Sunday, June 21, 2015

It's Official: America Has a China-Containment Policy

Actually, that was a title of a post I wrote in July 2010, before island-building, before the Senkaku crises, before the rare earths brouhaha, even before Hillary Clinton declared that the US had a “national interest” in freedom of navigation at the 2010 ASEAN foreign ministers’ conference in Hanoi and formally kicked off the “pivot”.
I offer it as a reminder to the indignant commentators who declare we’re just out in the South China Sea responding to the PRC threat, a theme serendipitously sounded in an op-ed in The Australian by the Lowy Institute’s Alan Dupont after I thought I had finished this piece, but not too late some last-minute cut and paste:
Fairfax columnist Hugh White, for example, believes US policy makers have long believed that the territorial disputes in the South China Sea are a strategic opportunity rather than a problem for the US, allowing them to “cast Beijing as a bullying and aggressive rising power and themselves as the indispensable guardians of regional order and international law”.

These portrayals misrepresent the main causes of the rising tensions in the South China Sea and the issues at stake for Australia and the region.

The genesis of the current imbroglio was Beijing’s 2012 decision to prioritise the South China Sea and initiate an extensive, unprecedented land reclamation program on disputed islands that it occupied or planned to occupy.

That’s leaving out a big chunk of history, including all the stuff Hillary Clinton was involved in before she left office. 
I cover the current efforts in wishful historiography in a piece at Asia Times.  It is keyed to more alarming piece of opinion management than Dupont’s measured op-ed, a Japanese contribution courtesy of Yomiuri Shimbun that included this map illustrating the assertion that US intervention in the South China Sea is necessary to bottle up the PRC’s strategic nuclear submarine fleet: 

It’s a pretty brazen showing of the containment hoof and involves a leapfrog from the previous “freedom of navigation” nonsense to a more straightforward (but in its implications for a nuclear arms race and the problem of trying to achieve first-strike supremacy over a nuclear adversary wary and armed to the teeth much riskier) military containment strategy.
I conclude:
[I]sn’t it interesting how the US has converted a PRC “core interest” in its vital near beyond sea lanes in the South China Sea into a US “core interest” in securing the South China Sea 8000 miles away against unrestricted PRC submarine traffic? 
Now, of course, the DoD has a new boss—Secretary of Defense Ash Carter; and PACCOM has a new commander—Admiral Harry Harris, and the general consensus is that the muscular defense sector has wrestled China policy away from the milquetoastian White House.  Interestingly, Admiral Harris was previously the Pentagon’s liaison to to the State Department under Hillary Clinton as well as John Kerry, which reinforces my impression that Hillary Clinton and her foreign policy advisors have pre-loaded China policy with her supporters, and I expect things to get ugly quickly so that the nasty and awkward business of starting the confrontation can be done under Obama before Clinton enters office.

As I put it elsewhere: Hillary wants to inherit her China crisis from Obama, not foment it herself.

It may give heartache to the “Chinese aggression is the root of all evil” crowd but anybody who doesn’t see a crash US program to escalate  what the PRC would like to limit to a contained and manageable local friction in the SCS simply isn’t paying attention.

My apparently distinctly marginal view is that this policy is not going to work very well (though its difficulties will be the source of much occupation and profit for the milsec fixer-uppers and explainers).

As I see the problem, America is not striving for the goal of regional security; it is chasing the chimera of continued American leadership even as the strength of all the Asian powers—Vietnam, Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines as well as the PRC—grow, and US relative strength declines.

In other words, China will spend the next ten years grabbing what it can; and the United States will be struggling to keep what it can’t.

Below the fold I’m providing the mother of all South China Sea ‘splainers as background.  It floats, for the first time, I think, the theory that Chuck Hagel was forced out as Secretary of Defense by the China hawks at the Pentagon.
7500 words give or take.  You have been warned.  If this piece is reposted by some bot, the two long blog post block quotes will undoubtedly get screwed up to the confusion of all.  Refer to the original post at China Matters for proper formatting.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

US Getting Better at Cyber Blaming, Not Cyber Security

Color me skeptical about the Sunday Times report that Edward Snowden’s archive got cracked.  Not saying it couldn’t happen despite 256 bit encryption, accidents do happen, but the story as presented reeks of psyops bullshit unloaded by the NSA-GCHQ team with the help of obliging media in the UK.

What I think is happening is that the United States is upping its game…in public cyberattribution.

Honestly parsing and presenting a cyberattribution dossier is a thankless job.  Remember how the Obama administration looked foolish on the Sony hack?

Sure you don’t.  That was so…four months ago.

Here’s what I wrote back then on the occasion of the rollout of the US government’s Cyber Threats Intelligence Integration Center:

According to AP (actually, according to AP’s Ken Dilanian, the notoriously obliging amanuensis  to the US security establishment ):

White House cybersecurity coordinator Michael Daniel has concluded that cyberintelligence at the moment is bedeviled by the same shortcomings that afflicted terrorism intelligence before 9/11 — bureaucracy, competing interests, and no streamlined way to combine analysis from various agencies, the official said.

The hack on Sony's movie subsidiary, for example, resulted in a variety of different analytical papers from various agencies. Each one pointed to North Korea, but with varying degrees of confidence.

As I argued in various venues recently with reference to the Sony hack, for purposes of semiotics (clear messaging, positioning, blame avoidance, and signaling of US government intentions) if not forensics (proving whodunit), painting a convincing, action-worthy cyberbullseye on the back of some foreign enemy is a major challenge for governments these days.

When some high-profile outrage like Sony occurs, the US government has to make a prompt show of control, capability, and resolve.  Letting a bunch of data nerds chew over the data for a few weeks and spit up an equivocal conclusion like “It looks like the same guys who did this did that, and maybe the guys who did that were…” doesn’t quite fill the bill. 

Which is pretty much what happened on Sony.  Various private sector and government actors all stuck their oar in, contradictory opinions emerged, messaging was all over the map. 

  By establishing a central clearing house for relevant information, the US government is on the right side of the information symmetry equation.  “You say you think this, but you don’t know this, this, and this, or the stuff we can’t tell you because it’s classified above your clearance.” 

And even if the real takeaway from the investigatory process still is “It looks like the same guys who did this did that, and maybe the guys who did that were…” it comes out as “The Cyber Threats Intelligence Integration Center has attributed this cyberattack to North Korea with a high degree of confidence.  By Executive Order, the President has already commanded CyberCommand to make a proportional response.”

You get the picture.

So I expect jobs one and two and three for CTIIC will be to generate persuasive dossiers for backgrounding, leaking, whatever on the PRC, North Korea, and the Russian Federation, to be deployed when some mysterious alchemy of evidence, circumstance, and strategy dictate that one of them has to get tagged as The Bad Guy for some cyberoutrage.

Fast-forward, to employ a quaint VHS-era term, to June 5.  Ellen Nakashima lays out the administration position on the OPM hack in a Washington Post article remarkable for its completely categorical no-two-ways-about-it statement that “China” had dunnit:

China is building massive databases of Americans’ personal information by hacking government agencies and U.S. health-care companies, using a high-tech tactic to achieve an age-old goal of espionage: recruiting spies or gaining more information on an adversary, U.S. officials and analysts say.

Groups of hackers working for the Chinese government have compromised the networks of the Office of Personnel Management


China hacked into the federal government’s network, compromising four million current and former employees' information. The Post's Ellen Nakashima talks about what kind of national security risk this poses and why China wants this information. (Alice Li/The Washington Post)

U.S. officials privately said China was behind it.
“This is an intelligence operation designed to help the Chinese government,” the China expert said.

Emphasis added, natch.

Either the US has spectacularly upped its forensics game since Michael Daniel’s rueful reflections in February or (my theory)…

The great minds were sitting around a table in Washington and concluded:

“We can’t prove this was a Chinese hack, but let’s turn this around.  Nobody can disprove this was a Chinese hack, so nobody can prove us wrong when if we declare without qualification it was a Chinese hack.  So let’s just go for it.”

