectual laziness. Perhaps no more than what can be expected from a publication that sarcastically dismissed the deaths of 40 people in the Wenzhou train crash with one word: "Whoops".

And to top it all off, the article, which started with petulance, ends with a joke, and a rather prissy one at that: "[America has] an abiding interest in the freedom of navigation and commerce". What nobody mentions is that the US has not ratified the The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). It supports "freedom of navigation" only because supporting a free for all is always in favor of the stronger party. It's basic common sense - If I am stronger than you (and if we both know this), it is in my interest that you are transparent, and in your interest (and against mine) that you are opaque. It is always in the interest of the weaker party to hide the true extent of its strength (or weakness). This is why the US is asking China to be more transparent with regards to its military. America, with its greater clout and lobbying power, pushes through self-serving and favorable laws in international organizations such as the UN. Of course, it routinely breaks them with equal ease when it serves its own interest.

The newspaper recently announced a new section dedicated solely to China, only the second country to receive the honour (such as it is) after the US did in 1942. And like this particular article, that section also started with a self-contradictory analysis. The apple doesn't really fall far from the tree, and The Economist certainly has a proclivity for barking up the wrong one.