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The New York Times Is Wrong About the South China Sea

May 27 , 2016

In a recent editorial, the New York Times accuses China of “playing chicken” in the South China Sea, needlessly escalating tensions between itself, its neighbors, and the United States. The Times’ editorial unfortunately echoes a number of mistaken arguments that are popular with American policymakers who argue for a forceful response to Chinese actions in the South China Sea. Most significantly, the Times lends credence to arguments that dramatically inflate the threat that China poses to the region and the United States. Additionally, it misconstrues or ignores key points about international norms in the South China Sea and in Asia as a whole. Perhaps more than anything, this editorial demonstrates the difficulties that face American advocates for peace in a media environment dominated by uncritical support for U.S. foreign policy.

The Times begins its argument by vastly overstating the importance of the South China Sea to an audience that is increasingly skeptical of overseas interventions. It describes the Sea as being “rich in resources,” which is admirably vague. The only resource currently being extracted from the South China Sea in significant quantities is fish, which is not a vital strategic interest for the U.S. Some commentators point to unproven reserves of oil and natural gas as an additional argument for the South China Sea’s economic importance, but the vast majority of these reserves lie outside disputed areas according to the U.S. Energy Information administration.

The Times’ second, and more commonly accepted, claim is that the South China Sea is of vital strategic importance because it contains major trade flows. Part of this argument, at least, is correct. Major shipping lanes, most of which lead to China, pass through the South China Sea. But no party to the South China Sea conflict believes or suggests that China’s asserted claims pose a threat to peacetime trade, as a closure of its sea lanes would impact China more than any other party. The much-touted issue of “freedom of navigation” is not about trade at all. “Freedom of navigation” refers to the right to conduct military patrols within the Sea’s disputed territorial waters. The freedom being asserted by U.S. “freedom of navigation” operations is for U.S. military vessels, not oil tankers.

Even if we were to grant the (incorrect) implied argument that China’s sovereignty claims could pose a threat to peacetime trade in the South China Sea, this possibility would still not pose a major threat to the U.S. or its regional allies. As some commentators have pointed out, there a number of alternative sea lanes on which oil and other important trade goods can be shipped. One estimate suggests that shipping on alternative routes would raise the price of crude oil in Japan by as little as 1%. The country most poorly positioned to make use of these alternative routes in the case of a conflict or sea lane closure is, as you might have already guessed, China. As such, the major strategic significance of South China Sea features is their potential use in denying the U.S. the ability to impose a wartime blockade on China. They are not useful if China wants to impose a blockade on other countries.

The Times continues its argument by chastising China for its “aggressive and outrageous tactic” of land reclamation and construction activities in the South China Sea. But the Times ignores the fact that U.S. allies and partners involved in the dispute have also expanded or constructed islands in the South China Sea in recent years. Vietnam has engaged in multiple island reclamation and construction projects focused purely on consolidating and improving its military outposts. Taiwan, for its part, has also engaged in significant construction projects on Itu Aba, the only island in the South China Sea that it controls.

China’s expansion and reclamation projects are of a larger scale than those of its competitors. But this is a difference of degree, not principle. China has control over a significant portion of the features in the South China Sea and the resources to undertake larger reclamation projects. But all of the major disputants in the South China Sea maintain airstrips and garrisons there, and two U.S.-backed claimants have also contributed to the dynamic of militarization in recent years. The Times deliberately overlooks what it should also deem the “aggressive and outrageous” behavior of U.S. allies in favor of misleading moralizing about Chinese construction projects in the South China Sea.

The Editorial Board continues its argument by pointing to China’s rising military budget. As the editorial states, China’s military budget has risen by at least around 10% annually in the past decade, and currently stands at around $180 billion a year. However, the Board conspicuously fails to place these numbers in context. In terms of purchasing power, China’s national income is roughly equivalent to the United States. Yet the 2015 U.S. military budget was $601 billion, more than three times that of China. The U.S. continues to expand its navy, and American defense planners have announced that they intend to deploy at least 60% of the country’s naval and air forces to the Asia-Pacific by 2020. If it isn’t already clear, these assets are not intended purely for humanitarian missions.

