Terraforming Diplomacy: Beijing, Manila and the Scarborough Shoal

Over the last eight years I’ve commissioned, edited or led a dozen or more research studies and analytical pieces on the South China Sea disputes.   China’s assertiveness in the region, and especially the way that it has operationalized its diplomatic and strategic interests over the last two years, have lent considerable urgency to the issue. The most recent development in this story has been the changing relationship between Beijing and Manila, and its impact on regional security dynamics,  US-led “hub and spoke” arrangements in particular.

This, in the US journal The National Interest:

The past few weeks have seen a kind of whirlwind for the Rodrigo Duterte administration. “Rody,” as the Philippine president is affectionately called, made a historic trip to Beijing, where he met President Xi Jinping and returned with multiple billion dollars’ worth of Chinese investments. One of the things he promised to disaffected fishermen was to seek the restoration of their access to the Scarborough Shoal: the issue at the heart of a Chinese-Philippine conflict that has simmered for years—from April 2012, when the fishermen’s incident took place, to Manila’s filing of a legal suit against Beijing in the Permanent Court of Arbitration—characterized by recurring tensions in the waters around the disputed shoal.

Duterte returned from that trip with the official claim that he had asserted Philippine rights over the shoal, but he left it at that. “I leave it to the Chinese authorities what they will do in the next few days. We talked about it but I leave it to them,” he said. But true enough, how subsequent developments turned out seem to speak of the effectiveness of his talks with Xi. Reports started to emerge from local Philippine fishermen that they were able to fish around the shoal without harassment from the China Coast Guard (CCG) for the first time since April 2012. The loads of marine products harvested from the shoal, including more exotic species such as marlin and yellowfin tuna, arriving at Philippine piers aboard the boats, not to mention the jubilant smiles on the faces of the fishermen, are undeniable.

Adding to this euphoria have been reports of camaraderie between Philippine fishermen and CCG personnel, sharing foodstuffs and catches. Apparently, the Chinese are not such hard-headed, indifferent souls as to be oblivious to the plight of poor fishermen, merely trying to eke out a decent livelihood.

Diplomacy seems to have worked. But only partially.

Read the rest here.

Maps: Telling a Story of Imagined Omniscience

In lieu of something original from me, I offer you something insightful by someone else – Michael Caines, in the Times Literary Supplement, reviewing a new British Library exhibition entitled Maps and the Twentieth Century: Drawing the line. It tellsa story of imagined omniscience,” Caines writes, “of the world seen in a series of bird’s-eye overviews, albeit on widely varying scales and for competing purposes.” The subject is entirely apropos as Britain debates and decides its identity and its future, a discursive brew chock full of  myths and realities.

What’s a map exhibit at a London institution without an entree focused on the city’s infamous underground?

It  is odd to think that one of the most popular of British maps insinuates an outright falsehood about the territory it covers – that all routes through it lie parallel, perpendicular or at 45 degrees to one another. As this sketched Tube Map by its originator Harry Beck illustrates, the London Underground’s subterranean tentacles required simplification to become comprehensible at a stranger’s glance long before they arrived at their current state of complexity. Here (back in 1931) the only sign of the world above ground is the meandering course of the River Thames, that more venerable metropolitan conduit – on the modern Tube Map, those smooth turns are, for the most part, right angles, as if the river has adapted itself to suit the Transport for London view of the world.

There’s something for students of political contention, too:

Although the exhibition divides war and peace into separate sections, the welcome, disorientating effect is of the two being constantly overlaid. Liverpool appears here as both a target for the Luftwaffe and a vast shrine to Beatle-mania. A Russian moon globe from 1961 recalls the superpowers’ space race. The Guardian’s excellent April Fools spoof of 1977 – a feature about the island of San Serriffe – is represented in the same display case as the Hundred Acre Wood, as based by E. H. Shepherd (under A. A. Milne’s guidance) on Ashdown Forest in Sussex. These exercises in imaginary cartography amuse even as they touch lightly on histories of violence: San Serriffe is supposed to be a former colony of the Spanish and Portuguese, and Milne wouldn’t have thought up Winnie the Pooh without a little help from both London Zoo and the Canadian lieutenant through whom it gained a bear called Winnie, formerly a regimental mascot, in 1919.

There’s more. Caines’ concluding note on a homogenizing representation of Africa’s physical geography – taken out of context here – is worth special mention: “It is a fine thing to be able to contemplate this non-human world made to some degree visible by cartographic means, as well as the one carved up by power-mad idiots. And, of course, the London Underground.”

Forensic History: Bestowing Infinite Pains on Discovering What Actually Happened

In his much quoted critique of medieval historiography, R.J. Collingwood noted that historians,

… in their anxiety to detect the general plan of history, and their belief that this plan was God’s and not man’s, they tended to look for the essence of history outside history itself, by looking away from man’s actions in order to detect the plan of God; and consequently the actual detail of human actions became for them relatively unimportant, and they neglected that prime duty of the historian, a willingness to bestow infinite pains on discovering what actually happened.*

Set aside for now the more or less obvious irony of selectively pulling eminent quotes on historiography without reference to their own historiographical context. I want to highlight it here for the way that it frames the forensic basis of what historians do. “Telling it like it was” or “showing it the way that it happened” (wie es eigentlich gewesen ist) is a standard refrain of modern historical practice (as a professionalised research discipline). The work is oriented toward sources: who and what those sources are; the information they convey about people, places and events; and their credibility as conveyers of information (and by extension, the credibility of the information they convey).

*R.J. Collingwood, The Idea of History: With Lectures, 1926-1928 Rev. Ed. (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 55. Originally published in 1944, after Collingwood’s death.

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