'Mountains out of Molehills:' The Pentagon’s Big Lie About the South China Sea
Image Credit: U.S. Navy

'Mountains out of Molehills:' The Pentagon’s Big Lie About the South China Sea


By February 2016, 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 February 19, 2016, 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 September 22 in the Rose Garden:

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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 September 25  in paraphrase as: “China does not intend to pursue militarization of 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, as analyzed by Shannon Tiezzi in The Diplomat, make plain that China 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 in the same island group, possibly temporarily.

Defense News in February 2106 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 Admiral 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 judgement 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 indeed 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 January 30, 2016. 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. (Here is a useful study on the bee feces fiasco.)

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 areas 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 January 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 Communist 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.”

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