Is China reclassifying energy as a military security issue?

Last week, news broke that China is sending troops to South Sudan to protect its oil interests in the troubled region. The troops will join the UN’s peacekeeping force in the area later this year. The original Wall Street Journal article notes that ‘while Beijing’s troops will operate under UN command, their posting to South Sudan marks a sharp escalation of China’s efforts to ensure the safety of its workers and assets in Africa and guarantee a steady flow of energy for domestic consumption’. It also marks China’s first commitment to send a battalion to a UN peacekeeping force, though they have contributed smaller numbers of peacekeepers to other missions.

The UN mission in South Sudan is backed by a Security Council mandate which permits peacekeepers to protect civilians in South Sudan’s now nine-month long civil war, which has seen thousands of casualties and over a million people displaced. It has also shut down a third of the country’s oil production. The UN mission’s mandate allows it to use “all necessary means” to protect civilians in physical danger, including civilians at oil installations. Rebels have been kidnapping Chinese oil workers during the unrest and some have already been evacuated. Reuters published a response from Joe Contreras, UN spokesperson for the mission in South Sudan, who confirmed that under the mandate peacekeepers will be protecting ‘civilian oil industry workers’ but not oil industry installations, including ‘the refinery or pipeline or storage tanks’.

UN peacekeepers in South Sudan

Reuters also note China’s unusually active diplomatic role in the conflict: ‘Chinese officials have been in regular contact with Western diplomats to help African mediators push for a halt to fighting in the country. China has also pushed rival factions loyal to President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar to talk’. China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), one of China’s ‘big three’ state-owned energy companies, has big investments in South Sudan – both in oil fields and a 1000-mile long oil pipeline to the coast.

Military interventions to protect foreign energy supplies are hardly new, and the role of energy in foreign policy is well-documented, as are concerns over China’s international energy policy. However, these troops mark a big change both in China’s behaviour internationally and its approach to energy security. China’s international energy policy or expansion has so far been limited largely to investments in actual energy deposits, such as oil fields, or infrastructure. While the current mission is only mandated to protect civilians and workers rather than oil fields or infrastructure, it marks China’s biggest international military secondment in recent years – and is hardly unrelated to the country’s significant economic interests in the area.

China’s growing energy demand is well-established, and energy has consistently been considered an issue of national security in recent years. However, this marks China’s first (relatively) large military engagement in an area where it has significant energy interests. China has so far released very little information about the mission, but is stressing that the goal of the mission is strictly to fulfil the mandate of the Security Council, ultimately to maintain peace and security in the area.

It’s difficult know how much impact this will have on Chinese policy in the longer term, but it is definitely one to watch – especially given China’s increasing international energy investments in volatile regions. It may indicate a further shift in Chinese perceptions of energy security, towards viewing energy as a military security issue. If it sets a precedent for Chinese intervention to defend its energy interests abroad we’re likely to see much more focus on this in the future.

Friday reading

Here are some interesting things we’ve come across in the last couple of weeks, for your end of week enjoyment:


For academics/writers:

  • 10 ways you can write everyday – some great advice.
  • Seven strategies to improve academic writing by Patrick Dunleavy.
  • Earlier this week I discovered this (and this) comparison website: really useful if you’re working on an article and have a feeling you might have written something similar elsewhere. Word can do compare documents using the compare feature, but it focuses on differences rather than similarities – which pretty useless if you have two documents which are (hopefully) completely different  and want to look for overlap or similarities. These websites allow you to copy two different texts into boxes and then compares them for you.

Lost in translation: when research requires more than one language

IR/security research is often by its very nature international, and can involve empirical work in any number of different places and/or languages. When your research is done in one language and has to be written up in another one (in Western academia, usually English), translation is an essential part of the research and writing up process. However, when I began my PhD I found there was very little advice available on the issues surrounding translation, and most of what I learned before my fieldwork came from informal talks with colleagues and supervisors. So, I thought it might be useful to write a blog-post about some of the problems and pitfalls of translation during research, many of which I have first-hand experience with, followed by some ideas on how to solve them, or at least minimise their impact.

