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It would seem a certain amount of foreign affairs reporting starts out as pabulum fed by the government and its loyal allies to available journos, who further if incompletely digest it and then crap it out on the digital pages of various newspapers, magazines, and think tank white papers for the delectation of a somewhat undiscriminating public.
In other words, the media is often just the messenger, and there’s no point in getting aggravated about crappy coverage and blaming the messenger when the real problem is crappy policy.
But sometimes, especially in the runup to a big foreign policy show—which the U.S. South China Sea gambit certainly has become—the evolution and devolution of media coverage provides useful insights into who’s pushing what and why.
I currently have a piece up at Asia Times, “China Hawks crosshair Obama on South China Sea” on a rather important example. It extensively fisks an interesting and rather ugly op-ed by Bloomberg View’s Josh Rogin, which seems to represent only the most recent iteration of sustained a campaign by China hawks to ensure that President Obama has no political alternative but to greenlight a yearned-for act of escalation: a US Navy Freedom of Navigation sail-by within 12 miles of one of the PRC’s reclaimed “island” features in the South China Sea.
I might add that the PRC’s views on the 12 mile limit in the SCS are rather ambiguous since it claims everything down there, water as well as land, under the Nine Dash Line formula. When the US military surveillance plane did its flyby with CNN on board in late May (which was labeled as “a challenge” even though the report makes it clear these flights go on continually and the only difference was this time a news crew was on board to publicize them), the PRC apparently accosted it on the grounds that it was approaching a “military alert zone”, not specifically because it was violating a 12-mile limit. So whether the PRC will decide to treat a close-in sailby as a unique outrage remains to be seen.
The Western media fully engaged on multiple fronts to make the case for the China threat to provide the suitable atmospherics for Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s Shangri La Dialogue appearance.
If your news or twitter feed coughs up China-related stuff, you might have seen this from Reuters on May 25: War “inevitable” unless Washington stops demanding Beijing halt building of artificial islands in S.China Sea
Reuters (and subsequently the Western media en masse) was making hay with a laboriously parsed op-ed in China’s Global Times that purported to lay out the PRC bottom line– that the PRC was totally committed to the island expansion program and there would be trouble, localized but uglier than we’ve been used to, if the United States was totally committed to stopping it–so that US planners and the global audience would be fully aware of the PRC’s position and dangerous misunderstandings and nasty clashes could be avoided.
Mission unaccomplished on the “misunderstanding” end at least, as we shall see.
The English language version of the GT op-ed stated:
For China, one bottom line is that the reclamation of these islands must be finished no matter what. If the US sets its bottom line on the condition that China must stop its construction work, then military confrontation will start sooner or later.
For understandable reasons, Reuters decided to run with the more detailed and somewhat more menacing Chinese language version:
If the US bottom line is that China must stop construction, then a clash between US & PRC is unavoidable and the degree of severity of the conflict will be higher than what people usually understand as “friction”.
A 100% accurate, boring, and convoluted rendering of this paragraph as a headline might be PRC state-affiliated newspaper warns clashes ‘more than friction’ unavoidable if US insists PRC back down on island construction.
Instead, Reuters reduced and pureed these lumpy sentiments into the easy-to-digest China state paper warns of war over South China Sea unless U.S. backs down
An outlet that takes the Reuter feed improved it to War inevitable unless the US backs down – China state media
Not to be outdone, Quartz went with China Warns of ‘Inevitable’ War with US Over South China Sea
Huffington Post: China-US War ‘Inevitable’, According to State-Run Newspaper
And a little further down the food chain: China Warns of World War 3 Unless the US Backs Down on South China Sea
CNN’s Christiane Amanpour offered the reading “If the United States’ bottom line is that China has to halt its activities, then a US-China war is inevitable in the South China Sea” in order to get into PRC ambassador Cui Tiankai’s grill during her show, and showed the sentence over the Global Times logo as if it were a direct quote. [3 minute mark]
For extra credit points, Amanpour also confounded an ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone) with, first an “air defense zone” and then an “exclusion zone”.
But what really took the biscuit was Amanpour’s statement that a US military reconnaissance plane “had to turn back when they were challenged”. The point of the whole exercise was that the US did not “turn back”, indeed it flies and sails wherever it wants to, as Secretary of Defense Ash Carter had declared in Honolulu.
And the US commitment to uphold freedom of navigation in the South China Sea for US military equipment, anyway, was carefully documented by putting a CNN reporter on the flight so that America’s unwavering resolve in the face of PRC threats could be instantaneously conveyed, if not to Amanpour and her fellow toilers in the CNN vineyard, at least to the rest of the world.
Maybe chalk up the “inevitable war” furor to the desperate quest for clickbait by Western outlets who know on what side their access, advertising, and readership bread is buttered (hint: it’s not the China side, at least not…mostly…yet).
I dunno. But worth documenting. The original Reuters story disappeared from the feed of the reporter who first generated it (not implying anything sinister here; the story was updated and rewritten so maybe it ends up somewhere else), so I have put the text of the two versions of the Reuters story and the Chinese and English version of the Global Times op-ed below the fold at China Matters for the sake of an indifferent posterity.
The US government subsequently stepped up and gave outlets an opportunity to do more to hype the China threat than fiddle with boring op-eds.
Just before Carter’s appearance at Shangri La, the US backgrounded that surveillance equipment had spotted two self-propelled guns on a Chinese-controlled island in the South China Sea …drum roll, maestro, if you please…
“The artillery was spotted by satellites and surveillance aircraft about a month ago on one of the new islands China has built, and the two vehicles have since either been hidden or removed, according to another American official who spoke about intelligence matters on the condition of anonymity.
