Scientific Publishers Disregard International Law

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 7, No. 12, December 2019

By Clive Hamilton

Republic of China’s 11-dash line, which succeeded the 9-dash line in 1947. Secretariat of Government of Guangdong Province, Republic of China – Made by Territory Department of Ministry of the Interior, printed by Bureau of Surveying of Ministry of Defence. Now in Sun Yat-sen Library of Guangdong Province, People’s Republic of China. Source: Wikimedia

Why are prestigious scientific journals endorsing China’s illegitimate territorial claims?

Times Higher Education reports that journals including Cells, Diversity and Distributions, Molecular Ecology, New Phytologist and Plos One have published maps of China that incorporate the ‘nine-dash line’, hand-drawn on a map in 1947 that marked out China’s claim to virtually all of the South China Sea and the islands and reefs within it.

China’s assertion of jurisdiction within the nine-dash line—including the right to its rich resources and deployment of its navy and maritime militia to force other long-term users out of the sea—has raised military tensions and prompted a series of maritime disputes. Filipino fisherman can no longer trawl around Scarborough Shoal, which is within the Philippines exclusive economic zone. Vietnam has been forced to abandon oil exploration in its zone after pressure from Beijing.

When the Philippines challenged China’s claimed jurisdiction within the nine-dash line, an arbitral tribunal was constituted in The Hague under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. In July 2016, the tribunal delivered a ‘sweeping rebuke’ of China’s behaviour in the South China Sea. The tribunal ruled that there is ‘no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the “nine-dash line”.’

Yet prestigious scientific journals are disregarding international law and legitimizing China’s claim by publishing maps showing everything within the nine-dash line as belonging to China. This legitimization process is subtle propaganda, part of Beijing’s campaign to slowly and invisibly induce the world to accept its claim.

The maps occur in articles that have no bearing at all on the South China Sea, such as ones covering the distribution of butterflies, trees and grasses in China, and are included solely as political statements.

The insertion of the nine-dash line in an article in Palgrave Communications, owned by Springer Nature, was gratuitous because its subject is the development of agriculture in China since ancient times. As if anticipating objections, the paper carries a ‘publisher’s note’ at the end. It reads: ‘Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.’

On the face of it, this get-out clause attributes equal validity to all jurisdictional claims. Yet this denies the authority of international law. If Springer Nature ‘remains neutral’ why does it not publish maps showing Vietnam’s and the Philippines’ claims in equal measure?

Ethically, the publisher’s logic is equivalent to the apartheid era argument used by cricketing authorities in Britain and Australia. They declined to ban visits by whites-only South African teams because they ‘didn’t want to mix politics with sport.’

Yet selecting a team on the basis of race is already an intensely political act. Hosting visits by a whites-only team is an implicit endorsement of the act. In the same way, publishing maps that assert an unlawful territorial claim is a political decision.

By tacitly endorsing Beijing’s rejection of international law, scientific journals are making it easier for Beijing to violate other international treaties. For example, there is evidence that China is making plans to engage in mining and military activities in the Antarctic, contrary to the Antarctic Treaty.

Publishers in the West have in recent years shown themselves willing to censor academic research in order to maintain access to China’s market. In 2017, Cambridge University Press’s decision to censor certain articles for its journal The China Quarterly prompted a backlash from scholars decrying China’s attempts to ‘export its censorship on topics that do not fit its preferred narrative.’ CUP reversed its decision.

Also in 2017, Springer Nature, publisher of Nature, Scientific American and many other scientific journals, bowed to pressure from Beijing and now deletes articles that rile Beijing from its journals available in China.

Whereas those decisions affected only readers of journals in China, the insertion of the nine-dash line and other disputed territorial claims in journals distorts or provides incorrect information to readers around the world.

In private correspondence, western co-authors of papers with maps including the nine-dash line indicate that some are unaware of the issue and some simply go along with their Chinese co-authors. When others have questioned its inclusion, their Chinese co-authors say they can do nothing because the authorities require it, or they repeat the official line that the South China Sea is part of their homeland.

Journal editors ought to be making the decision and doing so consistent with international law. And academic publishers should be reminded of the great tradition of free and open scientific inquiry and not capitulate to the censorship demands of a totalitarian regime. We have been here before. This time, it seems, there’s no need to burn books, but only to instruct publishers not to print them.

Clive Hamilton is professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University in Canberra.