Science journals: China’s new tool in the South China Sea disputes

In the South China Sea, China has not only attempted to change facts on the ground but is also seeking to gradually change the world’s mind regarding its claims there.
The nine-dash line, which we usually see in the maps, is a representation of China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea. The line itself is a collection of arbitrary dashes or dots without specific coordinates and China has not given any explanations regarding its precise delimitation or legal origin.
Even though China’s claims of the nine-dash line has been openly rejected by Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, the United States, and more importantly, the arbitral award of the South China Sea tribunal in July 2016, the Communist party has disregarded the ruling and insists on its claims.
Taking advantage of the fact that just a small circle of politicians, legal experts, and international relations scholars are aware of the true nature of the nine-dash line, China has aimed to create a narrative in the popular consciousness that the nine-dash line is part of China’s administrative territory.
In pursuit of its goal, the Communist party of China uses any means it can to promote the visibility of the nine-dash line, displaying it on passports, maps, exported globes, movies, books, online games, clothing, tourist leaflets, booklets, television shows, and more.
In October 2019, a nine-dash map was visible in “Abominable,” an animated family movie jointly produced by China-based Pearl Studio and America’s DreamWorks Animation. In 2018, a group of Chinese tourists wearing T-shirts with a nine-dash line drawing arrived in Vietnam.
More importantly, the nine-dash line maps have found a new shelter in the hard sciences despite being challenged in political science and legal publications.
A preliminary survey has found 260 articles using the nine-dash line in 20 prominent scientific journals owned by different publishers, including Springer’s Nature, Science, Elsevier and Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute. These journals are academically prestigious, have high impact indicators, and are frequently referenced and cited.
Before 2009, the nine-dash line rarely appeared in scientific articles but the number of articles illustrated with the line has drastically and steadily increased since 2010. The same survey found just 10 articles including the in 2010, 60 in 2018, and 90 in just the first half of 2019. The trend continues into 2020, covering a wide range of hard-science disciplines including climate change, hydrography, archeology, agriculture, bioenergy, environment, waste management, and public health.
A careful reading of the articles shows that the nine-dash line is neither related nor relevant to their contents and arguments. In a 2013 article titled, “Radioactivity of Drinking-Water in the Vicinity of Nuclear Power Plants in China Based on a Large-Scale Monitoring Study,” in International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, a map shows the location of eight nuclear facilities in seven provinces of China. The nine-dash line and separate inset labeled “South China Sea Islands” are included even though they have no relevance to the article.
The insertion of the nine-dash line in scientific prints is not accidental. The majority of articles having the nine-dash line appear to have been authored or co-authored by Chinese scholars. Most of the articles presented the research outcomes of projects funded by Chinese government agencies. And Chinese scholars themselves are not able to explain the relation between the nine-dash line illustrations and the arguments in the articles.
So, the question arises as to why such irrelevant figures could pass these journals’ rigorous review processes. A number of factors could be at play. First, it may be that, due to negligence and ignorance of the South China Sea disputes, the reviewers and editors were not aware that the maps were problematic. Second, even when being informed of the problem, some publishers and editors would likely not dare pick a fight with China, since it is a significant supplier of scientific papers. There has been evidence that China has leveraged its market power to force publishers, educational institutions, and think-tanks to self-censor and accommodate Beijing’s rules on publication.
After receiving complaints, Science responded with an Editor’s Note in 2011 stating that the journal “does not have a position with regard to jurisdictional claims” but that it is “reviewing our map acceptance procedures to ensure that in the future Science does not appear….to take a position on territorial/jurisdictional disputes.” After that, articles attaching the nine-dash line continued to be published without any additional note.
Though having no impact on the legal nature of the claim, the widespread publication of such maps could prompt misperceptions among scientists, researchers, or students who are readers of these journals but are not familiar with the issue.
More dangerously, at some point policymakers in Beijing may mistake such publications as some form of popular recognition of its erroneous claim. Such a misconception could lead to a serious miscalculation.