As anyone who has carried out research involving translation will know, it is rarely straightforward or clear-cut. There are no clear rules for how to approach it, but while there is no ‘right way’ to do it, there are many bad ways to go about it. Some of the key issues to think about are listed below, but beware: these come largely from my own experience and what worked for me may not work for you. Likewise, you may disagree with some of the opinions I’ve formed based on my experience, which is fine (of course) – the main point of this is to get you thinking about the big issues, and to find your own solution to them.

There often seems to be an endless list of problems with translating, but without some form of translation we would struggle to understand the world outside of our own little corner. When something is translated, another layer of interpretation is added to the original, and some meanings, nuances or details may be lost. Translation is never neutral: it necessarily involves inserting the translator into the data and transforming it. The translator is cannot be extracted from the translation process: s/he has a lot of power as a meaning-clarifier and maker. Personally, my research has a discursive focus, which has influenced both my thinking on and my approach to translation. Looking at ‘discourse’, particularly if you’re planning to use discourse analysis (either in a language other than your native one or in your native language which then has to be translated into another language during your writing-up) poses some further problems (more on this later). Below I cover some common issues countered during translation, divided into ‘practical’ and ‘linguistic/cultural’ problems, and then suggest some strategies to avoid these.

The title of this blog post may or may not have been a cheap ploy to justify illustrating it with a picture of Scarlett Johansson.
The title of this blog post may or may not have been a cheap ploy to justify illustrating it with a picture of Scarlett Johansson.


Practical problems:

  • Firstly and most important of all: are your language skills good enough? Here you need to bear in mind that the skill set needed depends very much on the type of research you’re doing. Do you need to do interviews? Archival/documentary research? The type of data you’re using will affect the skills that you need, and will help you target your language learning: think about whether speaking/listening may be the most important for you, or whether perhaps reading comprehension is more important. Ethnographic research will of course require much more extensive language skills than other forms, but also has more literature providing guidance on this.
  • Will you be or have you considered using a translator or interpreter? (More on that below)
  • This is slightly controversial, but I don’t think you have to be fluent, or a native speaker to research in another language. But you do have to be good enough for what you need to do, and that requires some reflexive thinking and self-awareness.
  • If you’re not a native speaker, it’s important to be open and disclose your language skills (and limitations) in the research outputs.
  • The time factor: if you’re not a native speaker, translations can take a lot of time. This is particularly true if your research involves processing a large number of documents.


Linguistic/cultural problems:

  • Things don’t always translate well – not everything has an equivalent in another language. Some texts, words or expressions will therefore not have a direct translation, and you need to have a strategy for dealing with these.
  • On top of this, some terms or words can have multiple meanings in the original language, which can be either lost in translation or mistranslated. This was a big concern for me, doing research in Chinese – and one of the many reasons I decided to conduct my interviews in English. Many words have multiple meanings (particularly in Mandarin), and your interviewee may be purposefully vague. If so, your translation may put words in her or his mouth that s/he would not have said, by giving their words a more specific meaning in the translation. It’s worth noting that this is a problem for native speakers too (in cases where they have to translate during the writing-up process).
  • Knowing a language, even to a fluent or native standard, does not automatically mean that it will be easy to carry out research interviews in that language. In practice, ‘research language’ is very different to usual language skills. Official discourse is often very different to everyday talk and in many cases uses a different vocabulary, which can make it tricky even if you’re a native speaker used to ‘everyday talk’.
  • Lastly, cultural knowledge is an important part of understanding a language. When something is translated, it is taken out of its discursive and cultural context, and in the process it can lose some of the meaning, or things can appear significant when they are not (and vice versa). A couple of examples: this article is by a Russian speaker who researches North Korea, and explains how some things translate much better from North Korean into Russian than they translate into English, because North Korea and Russia have a shared communist history and many North Korean expressions are borrowed from Soviet Russian. Translated into English, this context is lost. During my own research on energy security in China, I found a lot of discourse around China’s ‘scientific’ outlook and approach to energy security. It was only during a conversation with a fellow (non-Chinese) China-researcher that I began to view this more as a Marxist trope common in Chinese official discourse than something with more significance to China’s approach to energy security specifically. It’s easy to overlook or miss things, but it’s worth remembering that it can be just as easy for native speakers (who sometimes get home blindness). It does mean it’s important to be extra careful, however.


