Last week I wrote a piece for Asia Times on the peculiar response of the PRC and, for that matter, US Navy brass to a Fox News report that the PRC had deployed surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island in the South China Sea.
Nobody was eager to make a big deal out of it. PRC Foreign Minister Wang Yi was clearly nonplussed by the fuss, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson dodged the issue for three days running. The US military leadership showed little inclination to blow up the story, not even China hawk US Pacific Command maestro Admiral Harry Harris who said the reports, “if verified” would be a bad thing. Finally, Admiral Swift, in charge of Pacific Fleet ‘fessed up that it was a case of same old same old: HQ-9 missiles had been deployed to Woody Island at least on two previous occasions without saying “Boo.”
I opined the “story” was much ado about nothing.
A statement by the White House China guy explains why the whole story was, for lack of a better term, flapdoodle.
Here’s the relevant report from Reuters:
The White House on Friday urged Chinese President Xi Jinping to extend his pledge not to militarize the disputed Spratly Islands to encompass all of the South China Sea.
Dan Kritenbrink, President Barack Obama’s top Asia advisor, issued the call at the end of a week in which China and the United States have sparred over Chinese deployment of missiles, fighter planes and radar on islands in the contested strategic waterway.
Xi had pledged during a US state visit last September not to militarize the Spratlys archipelago, which is claimed by Manila and Beijing, but US officials have since said they see military intent in China’s building of air strips and installation of radar there.
Friction has increased over China’s recent deployment of surface-to-air missiles and fighter jets to Woody Island in the disputed Paracel chain. It has been under Chinese control for more than 40 years but is also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam.
“We think it would be good if that non-militarization pledge, if he (Xi) would extend that across the South China Sea,” Kritenbrink told a conference at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “We’re going to encourage our Chinese friends and other countries in the region to refrain from taking steps that raise tensions.”
First of all, judging by Kritenbrink’s statement, the PRC made no undertakings of any kind about not “militarizing” the Paracels, a clutch of islands near the Chinese mainland that, although in the South China Sea, have been a center of PRC military activity for decades and are not related to the Spratlys, that sprinkle of atolls and crappy new man-made features out in the middle of the South China Sea sorta toward the Philippines.
So when Xi Jinping showed up for his state visit in September, the spirit was clearly “don’t escalate over the Spratlys.” The Paracels & Woody Island were apparently in the “business as usual” category.
For that matter, Xi did not “pledge” not to militarize the Spratlys; he simply said the PRC didn’t intend to militarize them, an inclination that he, given the US freedom of navigation operation frenzy, really has no need to follow.
But anyway, Kritenbrink’s statement gives a good indication that the Obama administration had drawn one of its famous “red lines” around the Spratlys, not the Paracels.
Therefore, when the western media blew up over the missiles on Woody Island, Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s response was to the White House and Admiral Harris was, understandably, WTF? The terms of discussion had been, “don’t militarize the Spratlys”; they weren’t “curtail your routine military deployments in the Paracels.”
With the don’t militarize any of the South China Sea call, I don’t think Kritenbrink’s seriously thinking, Hey, Wang Yi, you should make a major unilateral concession on the Paracels and abandon your facility on Woody Island just because of the ruckus from the Fox News report, isn’t that how your diplomacy works, huh? No? It’s more like, Hey, our credibility with the PRC took a hit thanks to some Fox story, time to make lemonade out of this lemon, can’t say every media outlet in the West reported this wrong, all we can do is run with this PR wise and call for non-militarization of the Paracels.
Which might have been the motive of the DoD leak anyway. Who knows?
Anyway, a couple of unwelcome points here.
First, despite the assertion that Commeez are craaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaazie, the PRC runs a tight diplomatic and military ship on the SCS issue. It’s a core interest, everybody else hates them for what they do down there, they’ve gotta be extra careful to avoid getting suckered into responding to some provocation and giving the US an opening to upgrade their alliances and dump more equipment into the region.
The DoD, on the other hand, has China hawk factions fighting against less China-hawky factions and the entire DoD going at it with the White House when the Obama administration is less than eager to turn the provocation/escalation cranks and maybe even entertain the insane idea of listening to the State Department and John Kerry on Asia policy. On top of that, in the least-reported stories of the pivot, you’ve got aggressive DoD hawks reaching out to their buddies in the think tanks and various military and diplomatic establishments and media outlets both inside the Beltway and down Asia way to amplify the anti-China message and drive policy at home — in the Obama administration on the civilian side — as well as abroad.
Like when somebody leaks commercial satellite footage to Fox to try to blow up President Obama’s carefully-scripted ASEAN conference.
The Pentagon is not completely in control of its China policy and it shows.
TL;DR. Pentagon China hawks are craaaaaaaaaaaaaaazee. Attention should be paid.
Wang Yi was right when he accused you of “hyping” the story. It was a BS leak to Fox News & it looks like everybody ran with it completely context free & without checking with the US Navy brass or the Obama White House, let alone the Chinese.
I know you are roundly abused by a callous and detestable Communist regime that harasses reporters and assistants and denies the access that the world’s premier access journalists expect and require. And I think the response might be, completely understandably, to impose the most negative narrative available on China news stories both as a matter of principle and as a tactic to create — with the prospect of more friendly coverage down the road — some conceivable leverage in future negotiations.
But just be careful. People might forget it’s “sh*t journalism to punish China” and only remember the “sh*t journalism” part.
Peter Lee runs the China Matters blog. He writes on the intersection of US policy with Asian and world affairs.