CNN’s May 20th broadcast aboard the U.S Navy’s Poseidon P-8 Surveillance aircraft signalled a major change in the way that the U.S. government portrays its activities in the South China Sea. For the first time the United States was allowing journalists to film its surveillance of China’s reclamation activities in a disputed area, gathering footage which included the aircraft repeatedly defying a Chinese order to leave the area. Allowing CNN to film this report was not a benign action; as Euan Graham wrote in The Interpreter, this was “a case of the US Government delivering its messages via CNN.”
The most significant message that CNN delivered is that the South China Sea is an “American issue,” not a “foreign issue.” In his landmark book Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson explored how the rise of national media allowed for the creation of modern nations by providing citizens with a common set of stories to identify with. The CNN report places the “American story” beyond the actual borders of the United States and into the South China Sea. The report explicitly frames China’s activity as a threat to a pre-existing U.S. dominance of the area, and the use of a non-violent surveillance plane to represent the U.S. Navy facilitates a narrative where a passive American actor is threatened by an aggressive and expansionist China.
The portrayal of the Chinese activities as aggressive and expansionist was advanced by CNN Contributor Jim Sciutto’s final lines of the report: “The more China builds…the more frequently and aggressively it warns away U.S. aircraft.” The report also revealed that an American civilian airline – Delta – was flying through the area and became concerned by the Chinese military warning. Both of these details further the report’s suggestion that Chinese activities are directly threatening the United States.
If U.S. foreign policy is concerned with something that occurs where the United States is not, the CNN report stands as an argument that the South China Sea is somewhere that the United States is. This framing depicts U.S. actions as a matter of policing an area of sovereign jurisdiction. There is some accuracy to this portrayal; the United States’ understanding of its sovereignty has extended beyond its own shorelines since the 19th century. The presence of sovereign U.S. military bases in Japan, Taiwan, and the Republic of Korea, along with permanent military installations in Australia and The Philippines, act as de facto recognitions of that extended sovereignty in the Asia Pacific.
The CNN report therefore constitutes an attempt by the U.S. government to describe its interests in the South China Sea as inherent to U.S. sovereignty. This argument as presented by a major U.S. media outlet is aimed at persuading Americans, not the Chinese. It proposes that U.S. involvement is necessary rather than optional, a view which would make the question of whether the U.S. should be involved in the South China Sea politically moot. Neither the Democrats nor Republicans could argue for withdrawal or accommodation of China’s activities without their opposition accusing them of ceding America’s sovereign rights.
China first declared the South China Sea to be a core national interest in 2010, and the the United States is now implicitly signalling much the same thing. Only time will tell what it means if the world’s two largest powers end up viewing the same region as a non-negotiable interest.