Visualizing Tension in the South China Sea

by Bryan Walsh on October 14, 2011

south-china-sea

By viewing media coverage in chronological order on a timeline, one can get a unique insight into an issue, accurately map key trends and then use this knowledge to conjecture future developments. Take for example the South China Sea, a region bedeviled by territorial claims from China and various local powers and US allies. After spending half of 2011 as a slow-burn, low interest issue, the sea suddenly emerged as a potential geopolitical flashpoint in June.  The timeline shows an interesting dimension of the June disputes: that US involvement heightened media interest, shifted China’s strategic focus and went unprotested by local players.

Washington’s entry into the South China Sea disputes turned a trickle of media coverage into a deluge. News wire reporting on the disputes jumped tenfold in June compared to the first half of 2011. The 48 hours from Senator Webb’s June 13 call for a condemnation of China saw attention that tied the total coverage for all of March. Furthermore, over half of the media reports for the rest of June focused on Washington’s involvement in some way.

The timeline also shows how China’s focus shifted away from local actors and towards the US. Prior to June 13, China traded barbs with the Philippines and Vietnam over maritime territory. Once the US entered the fray, China looked above local actors and straight at Washington. The timeline chronicles six key statements by Chinese officials after June 13; three of those were rejections of US involvement and one was a warning to Washington to stay out. Essentially, a local dispute evolved into a larger debate over the US’ role in the region.

The chronology illustrates that US support was well received by smaller, local players. In fact, all of the post-June 13 stories involving the US’ interaction with these countries were “positive”, and none were “negative”. For example, media picked up how both the Philippines and Vietnam stepped up for bilateral naval drills with Washington and Indonesia moved to increase naval cooperation with the US. Not a single local country protested greater American involvement.

The timeline shows us how the US has the potential to heighten interest and increase media coverage by provoking conflicting responses from regional players. While a future story about local maritime disputes will wane in the global media space, we can expect that US involvement will raise the stakes and propel the South China Sea into headlines around the world.

Visualizing timelines of world events is one tool we use to create unique insight. Talk with us about this issue and bring up new ideas you have about this hot region. Below is the live interactive Dipity timeline we used (feel free to slide the events back and forth, moving backward and forward in time) and you can follow the link below it to see it on the Dipity site:

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