Brexit and the South China Sea: Why Politicians Lie
Why the cost of lying in domestic and international politics should not be underestimated.
China’s so-called historic rights in the South China Sea are bogus (see here, and here.) Since the 1990s, Chinese leaders and politicians have consciously been spreading false historic evidence about purported ancient Chinese possessions in the disputed waters, not only to rally domestic support for China’s maritime expansion, but also to justify the seizure of territories occupied by other neighboring states.
Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and the majority of politicians campaigning for the United Kingdom to quit the European Union have consciously been feeding the British public untruths in the run up to last month’s Brexit vote. The most blatant example being the Leave campaign’s promise to spend the (£) 350 million Great Britain purportedly sends to the EU every week on the National Health Service. (The UK Statistic Authority repeatedly exposed the number as false.)
In the two instances cited above, both Chinese and British politicians are liars. However, they appear to lie for two different reasons. Whereas the former are telling strategic lies—falsehoods in the service of the national interest or raison d’état—the latter have spread selfish lies–untruths spread to protect their own selfish interests—during the Brexit campaign. (Simon Kuper recently classified the referendum as an Oxford Union election gone awry.)
Of course this classification is a subjective assessment. Nevertheless, one thing is objectively true: Both Chinese President Xi Jinping and former London Mayor Boris Johnson have primarily lied to their people rather than lying to leaders of other countries, which unfortunately for the two, however, may have a greater negative net effect than inter-state lying on their respective countries’ institutions and population, as John J. Mearsheimer points out in his 2011 book Why Leaders Lie:
[T]he most dangerous kinds of international lies are those that leaders tell their own citizens. They are more likely to backfire and damage a state’s strategic position than the lies leaders tell other states. Moreover, they are more likely to corrupt political and social life at home, which can have many harmful consequences for daily life.
In the case of both China and Great Britain, Mearsheimer appears to have been proven right.
Enforcing dubious historical rights through so-called gray zone coercion in the South China Sea—justified by an obvious historic untruth akin to the Donation of Constantine—China has isolated itself internationally and helped cement a burgeoning anti-China coalition in the Asia-Pacific region. The United States, while not always prone to speak the truth on the South China Sea either, only had to sit back and bear witness to China containing itself in the murky waters of the Western Pacific.
The lies of Boris Johnson and his cohorts threaten the very existence of Great Britain with a Scottish referendum on the country’s independence again on the table. Northern Ireland might follow suit. Great Britain might turn into the Little England of the 15th and 16th centuries “with trouble at home and an uneasy relationship with the continent, at once needing trade with it yet fearing its influence,” as the historian Margaret MacMillan recently wrote in FT Weekend.
It would be, however, too easy to just blame the leaders and politicians of the countries for spreading lies in one form or the other. Lying about a historical record is often tied to the presumed necessity of creating nationalist myths in order to build and maintain a state. China’s “historical rights” in the South China Sea are partially predicated on this assumption that national myths are essential in the country’s rise to power, and that they are, even if not true, needed to hold the country together. Read more…