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The Pentagon’s big lie about the South China Sea

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The U.S. “discovery” of a surface-to-air missile (SAM) capability on one of the Paracel Islands has been fielded as a new political tool to cry foul against China for breach of its commitment “not to militarize” the Spratly Island disputes.

Writing in a personal capacity in Real Clear Defense on Feb. 19, U.S. Navy officer Chris Poulin described the deployment of missiles by China as a “provocation” and implied, by quoting Secretary of State John Kerry, as follows, that this was in breach of a commitment by China: “When President Xi was here in Washington, he stood in the Rose Garden with President Obama and said China will not militarize the South China Sea. But there is evidence every day that there has been an increase in militarization.”

According to the White House, here is what Chinese President Xi Jinping said on Sept. 22 in the Rose Garden:

“We’re committed to respecting and upholding the freedom of navigation and overflight that countries enjoy according to international law. Relevant construction activities that China are [sic] undertaking in the island of South — Nansha Islands do not target or impact any country, and China does not intend to pursue militarization.”

This was restated by Xinhua on Sept. 25 in paraphrase as: “China does not intend to pursue militarization of the Nansha Islands in South China Sea and is committed to maintaining peace and stability in the region.”

Xi was talking about the Spratly Islands (“Nansha”), but the new report is about a deployment in the Paracel Islands, also disputed but over 1,000 km to the north of the Spratly Islands. Subsequent statements from China make plain that it did not equate the commitment by Xi to preclude the emplacement of defensive military assets on the islands, or indeed on any territory claimed and controlled by China.

In 2012, Time magazine reported that military assets newly deployed to the Paracel Islands at the time were “largely a political show and won’t significantly raise the threat of armed confrontation in the region.” I agreed then and I agree now, even after China has gone further and deployed a small number of SAMs there, possibly temporarily.

Defense News in February quoted Ben FitzGerald of the Center for a New American Security as agreeing that the missiles (HQ-9) “by themselves ‘won’t impede’ American capabilities in the region.” The report linked the story to the Pentagon narrative for the 2017 budget and its case for needing more capability against increasingly well-armed rivals in the region.

The Time magazine report of 2012 on the Paracel Islands paraphrased retired Adm. Mike McDevitt to the effect that in time of hostilities any significant military operations in the region would be mounted from Hainan, where the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has major air, land and sea bases, “rather than from tiny, salt-soaked Yongxing” or Woody Island (using the magazine’s words). A similar judgment was the main point of a commentary in The Diplomat in October 2015 on which island in the South China Sea is the most important from a military point of view. It is Hainan.

China’s construction of airfields in the Spratly group has been a shock of sorts, but we should not exaggerate the military significance of these facilities.

In the interests of balanced reporting, the news stories of the SAM deployment in the Paracel Islands might have more directly linked the Chinese move with a somewhat provocative freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) by the U.S. Navy on Jan. 30. The U.S. Navy says it was exercising a right of innocent passage in the territorial sea, which is a principle embodied in the Law of the Sea Convention. I support the view that U.S. Navy warships have that right as long as such activity meets the tests for “innocent” contained in the convention.

The U.S. Navy statement on the Paracels FONOP was reported in several news sources saying that it was using warships to challenge “attempts by the three claimants, China, Taiwan and Vietnam, to restrict navigation rights and freedoms around the features they claim by policies that require prior permission or notification of transit within territorial seas.” (There appeared to be no copy of this navy statement on the Pentagon website.)

In the background of the current debate is a big lie, an unadulterated fib, perpetrated by the Pentagon. This is that China’s actions in the South China Sea threaten commercial shipping. This lie is amplified by the fetish among some quarters with each new cubic meter of concrete in the Spratly group (“my airstrip is bigger than yours”). There is an obsession with minute adjustment in military deployment by China, and not others. Taken together, this set of analyses out of the United States may be the biggest load of analytical rubbish about Southeast Asia to emerge since the CIA mistook bee feces for a Soviet-supplied biological weapon in 1981 and the years following.

The analytical fog is compounded by the blurring of different island groups, as if any statement about the Spratly Islands applies to the Paracel Islands as well, or as if the Chinese claim to sovereignty over the land is the same as a claim to territorial sovereignty over “most of the South China Sea.” The latter statement, categorically rejected by the U.S. State Department, is regularly found in publications of some of the (otherwise) most respected scholars. As the State Department notes, China has never officially laid out its understanding of the legal significance of the nine-dashed line.

China’s failure to explain is one source, but not the only one, of this confusion. But China has never made a claim to sovereignty over the sea area within the nine-dashed line. Such a claim would unambiguously be incompatible with international law. China needs to come clean on this.

Typical of the misleading analysis being sustained by overly robust and un-nuanced U.S. official commentary on the South China Sea was a report in The Australian newspaper on Jan. 31 that “The U.S. has watched with increasing alarm as China has asserted its claims to more islands and other land masses in the South China Sea, including among the Spratly and Paracel island chains.” Yet China has not asserted a new claim to any island in the South China Sea since at least 1946, before the communists took power. How could it: China claimed the lot then, and it still claims the lot now, even though its claims to some of the islands can be reasonably contested by other states.

Of some note, once I checked, I could see that even the Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) at CSIS in Washington, which holds itself up as routinely objective, and is a very good source because of its relative objectivity, does have a clear bias toward over-analysis of detail on China’s actions. AMTI gives no significant attention to analysis of the detail of the projection of U.S. military power in the region on a daily basis as it does for China. In spite of the fact that the U.S. government is the most transparent in the world, the navigation track of its naval ships and what they do globally once they leave port is tightly controlled information. There is simply no balance at all in AMTI’s relatively limited coverage of U.S. air and naval deployments in the South China Sea and the attention paid in microscopic detail to what the Chinese side does.