Parenthetically, I might point out that one problem I see is, If with categorically and openly identifying the PRC as source of the hack is that we should immediately and openly retaliate at a commensurate level.  Otherwise, where’s our national credibility & deterrence?  Still waiting for the shoe to drop on that one.

The tip-off for me that the WaPo was carrying Obama administration water with this totally backgrounded mostly anonymous scoop was this:

The big-data approach being taken by the Chinese might seem to mirror techniques used abroad by the NSA, which has come under scrutiny for its data-gathering practices under executive authority. But in China, the authorities do not tolerate public debate over the proper limits of large-scale spying in the digital age.

The piece was written June 5, three days after the Obama administration had put the Snowden unpleasantness behind it and totally regained the moral high ground, in its own mind if nobody else’s, by replacing the Patriot Act with the USA Freedom Act a.k.a. "Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ending Eavesdropping, Dragnet-collection and Online Monitoring Act."

Now, with the legalities of the US cyberprograms re-established, it was time to stop playing defense and go on offense against those public-debate-intolerant Chinese!

And that means relaunching the China cyberoutlaw product!  With the story of a hack that had, if I understand Nakashima’s account correctly, had occurred in December 2014!

Again, it is perhaps little remembered except by me that a key US objective for the Xi Jinping—Barack Obama summit in Sunnylands in June 2013 was to cap an eighteen month public opinion campaign against PRC cyberoffenses with a personal rebuke by President Obama and the presentation of an embarrassing dossier to Xi Jinping.

If, as I did, one googled “Xi Jinping cyberwarfare” on June 3, 2013, the first four pages of results included hits like these, indicating that the Western press was energetically singing from the same cyberwar hymnal:

China Doesn't Care if Its 'Digitalized' Military Cyberwar Drill Scares You


China Is Winning the Cyber War Because They Hacked U.S. Plans for Real War


Krauthammer to Obama: Launch cyber war on China

Fox News

China Is Our Number One National Security Threat

International Business Journal

House Intelligence Chairman: US “Losing” Cyber-War

Wall Street Journal

US Says China Is Stepping Up Cyber War

Financial Times

U.S. China Cyberbattle Intensifies


Just a reminder; these headlines are from June 2013, not June 2015.

In this case, the China Matters serendipity engine was firing on all cylinders; three days later the Washington Post and Guardian newspapers published their first revelations from Edward Snowden, fundamentally skewing the frame of the Chinese cyberwarfare story.

I’ve always wondered if the timing of Snowden’s revelations had something to do with the hypocrisy of the world’s biggest cybersnoop trying to stick that label on the PRC.

Anyway, the Obama administration has had two years to lick its wounds, do damage control, and reboot the program.

And guess what!  Xi Jinping’s coming to the United States again in September!  This time we’ll be ready for him fer sure!  Snowden discredited!  NSA on top! PRC in doghouse!

I must state here that I believe that PRC cyberespionage program is massive, government-backed, full spectrum, and actively exploring offensive capabilities.  But I also think that the US tactics are destabilizing and escalatory & have more to do with maintaining the US cyberadvantage as part of the burgeoning and profitable China-threat milsec business than they do with diminishing the threat to the American people from PRC cybermisbehavior.

And I take the current spate of news stories as part of an effort to get us used to perpetual cyberwar, just as we were bombarded with stories about malevolent Muslims in the last decade to reconcile us the the Global War on Terror, the erosion of civil liberties, and expensive and perpetual conflicts.

At this time, a trip down memory lane is warranted for people who have forgotten how the Obama administration methodically rolled out PRC Cyberthreat v. 1.0, the buggy pre-Snowden product, and are perhaps not connecting the dots on the rollout of PRC Cyberthreat v. 2.0, Now Bigger and Scarier! and how this might be a factor in the headlines blaring out of their newspapers & TVs & tablets.

