South China Sea & Representative Journalism

China’s claim and movements in the South China Sea are both politically charged and highly complex activities, prompting a complicated array of responses to the developments. Each of the provided publications focuses on a different aspect and outcome of the sudden focus on the region, and appears to share a bias or point-of-view consistent with the nationality of the publication. None of the articles openly lie; each could be defined as ‘truthful’, however the varying priorities and perspectives are readily apparent by the details each article focuses on. We will examine what and why each article is concerned with, but first it is important to note that all three are published across a short period of time (six days apart) and are prompted by a UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) ruling against China’s right to utilise the area’s resources, if not its sovereignty (PCA, 2016). As such, the major differences in these articles are not representative of historical developments, but of different cultural backgrounds, expectations and priorities – our task is to interpret these underlying factors.

Firstly we will examine the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s article – “Paradoxes in the South China Sea issue” (David, 2016). Published several days after the UNCLOS ruling the article appears to be primarily concerned with the legality and enforceability of it, in addition to assessing other political forces that will contextualise and direct further actions of the Philippine government. Randy David paints China firmly as the agitators of this issue, and accuses them repeatedly of being ‘paradoxical’ – while the Philippines appear to be largely blameless underdogs. This is perhaps a realistic attitude to take, given the power disparity between China and the Philippines and the article does an excellent job of reinforcing China’s strong ‘prickly’ political position. This sense of realism is used somewhat manipulatively however. This is most noticeable as David switches from a third-person authoritative voice calling on other institutions such as ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations), to a first person ‘we’ seeking to represent the interested of the hypothetical reader - a Pilipino citizen. While it is acceptable for a newspaper to represent a national perspective the change in tone (intentionally or otherwise) frames these national interests and the authors suggestions as objectively correct. This will be a repeated critique of the following articles, and while it does draw some credibility away from the author the article on whole is well written and highly informative of the underlying forces at play.

Our second article is published in China’s Global Times – titled “Arbitration award more shameless than worst prediction” (Global Times, 2016). Published the same day as the ruling, the article interestingly has no listed writer despite being categorised as an Op-ed (an opinion based piece of writing usually not associated with the publication), although it appears to be rare for writers to be credited here online. This piece wears its heart on its sleeve in a way consistent with other articles published on this site - no effort is made to disguise its pro-China slant, instead it is taken for granted. Even for an opinion piece the author takes exceptional liberties describing the verdict as ‘radical and shameless’, and claiming ‘all Chinese people are outraged by this illegal verdict’ (somewhat ironic to describe a new ruling as illegal, however the article may not have been originally written in English). As before the author is willing to swap between an authoritative voice and a first-person ‘we’ for the Chinese people. Interestingly again the local government is seen as a separate demographic to the reader, although here they are more closely aligned than in the Daily Inquirer as the author presumes to speak for them. Similarly, instead of just reporting on the activities of third parties such as UNCLOS the author is willing to pass judgement on behalf of the audience, and presume that they should conform to Chinese priorities. This is supported by an ‘against-the world’ type attitude, where the US and Japan are considered potential threats, and Vietnam and the Philippines are presumed to wish to undo Chinese ‘progress’ in the South China Sea region.

Lastly the BBC offers a western-centric view of events with “The submarines and rivalries underneath the South China Sea” (Neill, 2016). Written just before the UNCLOS ruling, the article speculates on the purpose and developing military priorities of China in the South China Sea. This is fitting to once again appeal to a home demographic, little of the local developments will directly affect western nations outside of large power shifts, and the minutia of smaller details could be seen as irrelevant to a standard consumer (although much military jargon here also could). Much of the same information is conveyed as in the Inquirer with a little less focus on the UNCLOS’s authority. Instead that focus is given to military capabilities, a topic ignored by both previous publications. Again China is portrayed as an instigator, this time seeking to gain an upper hand over USA military capabilities in South East Asia, the assumption being that this is to establish themselves as the go-to power in the area, usurping long-standing US reliance. In this focus the Philippines are seen as complacent despite their direct opposition, having elected President Duterte earlier that year – a leader accused of anti-American sentiments, or certainly less willing to rely on them (Palatino, 2017). Whilst a degree of fear-mongering is present, the article is mostly critical of the power shift in the region and relies on western experts and reports to support this claim.

Each article frames and focuses on different aspects of the South China Sea story, generally seeking to present their home country as non-aggressors and underdogs. This is possibly a mass expression of nationalism, or simply an effort to make the articles more consumable and less incongruous to readers. The Daily Inquirer is likely the most neutral as it empowers the reader with a concise array of forces informing the reader on the complex background of the situation, particularly willing to look to the past and future. It strays into representative journalism, but is also critical of Philipino actions – a refreshing change from our other sources. This nationalistic view is the biggest issue present across the articles, however greater information about the distribution and exact readership demographics of these articles can reveal more about how they expect their audience to respond. Without this information it is hard to make a conclusive statement, but it appears on the surface the Inquirer is the most respectful of its audience’s ability to think critically, why the Global Times would rather completely dictate their audience’s assumptions.