Impartiality in the Australian media – stuck between a rock and a hard place

By Gavin Seow                                                                               

Intended for publication in: The Diplomat


The 19th century has been classified by many as the “British Century”. The 20th century has been classified as the “American Century”. Now, there are those that say the 21st century will be classified as the “Asian Century”, wherein some the world’s most important economic and strategic decisions for the next hundred years will be played out.

As more and more attention is being focused onto on our region, Australia has an influential role to play in the years ahead. Therefore how we manage our relationships with two of the most powerful players in the region (and our most important trading partners) – China and Japan, is of particular importance.

The volatile relationship between Japan and China however, have put Australia between a rock and a hard place in determining how best to interact with the two in terms of security and diplomacy.

Tensions between the two East Asian neighbours, who share a history of conflict, have re-emerged in recent years due to territorial disputes. The territories – known as the “Senkaku Islands” by the Japanese, and “Diaoyutai” by the Chinese, are a set of uninhabited islands in the South China Sea.

Whilst relations between Tokyo and Beijing have turned frosty, Australia has chosen to be resolutely impartial on this matter – believing that the best way to continue its strong relations with the two is to not choose a side.

However, whilst it is the official stance for the government to not take sides – can the same impartiality be seen in the Australian media? This article will seek to shed light on this question, and will argue that reports on the territorial dispute have been largely impartial. That being said, some bias and a slight leaning towards Japan’s legitimacy can be observed.

In examining the stance of the Australian media on this issue, we will first examine how Chinese and Japanese sources report news related to the territorial dispute. In March 2016 a radio base was set up on the island of “Yonaguni”, which is situated near the disputed islands, by the Japanese Self-Defence Force for the purposes of monitoring activities in the South China Sea. This news was quickly picked up on and reported about by both Japanese and Chinese news agencies.



A story titled “Anger over Japan’s radar base situated near Chinese Islands” was published on the 29th of March 2016 by the Shanghai Daily, a Chinese news agency. As expected from a hard news report, there is no explicit use of emotive or colourful language that indicates the author’s stance on the matter like one would expect from an opinion piece. Rather, the publication’s bias for the Chinese standpoint is implicitly revealed through the warrants behind the various appeals to fact that the article uses.

The very title itself, “Anger over Japan’s radar base situated near Chinese Islands”, reveals the article’s nationalistic slant on the issue. The central claim that can be gleamed from this title is that there are angry sentiments around the Japanese radar base that have been situated near territory that is understood without further clarification to be Chinese.

As the issue of Japan and China’s territorial dispute is one that is ongoing and yet to be resolved, the use of the term “Chinese Islands” as opposed to more neutral terms such as “disputed territory or “Diaoyu/Senkaku island” (which are commonly used in the Australian media) introduces a slant in the article that supports the Chinese standpoint on the issue. By not referencing the ongoing dispute by the two countries and stating that, in fact, the territories belong to China, the article is implying that the issue is not up for debate, therefore discrediting Japan’s standpoint on the matter.

The report follows a similar trend as it uses the phrase “Diaoyu Islands” in reference to the islands throughout the article without acknowledging that the Japanese call the islands “Senkaku”. In doing so the author is re-affirming the warrant that the there is no controversy or room for debate in the dispute, as the islands are called “Diaoyu” and therefore resolutely and absolutely Chinese territory.

Furthermore, the use of the phrase “Anger over Japan’s radar base” without stating who or which party is angry implies that the author is writing to an audience who shares or is amongst those who have angry sentiments towards Japan. It can be argued therefore that the author is writing to a Chinese audience who is believed to inherently understand the nation’s negative sentiments towards Japan. In other words the author assumes to be writing to an audience that understands negative sentiments towards Japan as a status quo.

The article also references a piece of discourse or narrative, which is commonly found in the Chinese media, wherein Japan is understood to be a threat to the public, due to their efforts to remilitarize.

“The 30-square-kilometer island is home to 1,500 people, who mostly raise cattle and grow sugar cane. The Self Defence Force contingent and family members will increase the populations by a fifth.”