Below the fold, for the sake of posterity, a lengthy recap on the first abortive US salvo in the China cyberthreat propaganda war.

Saturday, June 06, 2015

Mdme. Tsai Goes to Washington

Mdme. Tsai Ing-wen, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate for president in the 2016 Taiwan elections, came to Washington and appeared at the Center for Strategic and International Studies a.k.a. Pivot Central to make some remarks, chat with Kurt Campbell (proud pivot pappy), and do some Q&A moderated by the indefatigable pivot sherpa Bonnie Glaser (more on that later).

Tsai gave a good account of herself in her prepared remarks: competent, appealing, moderate, etc.  She also provided a look at what a DPP wanted to do, wouldn’t do—and might be unable to do—if it gained control of the presidency, a pretty good bet given the comatose nature of the KMT’s presidential campaign.

For US audiences, perhaps the key statement was her reaffirmation of “the status quo” a.k.a. “no Taiwan independence” (go to the 17 minute mark).

Subsequently, Campbell did ask an interesting question about the cohesion of Taiwan society given its significant divisions, a sign to me that US policymakers are interested in the possibility that gridlock in Taiwan political institutions will lead to escalating “Sunflower” style street action—or perhaps a DPP gambit to piggyback on student unrest and declare that the unambiguous will of the Taiwan people expressed in mass demonstration compels an independence referendum pronto, sorry about that--and a messy opposing reaction.  Tsai responded with the generic “democratic dialogue” kumbaya optimism which, I should say, I don’t quite share.

Campbell elicited Tsai’s statement on the South China Sea issue, very much CSIS’s obsession de jour.  Tsai obligingly ticked off the talking points: peaceful, international law, UN conventions, & “as you said, freedom of navigation”.

Getting East Asian democracies to nut up and back the US SCS play is, post Shangri La, a diplomatic priority.  On June 4, Danny Russel openly called on the Republic of Korea to support the US position, apparently as part of the public frontloading of expectations for ally fealty that has become an inseparable element of pivot promotion.

Per Yonhap:

"The fact that, like the United States, the Republic of Korea is not a claimant, in my view, gives Seoul all the more reason to speak out because it is speaking not in self-interest, but speaking in support of universal principles and the rule of law," [Russel] said.

It was the first time that a senior American official has publicly asked South Korea to play a role in the territorial dispute. The remark came ahead of a visit to Washington by South Korean President Park Geun-hye later this month.

Parenthetically, I find the look for “disinterested” supporters interesting.  It is nice to get everybody to make approving noises in favor of nice things that they have no “interest” in expending blood & treasure to defend while the dominant regional power has made it clear it regards the same issue as an existential “core interest”.

Although I serially excoriate the media for falling for the “freedom of navigation in the South China Sea” canard (since the term has zero significance in terms of economic security or unhindered commercial passage that everybody is supposedly caring about), “military freedom of navigation” does have a genuine attraction to militaries that want to operate in the South China Sea. (I will cover the history of military freedom of navigation in the SCS in a subsequent post.  Consider yourself warned!)

Taiwan has its own claim in the South China Sea, indeed the largest island claim (Itu Aba), which has the largest airfield in the Spratlys (for now), and its own fresh water.  The ROC occasionally sends a submarine to Itu Aba, so it has an interest in military FoN in the SCS.

In fact, Itu Aba is in the throes of a $100 million construction project, something that Campbell obligingly forebore to mention despite the US demand that “everybody” cease island reclamation, and which Tsai naturally didn’t bring up.  The ROC even had to hire a PRC ship to haul some caissons down to Itu Aba for the construction ! The port construction is supposed to be completed in a few months and then Taiwan will be able to dock vessels, military & otherwise, there as well, and further inject itself into the SCS mix. 

An interesting element of the Philippine UNCLOS arbitration case against the PRC is that if the Philippines wins, it will also weaken Itu Aba’s presumptive claim to a 200 mile EEZ (an impassioned legal eagle in the Philippines heatedly accused a Philippine judge of treason for neglecting, perhaps for sound reasons of diplomatic calculation, to attack the Taiwan claim in the arbitration filing).  

