The role of academic journals in adjudicating on fiercely disputed territorial claims in the South China Sea has come under scrutiny as Chinese scholars use maps endorsing China’s position.
Papers by Chinese researchers, often co-authored with Western collaborators, have been illustrated with maps that include the “nine-dash line” – a U-shaped borderline stretching south from China and Taiwan to Borneo. It envelopes islands and reefs claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, including Scarborough Shoal and the Spratly Islands.
An international tribunal convened in The Hague in 2016 under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea ruled against the line. China disputes the ruling.
Clive Hamilton, professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University in Canberra, claimed that the issue echoed moves in 2017 by Springer Nature and Cambridge University Press to appease China by removing politically sensitive articles from their Chinese websites.
“Here’s another example of Beijing asserting its claims through international scientific journals,” said Professor Hamilton, a high-profile critic of Chinese foreign policy.
“A very big, economically powerful authoritarian power [is] engaged in a political struggle over territory, and wants the international scientific community to in effect endorse its claim by publishing maps that have no validity under international law.”
He said Chinese researchers “would undoubtedly suffer if they were authors of an article in an international journal that included the South China Sea but did not show the nine-dash line”.
However, one influential journal said that it was “not unusual” for scientific publishers to remain neutral on jurisdictional claims, while a China expert warned of the difficulty of requiring peer reviewers to be aware of and enforce geopolitical issues.
Times Higher Education has found nine-dash line representations in nine journal articles by Chinese researchers. Most have been published since early last year, and none is about maritime issues. The papers’ subject matter includes bamboo, butterflies and Tibetan vegetation. Five boast co-authors from Australia, Germany, Scotland, Singapore and the US.
An Australian geneticist based in Japan said maps depicting Chinese ownership of South China Sea islands appeared in about half the Chinese-authored papers he came across. Their frequency was increasing, the scientist continued, and they now appeared in high-ranking international journals as well as in smaller publications favoured by Chinese authors.
The researcher, who asked not to be named, said he had objected to such a map’s inclusion in a forthcoming paper he wrote with Chinese collaborators. “I was told that they cannot do anything because it is a requirement of the Chinese Communist Party. They are provided with official maps that they have to use.
“Most [foreign co-authors] choose to ignore it, perhaps because they think it is not worth the trouble to say anything. Journals do not give guidelines on how to deal with the issue when reviewing papers.”
THE sought comment from the journals Cells, Diversity and Distributions, Molecular Ecology, New Phytologist and Plos One. The last was the only one to respond, saying that a policy introduced last year required territorial descriptions in submitted manuscripts to “follow international treaties and conventions”.
“Otherwise, Plos remains neutral on any jurisdictional claims expressed,” it added. “This policy is not unusual in scientific publishing.”
Professor Hamilton said journals that failed to enforce such policies “implicitly endorsed a claim that violated the rights of poor Filipino fishermen. My guess is editors have probably not had it drawn to their attention,” he added.
University of Melbourne entomologist Nancy Endersby co-authored a 2019 Cells paper that contains representations of the nine-dash line. “If I had been aware of this inclusion and its significance, I would not have allowed my name to be on the paper,” she said. “I focused on the molecular aspect of the paper and trusted [the] map was accurate.”
Co-author Ary Hoffman said: “Now that we’re aware of it, we’ll certainly look for it in any future collaborative efforts. As biologists, it is not something that was on our radar.”
James Laurenceson, head of the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney, supported Professor Hamilton in raising the issue. He said Chinese academics were likely to assume that Beijing would “look approvingly” on their reproduction of the nine-dash line.
“But I wouldn’t necessarily take it as evidence that they’ve been directed to do so,” he said. “I’m not sure the Chinese bureaucracy is that organised.”
Professor Laurenceson said peer review had failed to pick up the offending maps. “Finding peer reviewers of journals is tough enough already,” he said. “If we insist that they’re also aware of geopolitical issues, many academics are just not going to have the time to be abreast of it.”