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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. 


21 comments:

  1. I think you are misreading this article and bring way too much baggage to every Economist article you read. China is the only one who claims the ENTIRE sea and these claims do rankle the countries that actually have coastline on said waters. If you showed a map of the South China Sea to a Martian with no knowledge of the countries involved and then presented China's claim, that Martian would laugh at the expansiveness of the Chinese claim. China IS bullying its smaller neighbors. None of the other claimants of these overlapping claims are behaving aggressively toward each other.    

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  2. This is total bollocks written by one of the new breed of pro-China fanatics who beleives everything quasi negative about the country is a Western conspiracy against it. China does bully in the SCS. Fact.   

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  3. Thanks for commenting. I appreciate your concerns about the apparent
    immensity of China's claims. However, whether or not China claims the
    entire sea is hardly the point here and is completely irrelevant to the
    discussion. One can't dismiss a claim simply because it is too big. A
    claim should be refuted on the basis of the logic and reasoning behind
    it as given by the party in question, not just its size.

    And as
    for bullying, as I quoted in the post, there have been cases of other
    countries bullying China too, but those claim are given hardly any
    attention in the media, and hence are not that well-known.

    As one can see in this map: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:South_China_Sea_claims.jpg, claims of other countries also overlap.

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  4. Thanks for commenting. See my comment above. It is quite clear that other countries also bully China, and that the US is doing its best to interfere in the region and is trying to pump up other countries to show a "front" against China.

    And in any case, nothing I've written suggests a conspiracy of any sort. Moreover, I have backed up my claims with evidence, which, of course, one wouldn't need to do if one was a fanatic. ;-)

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  5. Thanks for commenting. I appreciate your concerns about the apparent
    immensity of China's claims. However, whether or not China claims the
    entire sea is hardly the point here and is completely irrelevant to the
    discussion. One can't dismiss a claim simply because it is too big. A
    claim should be refuted on the basis of the logic and reasoning behind
    it as given by the party in question, not just its size.

    And as for bullying, as I quoted in the post, there have been cases of other
    countries bullying China too, but those claim are given hardly any
    attention in the media, and hence are not that well-known.

    As one can see in this map: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/F..., claims of other countries also overlap.

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  6. Thanks for commenting. See my comment above. It is quite clear that other countries also bully China, and that the US is doing its best to interfere in the region and is trying to pump up other countries to show a "front" against China.

    And in any case, nothing I've written suggests a conspiracy of any sort. Moreover, I have backed up my claims with evidence, which, of course, one wouldn't need to do if one was a fanatic. ;-)

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  7. You write well but I honestly expected a more well thought-out argument.

    http://www.economist.com/comment/1249137#comment-1249137

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  8. Thanks for your comment. As I said earlier, the point here is not about international law. It is about hypocrisy. This post was meant as a response to the accusations of The Economist, not as a thorough analysis of the disputes in the South China Sea (which I plan to write about separately).

    The main point is that other countries too are aggressive in pursuing their claims, but they do not receive anywhere near the same amount of attention as China does. Moreover, it is the height of hypocrisy when the US, of all countries, blames China of not adhering to international law (laws that the US pushed through because of its greater clout and lobbying power, and laws that favor the stronger party (i.e. the US) as I have argued in my post), while routinely breaking international laws and regulations when it suits its own interest.

    An example of this was seen just recently. When Russia and China vetoed the Syrian resolution at the UNSC, the US called it "disgusting and shameful". However, not very long ago, in February 2011, the US vetoed resolutions condemning Israeli settlements. But it didn't receive anywhere near the amount of attention that the Russia-China veto has received (that the former was expected from the beginning is no excuse). Hardly anyone called the US "isolated" then, as they are calling Russia and China now.

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  9. I actually thought the argument made sense and has merit. China is painted as the bully (rightfully so, IMO), while the other countries are all small, innocent countries needing US help. This is typical US propaganda (Arab Spring for example) and I agree: The analysis is skewed against China.

    Having said that, China has a long history of bullying smaller, weaker neighbors - no matter what the self-serving politico-historians say - and the current "peaceful rise" rhetoric is basically there to sneak as much as possible without having to really bleed for it. I think peaceful rise is a great concept and could be game changing if it actually was plausible. 

    But the US will not allow it and China doesn't really believe that anything rises peacefully in this world. A bully? yes. The worst one out there? no.

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  10. There is a difference between being consistent about supporting a firm claim, which is required from international law to maintain such claims, and consistently supporting a weak claim. I call Chinese civil patrols in the South China Sea aggressive precisely because they are overstepping their bounds in multiple ways that I have outlined above.

    Essentially, that the United States does not always respect international law does not mean that it is not in the right (the "also, you" fallacy). In fact, the one area of international where the US has shown considerable consistency is in the law of the sea. It was among the last to accept the claiming of EEZs and the expansion of territorial waters from the 5-mile limit to the 20-mile limit, for example.

    China has been consistent in, essentially, expansively interpreting the law of the sea such that it has a regional advantage. It is aware of this, refuses to arbitrate in international forums because it knows it has no case, and wants to settle things bilaterally (see my quotation from the report above). It is just as guilty of bullying via insistence on bilateral agreements to avoid said outcome in a multilateral forum. But just because it is consistently overstepping its bounds, it is somehow better?

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  11. Thanks for commenting. I agree with your point about US propaganda. What I am surprised about is that so many actually fall for it and blindly believe what they read in the media.

    And regarding your point about China having a history of bullying smaller, weaker neighbors - You might want to read two this and this, where I have included details about China's (land) border settlements with neighboring countries. They also contain the actual portion of the territory that China received in the final settlement, and a map showing the amount of land that China claimed from the territory that had been seized from it by the so-called unequal treaties.

    As you can see, the amount (especially in case of much smaller countries) is quite low, and in most cases is less than 50%. China has had a tendency to actually give territory away in the interests of peace. For example, in its border settlements with former Soviet republics (which it started negotiating as soon as the Soviet Union broke up), China has kept only a minimal amount of land. Those countries were newly formed and highly vulnerable, and were easily susceptible to being bullied. However, China was not "aggressive" in the least, and gave up much more territory than it received, thus resulting in a peaceful border and, most essentially, peace and stability. (Unlike the border with India).

    Of course, maritime disputes fall in a different category altogether, and China's approach towards them has been a tad different. However, these settlements serve to provide a general idea of the overall approach and direction of Chinese foreign policy.

    Needless to say, all these points and statistics are ignored by the mainstream media, since they don't fit into their standard narrative.

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  12. Thanks Maitreya for your article, i do enjoy reading them!

    I just would like to add some info regarding the hypocrisy of The Economist. The critical readers who read dilligently from various sources, the so-called "Alternative Media" of internet-based, not only relying on the news sourced from the corporate mainstream media (MSM) should have been awared of the stance of The Economist. I have no surprise at all if from to time it loads China-bashing stories :)

    Following articles about the mainstream media ownerships may be the interest of readers here.

    Who Owns The Media? The 6 Monolithic Corporations That Control Almost Everything We Watch, Hear And Read
    by Michael Snyder, 2010-10-04
    http://bit.ly/niXCzq


    Who Owns the TV Networks by Eustace Mullins
    https://us2.ixquick.com/do/search?q=Who+Owns+the+TV+Networks+by+Eustace+Mullins++

    The article is clearly dated, and many of these players have died, but rest assured they’ve simply been replaced by more of the same. Although many people today are aware that television and the mainstream media present a very carefully propagandized picture of world events, we doubt many truly grasp the depth of this perversion of reality. So, prepare to have your eyes opened further still.


    Btw i do wonder which party/company owns The Economist? any info is appreciated :)

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  13. from Wiki, some info about the owners of The Economist

    --from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_economistThe publication belongs to The Economist Group, half of which is owned by the Financial Times, a subsidiary of Pearson PLC. A group of independent shareholders, including many members of the staff and the Rothschild banking family of England, owns the rest. A board of trustees formally appoints the editor, who cannot be removed without its permission. In addition, about two thirds of the 75 staff journalists are based in London, despite the global emphasis.Editor: John Micklethwait, 2006–present--from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_MicklethwaitHe was also a delegate, along with two colleagues, at the 2010 BILDERBERG Conference held in Spain. This group consists of an assembly of notable politicians, industrialists and financiers who meet annually to discuss issues on a non-disclosure basis.A frequent broadcaster, he has appeared on CNN, ABC News, BBC, C-Span, PBS and NPR.