Until the day this magic button appears..
Until the day this magic button appears..

Avoiding pitfalls:

Strategy 1: Don’t translate

While this strategy may sound counterintuitive, in many instances translation can be avoided. For example, if you’re studying official discourse, it’s often possible to access official translations of key documents in English. Using this strategy, you need to be aware that the texts are prepared with a foreign audience in mind (which has important implications). Personally, I decided to avoid translating where possible. I conducted my interviews in English, which limited number of interviewees (not ideal, but I decided it would be better than the risk of misrepresenting my interviewees). In my case, this was less of a problem as my research relied primarily on documentary material. Many of my key documents were available in official translations, though I had to translate others. By translating documents where no official translation was available I also avoided limiting analysis to documents ‘pre-approved’ (and, therefore selected for translation) by the Chinese government. In the case of some particularly important documents I also checked official translations against their original (Chinese language) versions. This was important as official translations can at times exclude particular (often potentially controversial) sentences or sections of documents when produced for a foreign audience.

Strategy 2: Use a native speaker

If you don’t speak the language you are translating from to a native standard, get your translations checked over by a native speaker. If possible, do this anyway as a second pair of (bi or multilingual) eyes can only help.

Strategy 3: Use a translator/interpreter

Using a translator or interpreter can save a lot of time and hassle, but can also be problematic (and expensive!). There’s no such thing as a perfect translation between two different languages: your translator/interpreter is using their own knowledge and skills to filter, manage and transform the information given by your interviewee/document into a language that you understand. This can add extra layers of meaning to your data, so the usefulness depends very much on the focus of your work. It can be particularly problematic if you’re using discourse analysis, as you’re no longer analysing the discourse of your original source but translated version. If you do decide to use a translator or interpreter, make sure that you are clear with them about exactly what you need them to do – if you need as close to a perfect translation as possible, make sure that they know this. If you’re conducting an interview, go through the questions and your interview strategy with your interpreter beforehand – the wording of your questions may not actually make sense if they are translated literally.

4: Online translation engines

When processing a lot of information, online translation engines like Google Translate can be helpful to filter your material. While they are largely useless when it comes to actually translating articles and documents, they can help you identify what’s actually worth translating or spending more time on. If you have a lot of material, this can be a helpful strategy to narrow down your focus.

Lastly, it’s important to remember that there’s no such thing as a perfect translation. Translation is not a science, and your skills will get better with experience.


Ps. If anyone can recommend any useful resources about using translations and translating during research, please either add it in the comments section below or email me, and I’ll add them at the end of this post!





The NATO Summit Twitter Fight

The 2014 NATO Summit presents an opportunity for world leaders to sit around and solve bicker about security issues ranging ‘from fragile states to piracy, from terrorism to cyber attacks‘.

This year you don’t have to be any where near Newport to enjoy the friendly ‘banter’ and juvenile japes of the NATO summit, as many participants have taken to social media in order to communicate to audiences diss each other publicly.

One case in point being this tweet from Canada’s delegation…

In response Russia tweeted back…

If you forget about the 2600 deaths and 6000 serious injuries in the ongoing Ukrainian conflict it’s almost quite funny. #AnnexationLOLS.

To be fair, it’s kind of refreshing to see some state social media usage that isn’t dull, predictable and boring. But let’s just hope that all the delegations to the NATO summit are putting in as much thought and effort in to actually dealing with the serious issues at hand, as they are to bickering on social media.

Friday reading


  • Hot off the press: Critical Security Methods, by Claudia Aradau, Jef Huysmans, Andrew Neal and Nadine Voelkner. I’ve just ordered my own copy, and can’t wait to read it – it’s always nice to see research methods taken seriously.
  • In the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, here is an interesting article on how it would have been covered had it occurred in a country other than the US. Includes: ‘Chinese and Russian officials are warning of a potential humanitarian crisis in the restive American province of Missouri, where ancient communal tensions have boiled over into full-blown violence. “We must use all means at our disposal to end the violence and restore calm to the region,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in comments to an emergency United Nations Security Council session on the America crisis’.
  • The ethics of killer robots. Yes, you read that correctly.
  • Fascinating piece on translation and the relationship between the North Korean dialect and Soviet Russian. Apparently North Korean has a lot of borrowed phrases from Soviet Russian which are difficult to translate into English, but make sense when translated into Russian.

On academia/teaching:

  • Professors’ pet peeves. Includes beauties like: don’t be too cool for school, don’t fudge your formatting to make your essay look longer (I’m not an idiot), and don’t ask the professor if you missed anything important during your absence (‘Of course you missed something important!  We’re college professors!  Thinking everything we do is important is an occupational hazard.  Here’s an alternative way to phrase it:  “I’m so sorry I missed class. I’m sure it was awesome.”‘). Seriously considering printing this list out as a handout for start of term.
  • Confuse students to help them learn?
  • Great piece on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes as the ultimate IR blockbuster, and some interesting ideas for using it in teaching.


PhD advice:


….and lastly, why academics really use twitter, from the always brilliant @phdcomics:



The Israel/Palestine Photoshop War

Images and perception are now widely considered as an important aspect of contemporary conflict, and some scholars even go as far as regarding images as weapons of war. Regardless of if they are weapons or not, images are being used in strategic ways on social media by both the Israel Defence Force and Palestinians in the context of the ongoing conflict in Gaza.

The IDF, have been circulating images across social media sites like twitter and instagram. These images range from photographs of IDF troops and weapons, to infographics which talk about the number of rockets fired by Hamas. The destruction of Gaza is sanitised through its invisibility.

On the Palestinian side the images tell a different story. These images are harrowing, they depict horrors that are very real; flattened neighbourhoods, grieving families, injured and dead children.

One development in this conflict that has caught my attention has been the use of images that have not simply been edited, but have been completely faked by the use of digital editing software.

For example the IDF has instagrammed these two images;

Whereas these images have been circulated by Palestinians;

These images are interesting for several reasons. Their content is completely faked; missiles and explosions have been digitally added to photographs. The similarities of these sets of images are quite revealing, both sets of images are aimed at invoking a sense of empathy in audiences.

They use similar locations; New York is used by both parties, Paris is used by one and London is used by the other. Thus attempting to address the ‘west’ by drawing upon (somewhat crassly) previous terror attacks such as 9/11 and 7/7. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the IDF haven’t tried to address audiences in Cairo or Dubai, but they have in Ireland…

What does this addressing of different audiences reveal about the strategies and intentions of the actors involved in the conflict? How are audiences responding to these clearly faked images? And what is the impact of this?

There’s potentially an interesting research project on this case here, and I think we need to consider how we account for fake content in our understandings of images and their political significance. War has never been so photoshopped.

Friday links: Gaza and R2P

This week, there’s been a debate over the relevance of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) to the ongoing situation in Gaza. One of the central ideas underlying the R2P concept is the argument that as part of sovereignty, states have a responsibility to protect their civilian populations, and in turn the international community also have some responsibility to both assist the state in this endeavour and to (potentially) intervene if the state fails in its responsibility to protect.