Despite this asymmetry, the Times editors reserve little criticism for the United States’ own astronomical military budget and its deployments in the Asia-Pacific. I should not have to remind the reader, much less the editors of a major global newspaper, that the United States is not located in Asia. The U.S. regularly conducts military patrols and surveillance within miles of China’s coastline. China’s navy does not regularly sail its vessels 12 nautical miles off the coast of New York, but the Times editors would likely have some stern words for China if it did. Hyping China’s military build-up without highlighting U.S. competition needlessly inflates the threat China poses to the United States, playing into the same escalatory dynamic that the Times is supposedly criticizing.

Finally, the Times concludes its argument with a standard paean to the post-World War II international order, arguing that China is attempting to dangerously revise international norms. This line, wherever it crops up, ignores the fact that the post-war order in Asia was designed by the United States to hedge against the influence of the Soviet Union. It was not designed to promote freedom and democracy (the U.S. supported authoritarian regimes in South Korea, South Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand, and Cambodia), safeguard peace (see: Vietnam), or perform any of the other miraculous functions which its present-day advocates suggest it does.

The U.S. created the post-war order in Asia while it was heavily supporting the Nationalists in their war against the predecessors of the current Chinese regime. It only formally recognized the Communist Party government in 1979 – thirty years after its victory in the Chinese Civil War. China was not present at the San Francisco peace conference after World War II which established the current international system in Asia, and it would have opposed the international and territorial norms that were there agreed upon. The Chinese government was not consulted about its wishes when the post-war order was constructed, so it is hard to imagine why it would be obliged to abide by its rules when it would not have even existed if the U.S. had gotten its way. One of the two major keystones of U.S.-Chinese agreement in Asia, as expressed during Nixon’s 1972 visit to China, was the continued disarmament of Japan.[1] Yet President Obama and U.S. policymakers openly supported Japan’s unilateral abandonment of its constitutionally-mandated disarmament, to China’s great dismay.

Again, we see that the object of the Times’ critique is not militarism, threatening behavior, or the revision of international norms as such. Rather, the Times is critiquing Chinese behavior because China is a geopolitical rival of the United States. The narrative outlined by the Times is the standard hawkish U.S. narrative about China and the South China Sea. As we have seen, this narrative is a based on shoddy arguments and a series of omissions that paint Chinese actions in a threatening light while failing to provide the precedents and context for those actions.

The New York Times has been on the wrong side of history in almost every proposed foreign intervention since World War II. The Times endorsed the Vietnam War, the 2003 Iraq War, and the bombing of Libya. This tendency demonstrates how difficult it can be for American peace and anti-war advocates to counteract the tide of propaganda that usually precedes any major U.S. military action. The Times is the paper of record for the “educated” public, the only segment of the population with even a sliver of influence on U.S. foreign policy decisions outside of the policymaking elite.[2] Like their counterparts at the Times, American journalists at major news outlets reflexively believe U.S. government narratives about foreign policy until a wave of contradictory evidence proves them wrong. Because the U.S. media is so often filled with distortions or outright lies during crises, as it was during the lead up to the Iraq War, it can be very difficult for Americans to mobilize against interventions until it is too late.

The Chinese government is not comprised of angels, and the militarization of island sovereignty disputes is nothing to cheer for, but misleading the American people about U.S.-China rivalry in the South China Sea with omissions and half-truths is the job of the Defense Department, not the press. Until major American press outlets reorient their outlook on U.S. foreign policy toward China, it will remain our responsibility to correct dangerous and mistaken ideas that can only contribute to hostility between the American and Chinese peoples. Let us hope that the New York Times is more thorough and careful with the facts in future pieces, lest it sell the American public on yet another disastrous foreign intervention.

[1] The other, of course, was the end of U.S. support for the Taiwan-based Nationalist government as the ‘legitimate’ government of China.

[2] Most Americans do not read the New York Times, or any other major international news source, and generally do not find out about foreign crises or looming wars until weeks or days before they are about to begin, at which point it is too late to do anything about them.

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