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  14. Thanks for your comments! I wholeheartedly agree with your thoughts about the current level of awareness about media propaganda. Many people are indeed aware (or at least have a semblance or a vague awareness) about such propaganda, but most of them don't know its true penetration, or simply don't care. And the people who point such things put are often labelled as conspiracy theorists to hide one's own intellectual laziness!

    Another problem the average westerner has is a hesitation to generalize the matter of media bias. Even if they'll observe MOST western media outlets report lies and spin news stories, they'll refuse to admit that this is a case of general media bias against China. I think this springs from a) intellectual laziness and b) an implicit (and often subconscious) agreement and affinity with negatively portrayed news stories about China. Part of the reason for this is that they consider China to be a sort of alienable outsider and a threat to American hegemony (oops, I almost said exceptionalism ;-))
    Even if you present them with 8 out of 10 randomly picked new stories from different newspapers that are wrong and misleading, they'll still refuse to except it as a case of general bias about that particular topic and will treat it just as a one off case. Then you'll start showing them such bias about other topics too. And then that becomes their cue to change the topic. ;-) Or say something like "Well, what do you expect?" ;-)

    Incidentally, The Economist has started a new blog dedicated to China: http://www.economist.com/blogs/analects. Of course, we know how that's going to work out. ;-)

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  15. I see the point you're trying to make here Maitreya but of course I didn't totally agree with you. China is blamed for its aggressiveness in SCS because it is a fact. I think though the US has the power but China has power too (they're the second biggest economy in the world and has the highest number of population and they also have voice in the UN). Though the US often break the law and you said it doesn't mean China should do it too but I think if it isn't the US, who could be compared to the power that China possesses right now, who could make the wrong become right? Though not everything the US made is right but in this case, it has its own reasons.

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  16. I don't think the former Soviet republic can be categorized as a much smaller country compared to China lol; thus, I don't see your point making that "China has a tendency to actually give territory away in the interests of peace".
    Secondly, you said many people fall for what the media say about the aggressive China so how can you prove yourself that you don't fall for the media who say about a China with peaceful border. If it did want peace, it should have talked and worked with the governments of each country and shouldn't have taken the fishing boats of so many innocent people who has no power to defend themselves before China's military troop.
    OK I'll stop here.

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  17. Thanks for your comment.
    First if all, a country being big or small has hardly anything to do with the matter. China has generally given away more land in its border settlements than it has accepted, regardless of the size of the other claimant country. In fact, if you read my blog post about China's border disputes, you can see for yourself that China has kept minimum land even for countries that are much smaller in size.

    Secondly, I think that the former Soviet republics can indeed be characterized as much smaller as compared to China. Not that it matters of course, so there's really no point in your bringing it up.

    And as for your other point, I always provide evidence and relevant links to substantiate my claims or theories, something that I don't really find in the western media, at least not in an objective manner. China indeed does try to talk and work with different countries for settling disputes. As far as I can gather, China was the first country to propose joint exploration of oil reserves in the area. And as for fishing boats, I have already mentioned that all countries' "take" each others' fishing boats, but its only other countries' fishing boats being taken by China that is reported widely in the media.

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  18. Thanks for commenting and I do appreciate your concerns.
    I've never said that China is justified in breaking any rules, if that is indeed the case, because the US does so, as I've explained in detail in my previous comment. I'm just saying that the US is in no moral position to lecture China on the matter.

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  19. Thanks for commenting and I do appreciate your concerns.
    I've never
    said that China is justified in breaking any rules, if it indeed does so, because the US does so, as I've explained in detail in my
    previous comment. I'm just saying that the US is in no moral position to
    lecture China on the matter.

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  20. Thanks for commenting and I do appreciate your concerns.
    I've never said that China is justified in breaking any rules, if it indeed does so. The point is that the US is is no moral position to lecture China on the matter and interfere, since it is the big daddy of breaking rules!

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  21. The blog name says India's blog. Are you a representative of the Indian Government? Are you claiming what you write is the official Indian position on any or all the disputes you describe and discuss? If not, is that misleading? Does China claim the entire South China Sea as their own and is this justified under International law? Do you subscribe to the view that China's so-called claim to the South China Sea is valid? Are you communist in thought; do you have communist membership in any capacity and in any country? Do you receive any payment for acting as a mouthpiece to support all of China's claims on all the disputes you discuss? The answer to these questions would clarify a lot of things for readers. In case you have ever made that clear, please excuse me and provide links to the answers, I am relatively new to your blog.

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