China’s domestic law requiring prior notification of warship transit is almost certainly inconsistent with law of the sea and the U.S. Navy has rightly claimed its right to exercise innocent passage in the territorial sea. Yet there is considerable room to concede that China sees the U.S. Navy’s actions as provocative and a threat to its security. This not only allows China to invoke in its favor the test of “innocence” for innocent passage in the Law of the Sea Convention, but raises the risk, as Australia’s Rory Medcalf has pointed out, that the Obama administration (and China) may be making a mistake. Medcalf rightly notes that “The risk of a worsening tit-for-tat game of strategic signaling has to be watched closely, especially the possibility of miscalculation.”

Greg Austin is a professorial fellow with the EastWest Institute in New York and a visiting professor at the University of New South Wales. © 2016, The Diplomat. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency

  • Arthur Hau

    The author tactically never mentioned about the “nine dash lines” drawn by the Chinese communists. The so-called Nine Dash Lines engulfed almost the entire South China Sea (also known as the West Phillipine Sea) which is basically an open sea. Communist China has absolutely no right to claim ownership of the open sea. Does Greg Austin suggest that anyone can claim sovereignty of an open sea? Even the South Pole and the North Pole? It is highly likely that Greg Austin was not impartial when writing this article. Shame on you.

  • wfraser11

    Greg, This is all very nice. Yet anti stealth radars and bomber length runways are now operational in the Spratlys and the same radars, but with their accompanying anti air missiles are present in the Paracels. I’m just doing the math here Greg. Military radars now cover most of the SCS. China has seized Scarborough Shoal in the Philippines EEZ and is blocking Filipino access even though the shoal is inside the Philippines EEZ. China has suggested they might “accidentally” shoot down an Australian patrol aircraft if Australia flies over the SCS. They’ve stalked US Navy warships, attempted to cause collisions and on multiple occassions have warned military and civilian aircraft to stay out of their claimed areas.
    Now, if the Chinese have 60 frigates and missile destroyers(which they do) and over 60 subs(which they also do) and have saturated the SCS with Coast Guard and paramilitary patrol ships and have been pushing intot he EEZs of VietNam and the Philippines and Brunei making claims of “ownership” and even drilling wells and these claims are backed up by large numbers of patrol ships, how is that not militarizing the SCS again? The US has sailed THREE , three, ships through the SCS in the past six months and each time it received rebukes and veiled threats. Chinese vessels usually shadoww American warships when they operate in the SCS.
    These are international waters Greg.
    Explain again how this isn’t militarization Greg..Everyone is fascinated by how that works in your mind.
    Buy a history book.

  • zer0_0zor0

    Obama is a neoliberal, neocon tool, looking to pick a fight.

  • John Smith

    It is a sign of a healthy democratic system when one could cheer for a Great Firewalled, Media-Controlled One Party State system without being lynched or paid a 3am visit from the PSB [Public Security Bureau].

    The good professor had conveniently ignored a few relevancies [who needs facts to get in the way of a good yarn ?]:

    1) The consensus of all experts is that the 10,000-foot runway is not for run-of-the-mill MedEvac but rather for the military jets and large transport planes;

    2) The all-weather radar – with its interlocking coverage over nearly all of the SCS – is not required for the [ASEAN] fishermen in distress;

    3) There is no need to lie when it comes to pure Coast Guard muscles to intimidate all claimants into submission [witness the David vs Goliah chase scene @ the Second Thomas Shoal; the repeated boat ramming; the seismeic cable cutting…..].

    All’s done in the name of “Chinese waters” which this good professor were saying “China has never claimed sovereignty”.

    ******

    Someone mentioned ostriches ????

    • jim okay

      @John Smith, your reply to the author’s point of view and his stated facts do not have any correlation to what Greg really states in his article.

    • jim okay

      @John Smith, your reply to the author’s point of view and his stated facts do not have any correlation to what Greg really states in his article.

  • Lei Lu

    The dash line is not drawn by Communist party man. It was drawn by the government of the Republic of China after the victory in 1945, and was accepted internationally at that time.

  • jim okay

    The author just speaks out the truth while we see and hear most of those who are called experts of their own fields are just trying to put themselves into the crowd to stir up a storm in the cup. Most of these so called experts have very little knowledge about the region and least they have read at least one time of the UNCLOS, based on what they say in their articles. Some of them make a laughing stock of themselves. Greg, you have done a good job.

  • John Smith

    “….. But China has never made a claim to sovereignty over the sea area within the nine-dashed line….”

    China’s recent resort to ‘… traditional fishing grounds….’ when caught red handed in the Natunas area – well within Indonesia’s EEZ – is another nail in the coffin for the inane assertion made by the good professor.

    That is after we had ignored the unilaterally declared fishing bans, seismic cable cutting, blatant blackmailing of BP & Cocono Philips over alleged infringement of Chinese ‘sovereignty’ over sea areas which had no conceivable relations to any claimed SCS features ….. except the 9-dash line etc…

    Still, to this professorial mind, no claim of sovereignty is as clear as day: there is no claim !

    Just as lame as his tepid acceptance of China’s OFFICIAL curious non-position on the 9-dash line while all CMS, FLEC vessels are actively enforcing same.

    Maybe Greg would do us a favor and start quoting UNCLOS for ‘traditional fishing grounds’ after his next meeting with Xin Hua.