The decision to include the statement above in the story is a deliberate choice by the author to appeal to the audience’s emotion of fear. Due to the underlying understanding of the readership’s fear of a re-militarized Japan,

The decision to include the statements above in the story is a deliberate choice by the author to appeal to the audience’s underlying fear by providing ‘proof’ or justification to the narrative of Japan’s aggressive re-militarization. By painting Japan in a negative light, the article is able to slant its readership being apathetic to the Chinese standpoint whilst consolidating the narrative of Japan being an aggressor by constantly making reference to it.


GSDF brings Yonaguni radar station online to keep closer eye on China

The Japan Times, March 28, 2016




GSDF brings Yonaguni radar station online to keep closer eye on China


A news report by the Japan Times on the same story however, reveals a polarising narrative. The article, titled, “GSDF brings Yonaguni radar station online to keep closer eye on China”, while arguably more restrained than the previously examined article, still cannot be argued to be impartial. Akin to the article published in the Shanghai Times, subjective terms such as “the Senkakus” are favoured when referencing the disputed territories.

“The listening post on the nation’s westernmost inhabited island is just over 100 km east of Taiwan and nearly 150 km south of the flash point Senkaku Islands.”

Similar to how the previous article used the term “Diaoyu Islands” independently to reinforce the worldview that the disputed islands were Chinese territory, “Senkaku Islands” are used here in the same manner, to indicate to the reader that the name of the disputed territories are the “Senkakus”, and therefore unequivocally sovereign territory of Japan. The phrase “flash point” however shows some measure of restraint by the author, as it references and acknowledges the disagreements between China and Japan.

Parallels can also be drawn to the previous article’s reference to well established narratives in order to appeal to audiences. Where the Chinese article referred to the narrative of Japan being the aggressors in the bid to re-militarize, this article by the Japan Times refers to the narrative that Japan is being forced to re-militarize in order to defend itself against an aggressive Chinese neighbour.

The author actively and explicitly voices this narrative by stating that “the new radar will give Tokyo a first line of defence as it keeps a wary eye on a more aggressive Beijing”. The explicit statement of this claim however is justified through the use of an appeal to authority, by including a quote by a Japanese commander in the Self Defence force stating that:

“Establishing a stable defence setup in the area of the Nansei islands represents our country’s commitment to defence.”

Whilst this article uses an appeal to authority by quoting experts that speak positively on Japan’s new radar stations on numerous occasions, expert opinion about the contrary has not been included, thereby having the effect of slanting the readership to agree with Japan’s standpoint on the territorial dispute.

By understanding the tendency for news reports by Japanese and Chinese sources to have a nationalistic slant, an examination of how an Australian news article has reported on the same event will highlight the contrast in objectivity between the Australian media and that of our East Asian neighbours.

China Sea dispute: Japan opens self-defence radar station close to disputed islands


The Sydney Morning Herald, March 29, 2016

The article we will be looking at was published by the Sydney Morning Herald on the 29th of March 2016, titled “China Sea dispute: Japan opens self-defence radio station close to disputed islands”. Published by an Australian news agency that has relatively little stake in the issue, the tone of this report contrasts noticeably from the previous two articles. Instead of slanting the story to favour one standpoint, this article is commendable in its efforts to provide voice for both sides of the story.

This is evident from the very title itself – whereas the previous two articles used terms such as “Diaoyu” or “Senkakaku” independently when referring to the disputed territories, this article uses a much more neutral phrase in “disputed islands”.

“150 kilometres south of the disputed islands known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China”

The quote above further highlights the balanced nature of this article. The phrase “disputed known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China” contains no language that would imply the islands belong to any nation – simply, it communicate to the reader that the islands are being disputed and have different names in Japanese and Chinese.

By doing so the article is choosing not to explicitly take sides, by acknowledging that there is in fact an ongoing debate about the issue and communicating to its readership that the verdict is still out on which nation the territories belong to as it is still being “disputed”. Instead of writing to persuade an audience, or to provide a rallying point for audiences who share the same worldview, this article is objective in its goal to simply report on the issue.

The article provides references to arguments made by both sides of the dispute (although perhaps not equally);

“Japan has switched on a radar station in the East China Sea, giving it permanent intelligence-gathering post close to Taiwan and a group of islands disputed by China, a move bound to rile Beijing.”

“Over the next five years, Japan will increase its Self Defence Force in the East China Sea by about a fifth to almost 10,000 personnel including missile batteries that will help Japan draw a defensive curtain along the island chain.”

Statements such as the ones above inform the reader of Japan’s increasing militarization in the East China Sea, which comes at the expense of angering China.

“China has raised concerns with its neighbours and in the West with its assertive claim to most of the South China Sea where the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei have overlapping claims”

At the same time however, the above statement acknowledges the assertive territorial claims made by China in recent years. By providing facts that neither support nor discredit the arguments made by either side of the dispute, the article is simply stating the facts of the matter.

Despite making reference to narratives used by both sides of the dispute there is evidence of a slight leaning towards the Japanese standpoint, although not explicitly. For instance, Japanese experts are quoted several times during the article, seemingly providing background as to why (and perhaps justifying why) the new radio station has been set up. On the other hand, quotations from Chinese experts, or authorities related to the matter have not been included, therefore perhaps implicitly slanting the article to favour the legitimacy of the narrative that Japan’s focus on re-militarization to be a result of self defence.

Indeed most of the Australian media follows a similar trend.

The following excerpts have come from news reports from Australian news agencies on news related to the dispute. Noticeably the articles actively reference both the Chinese and Japanese names of the islands.


Chinese warship near Senkaku-Diaoyu islands anger Japan:

The Australian, June 10 2016

“Japan said a Chinese frigate sailed within 38km of the contested territory, islands known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China”

Similar to our previous Australian report, the phrase above references the fact that the territories are contested, and lacks language that implies ownership over territories. Further, the title includes the neutral phrase of “Senkaku-Diaoyu”, unlike the Chinese or Japanese reports which include only one or the other.


Tarpaulin glitch delays Japan’s first military satellite for two years:

Sydney Morning Herald, July 19 2016

“Tokyo and Beijing are locked in a territorial dispute in the East China Sea over a group of uninhabited islands known as the Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China”

Once again, both ‘Senkaku’ and ‘Diaoyu’ are referenced in this article. However the following sentence;

“It has [the tarpaulin glitch hindering the satellite from being deployed] set back plans by Japan’s military to unify its fractured and overburdened communications network, and could hinder efforts to reinforce defences in the East China Sea as Chinese military activity in the region escalates.”

Whilst not explicitly stating that the Chinese will attack Japan, by implying that Japan’s defences need to be reinforced as a result of increased Chinese military activity implicitly suggests to the reader that the Chinese are at fault, and justifying Japan’s push to rearm as self-defence.

As we have seen, the Australian media remains to be relatively impartial in the reporting of the island disputes between China and Japan. Where the Japanese and Chinese news reports use the names “Senkaku” and “Diaoyu” independently, the Australian media has opted to use more neutral phrases such as “disputed islands / territories” or “Senkaku-Diaoyu”. It also has to be noted however that despite the use of neutral phrases, there seems to be a slight slant towards justifying Japan’s recent re-militarization as self defence, as the narrative of Chinee aggression is often referenced.

However slight it may be, the implicit support for Japan in Australian media reports may explain why a recent study has found that whilst 80% of Australians express favourable views towards Japan, only 57% of us feel the same about China.

Indeed as more strategic and economic importance begins to shift towards the Asia Pacific, and the world begins to turn their eyes towards our neck of the woods, Australia has important decisions to make as to where our allegiances lie. Whilst the stance of our government is to avoid making choices in the first place, there may come a time where Australia is forced into a dilemma of picking a side.

With that in mind, we need to be cautious about how reports in the media are shaping our public’s perception about our two biggest East Asian neighbours.