The status of Gaza is a key factor in this debate: if it’s considered to be part of the state of Palestine, R2P does not apply as it focuses on intra-state violence, not inter-state conflict.  If, however, Gaza is considered to be occupied by Israel (as many argue), R2P may well be applicable.

The lack of international action, whether justified through the Responsibility to Protect, Security Council resolution/s, or any other means, shows the continuing weakness of current frameworks when it comes to actually tackling violence. The eyes of the world are on Gaza, and the international community appears powerless. Whether or not R2P is used, something clearly needs to be done. On Monday, the UN Security Council called for a ceasefire, but beyond this little seems to be happening.

In one of the pieces above, Rieff argues that the lack of international community is part of the problem, as action is difficult when there is no international moral consensus. However, while there is never likely to be complete consensus Israel seems to be rapidly losing support and suggesting there is no international community overlooks growing international outrage. Action is not simple, as Bellamy’s piece clearly shows. It is, however, necessary, whatever form it may take.



Four boys playing on a beach in Gaza, killed by an Israeli strike on 16 July.

iSecuritization? China says the iPhone is a threat to national security

In what I am shamelessly calling iSecuritization, Chinese Central Televison (CCTV) have said that the iPhone is a threat to national security. This is due to the ‘frequent locations’ feature, which Apple states is used in order to ‘to learn places that are significant to you’.

If you’ve got an iPhone it’s worth checking out. Frequent locations is turned on by default and it’s currently tracking your movements. Have a look at your frequent locations and realise how creepy your iPhone is by following these instructions.

CCTV state that frequent locations amounts to a threat to national security as, according to one researcher quoted in the Independent, ‘if this information was accessed on a large scale it could reveal a country’s economic situation and “even state secrets”.’

Unfortunately my frequent locations don’t reveal anything half as interesting.

photo (1)

But regardless of how uninteresting my activities may be, frequent locations and the fact it’s turned on by default does draw out some interesting issues in regards to surveillance and security (which Zygmut Bauman and David Lyon cover in detail).

Apple say that they have ‘never worked with any government agency from any country to create a backdoor in any of our products or services. We have also never allowed access to our servers, and we never will’. And I guess that’s good news. Apple is tracking your every move by default and might not be sharing it with governments, but what can they do with it themselves? Frequent locations may not be a threat to national security, but is it a threat to yours?

Friday reading

Some interesting things from the last few weeks:

On international relations and security:

  • Man-up Mr Snowden! Masculinities and national security’ – interesting piece by Klaus Dodds on how gender has been used in the Snowden dispute
  • How Google moves international borders discusses conflict zones which leave Google ‘in-the-middle’ of border disputes. As a result of legal pressure, Google maps actually show different borders depending on the domain name you use to search (so (China) gives different results to (India), for example). To give an example from the article: ‘If you look at Arunachal Pradesh, one of India’s 29 states, from the Indian version of the website you will see the border that its government believes to be correct. View the same region from within China and it appears as “South Tibet” under Chinese control. From within the UK you see both borders marked with a dotted line to indicate that there is a local dispute’. The article has great graphics where you can drag a marker to view disputed maps side by side.
  •  An older piece, but fitting with the previous: why Google maps gets Africa wrong. Spoiler-alert: it’s about the Mercator map…


On academia:

Some interesting links

Some interesting things we’ve come across this week:

  • America’s hip-hop foreign policy: an interesting read from the Atlantic discussing the role of rap in the war on terror. Apparently America is dealing with ‘jihadi rap’ by sponsoring ‘good muslim hip-hop’. The discussion of how rap has been used both to radicalise and in turn as a tool of diplomacy is particularly interesting.
  • Yugoslavia as science fiction: discusses art from the former Yugoslavia and the way in which it’s being viewed today, with a fascinating discussion of what this implies about the post-Yugoslav space today.


Acknowledgements: the first two pieces were kindly forwarded from @laurence_cooley and the last one was spotted via the always excellent @caiwilkinson!