China has not only attempted to change facts on the ground in the South China Sea, but is also seeking to gradually change the world’s mind regarding its claims there. This battle over perceptions has not received adequate attention.

China’s Mapfare

The nine-dash line 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. China has not given any official explanations regarding its precise delimitation or legal origin. This claim has been openly rejected by Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, and the United States, and has been criticized by numerous international scholars. More importantly, the claim to historic waters within the line was rejected by the arbitral award of the South China Sea tribunal in July 2016. But China has disregarded the ruling and insists on the nine-dash line claim.

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 this goal, 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. A case in point—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. Earlier, in 2015, China watchers unveiled Google Maps images that highlighted the nine-dash line.

“Weaponizing” Scientific Journals

While often challenged in political science and legal publications, nine-dash line maps have found a new shelter in the hard sciences. A preliminary survey by the author 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 peer-reviewed journals are academically prestigious, have high impact indicators, and are frequently referenced and cited. This preliminary survey is no way exhaustive, and it is likely that more articles in equally prominent journals also include the nine-dash line.

Before 2009, the nine-dash line appeared in scientific articles only rarely. But the number of  articles illustrated with the line has drastically and steadily increased since 2010. The same investigation 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.

Figure 1: The graph illustrating the number of surveyed articles containing the nine-dash line figure in 20 academic journals in the period form 1994 to 2019

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.

Another example comes from the 2017 article, “Environmental concern-based site screening of carbon dioxide geological storage in China,” in Scientific Reports. A map titled, “Environmental suitability mapping related to CO2 capture and storage site selection in China” again shows an inset of the nine-dash line despite it having no relation to any CO2 capture or storage sites.

The insertion of the nine-dash line in scientific prints is not accidental. The majority of aritcles 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. When asked, one Chinese author admitted that the insertion of the nine-dash line was a Chinese government requirement.

Apolitical Field or Political Vacuum?

One key question is 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 and a sizable market for scientific publications. 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. China has also been able to force publication firms to remove content which it regarded as harmful to China’s interests.

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.

In 2011, Nature published two articles confirming the fact that China had the intent to “use scientists’ publications to promote the country’s territorial claims.” Since then, Nature has attached a Publisher’s Note for each article illustrated with the nine-dash line: “Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims.” However, such a disclaimer says nothing with regard to the nature of the map.

In 2018, Elsevier’s stood out as having the clearest and strongest response, with the Publisher’s Note stating that “the legal correctness … of the China 9-dash line … is disputed in international law, diplomacy and politics.” Even so, it is clear that publishers attempted to stay out of this complication. By generally declaring neutrality, publishers, editors, and reviewers compromised their gatekeeper role, leaving the door open for political abuse.

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.

About Nguyen Thuy Anh

Nguyen Thuy Anh is a research fellow at the East Sea Institute, Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam. The opinions expressed in the article is the author’s own which do not necessarily reflect those of the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam.