Myths that stir trouble in the South China Sea

by John Q on January 5, 2022

Just before Christmas, I published a piece in The Interpreter (Lowy Institute) arguing that most of the claims made by the contending parties in the South China Sea are myths designed to promote the interests of nationalists and militarists in a variety of countries, including Australia. Final paras

The mutual sabre-rattling associated with South China Sea mythology is beneficial to a variety of actors in the United States, China and elsewhere. The military-industrial complex, against which President Eisenhower warned 60 years ago, is powerful in every country, and always seeks to promote preparation for large-scale war as well as the routine use of military power for political and commercial ends. Nationalist politicians promote territorial claims of all kinds, and exaggerate their importance. And both Chinese and Taiwanese governments have good reasons to keep the idea of an invasion of Taiwan alive.

Unfortunately, these myths are not harmless. The possibility that the United States and China will somehow blunder into war is ever-present. And if such a war broke out, Australia would have a choice of bad options: either a disastrous war with its biggest trading partner or a breach with its most important ally. Rather than joining the alarmist chorus, the government should be seeking to reduce tensions.

The week before Christmas is traditionally a time to publish for those who want to avoid attention, so my timing wasn’t ideal. But in the New Year there has been a bit more interest. I was interviewed by CNBC Asia and Radio Free Asia, and there have been a few republications/



Gustavo 01.05.22 at 10:41 am

It’s a pity Mao didn’t have a decent navy back in the day. He could have chased the Kuomintang out of Taiwan and saved the region 70 years of tension and drama. The sensible course for Australia and the USA and everyone else is to allow the Chinese to finally conclude their civil war without our interference, so obviously that option won’t even get considered.


Thomas P 01.06.22 at 12:28 pm

A sensible solution would have been for USA (preferably together with the Soviet Union) to put pressure on both China and Taiwan back in the 50:s to recognize each others as sovereign states. This wouldn’t have precluded peaceful reunification as with Germany, but would have simplified for them to talk to each other and made international diplomacy a lot easier.


Stephen 01.06.22 at 8:10 pm

Gustavo: It’s a pity Hitler didn’t have a decent navy back in the day. He could have chased the British out of their little island and saved the region 80+ years of tension and drama. The sensible course for the USA would have been to allow the western Europeans to finally conclude their civil war without our interference.


Frank Wilhoit 01.06.22 at 8:42 pm

This illustrates at least two universal pitfalls of modern political analysis.

(1) Here, says the article, are five myths: let us show how false they are. But myths need not be false in order to function as myths, and myths that are not false do not become in any sense true. They do not inhabit the same spectrum of truth/falsity as rational discourse and it is a category error to measure them by the standards of rational discourse.

(2) Here, says the article, are five myths: and, boy howdy, a’n’t they though? But in politics everything is a myth, and to single any out for rebuke is, necessarily, to imply that all the others are not, when the only possible point is that they all are, and that is the problem, not the nature or origins or effects of any specific one(s).


Sean 01.07.22 at 12:32 am

Gustavo: I would not wish Mao’s rule on my worst enemy. Nor the current CCP on any minority after watching the situations in Uighur territory and Hong Kong.


ki wa 01.07.22 at 4:05 am

Best thing for Taiwan would be to denounce the 9 dash line of china’s bogus claims to the sea off of the Phillipines, Viet Nam
China still thinks of itself as the “Middle Kingdom” that is owed tribute by all others.
China’s claim to Taiwan is a joke.
Japan excercised soveriegnty over it since the 1900’s before that, going back to Marco Polo, it was an island of pirates, as described by chinese ruler.
It is as absurd as china’s so called historical claim of Tibet which only occured in the 1950’s by force of arms.
So as china still sees itself as the middle kingdom around which all others orbit so does the Kremlin still think that naming itself as the 3rd Rome (Rome, Constantinoble before) gives it claim to old Roman empire of millieniams ago.


Kenneth Oliver 01.07.22 at 6:44 am

Not only sensible, Thomas T, but perfectly feasible too. Could also have easily been done as a deal cooked up betwen Kissinger and Chou-en-Lai in the 70s too – those two would have worked out something to preserve mutual face. But that’s water under the bridge.

John’s right – the root casue of this sort of thing is the self-interest of the military caste and of politicians keen to bolster domestic support with chauvinism. Neither group is confined to one country.


galanx 01.07.22 at 8:33 am

Of course, if Mao had chased the KMT out of Taiwan, hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese would have died in the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution (instead of hundreds in the White Terror), and Taiwan would be ruled by a dictatorship instead of being a thriving democracy, and would have a GDP/person one quarter of what it is now. Pity.


John Quiggin 01.07.22 at 10:27 am

FW@4 What is truth?’ said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.


MFB 01.07.22 at 10:53 am

The problem with demanding that China recognise Taiwan as a sovereign state is that Taiwan was separated from China by foreign violence, first by Japanese aggression and then by U.S. aggression, and essentially nobody in mainland China thinks that this is a good thing. Thus far the Chinese have been persuaded not to forcibly reunite Taiwan with the mainland firstly by their relative military weakness (which no longer prevails) and secondly by the fact that the U.S. was not aggressive towards China and would not use Taiwan as a pretext for aggression and a base for armed attacks. Unfortunately this latter situation also no longer prevails.

If the Chinese government believes that the U.S. government is serious in its policies towards China — economic sanctions, armed menace, propaganda (much of it repeated in some of the comments here) and probably covert destabilisation — then the long-term consequences will be rather dire. I think that it is those long-term consequences which the original post seeks to point out and to suggest that it might be a good idea not to promote conflict with China. Sadly, the effect of this resembles the effect of yodelling down a drainpipe in Kazakhstan. There is simply too much patriotic brainwashed Sinophobia in the West and in its satellite propaganda agencies (my own local paper ran two successive Sinophobia articles in the last two days on its business page, which is the only page which sometimes contains factual information) for people to think clearly about the matter. It’s much easier to rant about Mao and the yellow peril.


Chris S 01.08.22 at 12:40 am

@3 not sure the indigenous Taiwanese would appreciate that comparison.


Sean 01.08.22 at 3:23 am

Chris S: the indigenous Taiwanese have a lot to complain about, but the CCP has not exactly championed the rights of minorities either. And presumably a CCP which had conquered Taiwan at the end of the Chinese Civil War would have landed its own politically reliable settlers and set about indoctrinating and subjugating the locals.


Mark Pontin 01.08.22 at 2:52 pm

Worry no more for Taiwan. Those who initiated the AUKUS deal have made a smiliar deal with Taipei.

‘Defense companies from the United Kingdom, which like America operates a fleet of nuclear-powered ballistic missile and attack submarines, have provided crucial support.

‘A veteran of Britain’s Royal Navy submarine fleet, retired Commodore Ian McGhie, was a key figure in the drive to recruit submarine expertise, according to a person familiar with his role. McGhie helped a Gibraltar-based company hire engineers including former Royal Navy sailors, the person said.

‘Britain also has approved multiple export licences in the past three years for UK companies to supply submarine components, technology or software to Taiwan, according to information from the Department for International Trade obtained via a Freedom of Information request. The value of submarine technologies approved for export from the UK to Taiwan has grown exponentially in recent years, government data analyzed by Reuters shows.’


Stephen 01.08.22 at 10:44 pm

Chris S @11: I came across a 19th-century American journalist who found it necessary to insert into some of his articles: “NB this is wrote sarcastical”. Maybe I should do that more often.

Marc Pontin@13 “Those who initiated the AUKUS deal have made a similar deal with Taipei.” So the US/UK are going to provide nuclear-fuelled submarines to Taiwan?

Please be so good as to explain either how you have gained this extraordinary knowledge: or why you can possibly believe that very long range nuclear-fuelled submarines could be of any use in defending the shallow, close waters around Taiwan: or how far you understand the difference between nuclear-fuelled and nuclear-armed.

Yours with no great expectations of a coherent reply



J-D 01.09.22 at 3:29 am

The problem with demanding that China recognise Taiwan as a sovereign state is that Taiwan was separated from China by foreign violence, first by Japanese aggression and then by U.S. aggression, and essentially nobody in mainland China thinks that this is a good thing.

What most of the population of the People’s Republic of China think about this, or about any other domestic or international political or social issue, is impossible to determine; their government can and does prevent anybody from finding out.

On the other hand, it’s reasonably clear that if a decisive majority of the inhabitants of Taiwan wanted to be governed as part of the People’s Republic, they could find a way to bring that about; so the reasonable conclusion is that this is not what they want, and if it’s not what they want then there’s no good argument to force on them what they don’t want (not even if it were confirmed to be the desire of the majority of the population of the People’s Republic).

Comments on this entry are closed.