Mar 01 2014

Hyping the ‘Chinese Threat’

Media follow official line on East China Sea dispute

Media follow official line on East China Sea dispute

In November, Beijing established an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea. Aircraft entering this zone—which extends over islands disputed between China and Japan—are requested to identify themselves or face “defensive emergency measures” from China’s military (South China Morning Post, 11/28/13). This move was the latest of a string of escalations over the last few years between China and Japan.

There is plenty of room for legitimate criticism of China’s international policy. However, US media have played up “the Chinese threat” to an irrational degree—by omitting context, adopting incendiary language and occasionally using simply inaccurate data—highlighting media bias more than the regional situation.

Japanese Coast Guard patrols disputed islands.

NPR depicts troubled waters. (photo: Emily Wang/AP)

NPR’s coverage (11/24/13) of China’s ADIZ quoted analysis from the BBC that was objectively inaccurate, saying Chinese policy “has led to increasing tension with almost all of China’s neighbors. Many, like Japan, have defense agreements with the United States, which has long sought to preserve the balance of power in Asia.”

The assertion that tensions have increased between Beijing and “almost all of China’s neighbors” is hyperbole at best. In the last year, Chinese ties with Japan and the Philippines have deteriorated. But China borders more countries than any other nation on Earth, and Beijing’s recent maritime policy has not affected ties with a significant majority of China’s neighbors. Though one could argue either way about trends in Chinese relations with India, South Korea and Vietnam over the past year, relations have certainly not worsened with Laos, Burma, Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Mongolia and North Korea.

The second claim, about American efforts to “preserve the balance of power in Asia,” is equally telling. The Obama administration has announced plans to significantly strengthen the US military presence in East Asia (Center for Security Studies, 2013). American media often parrot the official line that America’s military presence is always intended to preserve peace and balance, while any efforts made by rivals are assumed to be aggressive.

CNN’s coverage of China’s ADIZ was similarly selective. CNN’s GPS (12/3/13) relied on the International Crisis Group’s Yanmei Xie for analysis. Speaking of Sino-Japanese relations, Xie said, “Beijing’s muscular move reinforces the worst fears of the Japanese public that China’s intentions are aggressive,” adding that “nationalism in both countries has been on the rise, especially in China, where anti-Japan sentiment hovers at a fever pitch.”

These assertions ignore two pertinent facts. First, the latest round of Sino/Japanese tensions escalated dramatically in 2012 when Tokyo decided to “nationalize” the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands from their private owner (Guardian, 9/5/12). Secondly, according to recent polls, anti-Chinese sentiment runs nearly as high in Japan (90 percent) as anti-Japanese feelings do in China (93 percent).

It is worth noting (because CNN neglected to) that the International Crisis Group receives roughly half of its funding from Western governments. The Center for Economic and Policy Research (5/17/13) has criticized the ICG for mirroring US policy by casting doubt on internationally recognized election results in Venezuela.

Reuters: Breakout

Reuters’ headline: Who’s in the crosshairs?

For a final example of fearmongering about China, look to Reuters in-depth special (1/17/13) headlined “BREAKOUT: Inside China’s Military Buildup” (with the “O” represented by a target in crosshairs). Here readers can learn many frightening and largely contextless facts. For example, China’s military budget is “$200 billion, according to some Western estimates—the world’s second-highest military budget behind the United States.” Reuters neglects to mention just how big the gap between first and second place is: roughly $500 billion.

In the section breathlessly titled “How China’s Weapons Snatchers Penetrate American Defenses,” Reuters investigators examined US court documents and found that 66 of 280 arms-smuggling cases were related to China. While this might sound scary, this comes out to 23 percent of the total cases. China, which is under an American arms embargo, accounts for 19 percent of the global population.

America’s fear-based coverage of China stems in part from a profit motive—scary headlines attract pageviews and generate ad revenue. American media also parrot Washington’s foreign policy, which seeks to perpetuate and justify American dominance over every region of the earth. Despite the fact that China has not fought a war since 1979, and is extremely dependent on foreign trade, any moves made by Beijing to counter US hegemony are automatically labeled as aggressive.


Brendan P. O’Reilly is a writer and educator from Seattle. His work has appeared in Asia Times, Business Insider and BBC Vietnamese. He lives in southern China and he blogs at

Extra! March 2014