That’s per the New York Times.
The Pentagon didn’t release any photos even though it had previously agreed to declassify other surveillance aircraft video and radio traffic for the CNN crew for their report on the end-May overflight.
However, Asia now apparently has its own Bellingcat, an Indian gentleperson who tweets under the handle @rajfortyseven and posts and parses commercial satellite imagery.
On the basis of this:
@rajfortyseven apparently divined the presence of this: two units of the self-propelled LC-09 howitzer:
It should be noted that the US and PLA navies both operate routinely in the South China Sea, so the easiest way to put the onus on the PRC for “escalating tensions” by further militarizing the region is to claim they have started to put weapons on the islands, and not just in the water.
I grant it is possible that for some reason the PRC decided that two howitzers (which I believe are the business of the PLA Ground Forces artillery people and would be of little practical use to the PLA Navy, which is in charge of the actual defense of the islands and would be expected to rely on its shipboard armament) should be exhibited to ubiquitous US surveillance and provide the US with grounds to condemn the PRC for militarizing the islands.
I also think it’s possible that there were two truck-mounted construction cranes out there, maybe with tarps on them to reduce corrosion from the salty air, and the dialogue at the Pentagon went like this:
“Ya know, those things, I think they’re cranes but they look a lot like howitzers.”
“I heard you say ‘howitzers’. Tell the journos it looks like they’ve got howitzers on that island.”
I guess I have a longer memory than most, because I vividly remember how the US and British papers occasionally engaged in unquestioning stenography during the Iraq War. The immortal example was non-stop reporting on the capture of Saddam’s purported mobile bioweapons labs which, as the Anglophone establishment knew very well, were portable hydrogen generators used to inflate weather balloons for artillery practice.
How did they know, do you ask?
Because the units had been sold to Iraq in the first place by Britain’s Marconi Command & Control. And the US Army had identical units in its own inventory [see pp. 24-25]
In fact, the US approach to the SCS public relations campaign reminds me eerily of the runup to the Iraq War. There’s the energetic campaign run out of the Defense Department with only grudging help from the State Department to manufacture a plausible pretext for US action (WMD for Iraq, FoN for SCS); the reliance on the “threat” narrative to overcome an embarrassing shortage of overtly hostile acts by the target; sudden spates of advantageous but perhaps not quite truthful leaks that get reported, misreported, and misunderstood…
…and the exploitation of obliging media in an allied country to float, feedback, and amplify allegations leaked by the United States.
In 2002-3, this role was loyally filled by media outlets in the United Kingdom. This time around, it looks like Australia, at least a part of it, is auditioning for the job of America’s Poodle in the Pacific (hereinafter APP).
The “gun” story seems to have appeared first in Australia, in the Sydney Morning Herald (hereinafter SMH), courtesy of John Garnaut (whose journalistic motto may well be “My Transom Is Always Open to My Friends and to Enemies of the PRC”), with the explosive headline & lede:
China has moved weaponry onto artificial islands that it is building in contested areas of the South China Sea, adding to the risks of a confrontation with the United States and its regional security partners including Australia.
That’s it. No detail, no sourcing, no documentation.
The subsequent New York Times story makes it clear there were supposed to be two guns (though a tantalizing Philippine report indicated that the Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative of the Center for Strategic and International Studies had claimed its analysts detected guns on two reefs claimed by the Philippines, Kagitingan and Burgos); the source was the Pentagon, the documentation (which the Pentagon has declined to release) surveillance photos. And that the official story was that the guns were no longer there.
Maybe the SMH got a garbled version through the milsec jungle telegraph; maybe it was given the story with the understanding it would be deployed as table-setter for Shangri La, wanted to scoop the world, & broke the embargo but in a half-assed kinda-sorta way by not revealing the US sourcing.
On a less salubrious note, I believe there are significant divisions within the Australian establishment concerning the advisability of joining the US to yank China’s chain in the SCS, given the shortage of genuine Australian skin in the game. So it is possible that the revelation was informally backchanneled from the US down to Australia to wrongfoot troublesome China doves and smooth the way for China hawks, who I believe are well-represented in the Australian and US defense establishments.
And, in fact, one of the things I think we can look forward to is tag-teaming between mil-sec China hawks in the US, Philippines, Australia, and Japan to direct events & massage the media in order to neutralize public opposition and box in less aggressive civilian leadership, a tactic I believe was illustrated by the Josh Rogin piece I parsed over at Asia Times.
There are arguably good reasons to resist the PRC in the SCS. One is to succor the Philippines, whose access to hydrocarbon and fisheries resources within what can reasonably be construed as its 200-mile EEZ is blocked by the PRC. Another is to escalate tensions so that the US can bolster its local presence (and threaten the PRC’s sea lines of communication and its submarine assets on Hainan in case the Big One (i.e. WW3 actually does roll around) and strengthen the China-containment alliance.
But none of them relate to the stated concern with freedom of navigation and the steps the US and its allies are taking in order to, ostensibly, ensure it.
Which means the South China Sea movie has to get, you know, scary and emotional, so that the US can fast-forward over the awkward, boring, and contradictory or illogical parts and keep the audience from walking out of the show.
And, rest assured, the media is here to help.
Peter Lee edits China Matters and writes about Asia for CounterPunch.