The DPP, as befits its Taiwan indigene roots, is relatively blase about Taiwan’s island claims (Kinmen, Matsu, Tiaoyutai, and, I would guess, Itu Aba), which it regards as excess baggage Chiang Kai-shek carried to Taiwan in 1949.  So if the DPP wins, it will probably be relatively unconcerned if Itu Aba is collateral damage in the Philippine assault on the Nine-Dash-Line.  Another matter for the KMT, of course, and I wonder if the KMT will try to play the “holy ground of the motherland” card in the election.

Mdme. Tsai’s Q&A didn’t go so smoothly.  She had to field a question on the “1992 consensus”, a term the DPP detests, from a mainland journo.

The “1992 consensus” was basically an intentional and necessary muddling of the One China issue during meetings by the (KMT-controlled) Taiwan administration and the PRC in Hong Kong that enabled the development of cross-strait ties.  As befits its Taiwan independence inclinations, the DPP scorns the idea that any successor government should consider itself bound to uphold that mush-mouthed whatever it is (there was no joint declaration; heck, there weren’t even parallel unilateral statements; something was stated verbally, sometime, somewhere: "On November 3 [1992], a responsible person of the Communist Chinese ARATS said that it is willing to “respect and accept” SEF’s proposal that each side “verbally states” its respective principles on “one China.").

The DPP would apparently like to consign the One China assumption of the 1992 consensus to the dustbin of history as a steppingstone toward independence, something that becomes politically easier with every passing year as more people identify themselves as “Taiwanese” and “Chinese” identifiers become more of an eccentric niche group.

However, p*ssing off the dominant regional power & biggest trading partner ($29 billion of a $140 billion total pie) is not the most obvious path to security, prosperity, & overall happiness. 

Therefore, Tsai was quite energetic in her remarks about the unsatisfactory results of the current mainland-centric Taiwan economic model, the undesirability of further interdependence, and the need to “diversify” the Taiwan economy & shift it to “innovation” instead of manufacturing, and presumably toward the United States & Japan and away from the mainland.  She also talked about Taiwan businessmen having to learn to handle failure, perhaps a backhanded warning that the mainland-manufacturing-linked sector should brace itself for some creative destruction if/when the DPP tries to implement its diversification strategy.  Good luck with that.  

Obviously the DPP is not quite ready to talk about unambiguously dumping the 1992 consensus and with it the economic relationship with the PRC.

So for the mainland, it’s red line time and “do you affirm the 1992 consensus” has become a tactic to put the DPP on the spot and force it either to alienate the middle-of-the-road segment of the electorate (and the US) with a prematurely provocative stance or, well, revel in the spectacle of its own weakness and hypocrisy in the eyes of its base.

So Mdme. Tsai threw some serious shade on the questioner, replying coolly that she had covered that issue in her remarks.  Since she hadn’t really addressed the issue, this drew a chuckle from the audience. 

But the next two questions were on the same topic & Tsai had to repeat her “already covered this” line more and more stiffly and by the end nobody was laughing.

And the last guy also asked some PRC-friendly question about Tsai’s plans to increase Taiwan military spending.

By my count, Tsai got one softball question, and four awkward questions from PRC journos and pundits who had apparently salted the room.

Unless Bonnie Glaser intentionally called on four pro-PRC questioners to put Tsai on her mettle, which I kinda doubt, she’s going to have to hit the books and figure out the names and faces of the friendlies and the not-so-friendlies before her next hosting gig. 

My personal opinion: the PRC should be relieved, not dismayed if Tsai becomes president.  

If the KMT stays in power, activists will feed the narrative that rad street activism is needed to save Taiwan from getting sold out, the DPP will endorse and exploit the demonstrations as a matter of sound political calculation, and the ineluctable polarization of Taiwan (and the increasing marginalization of pro-mainland opinion) will accelerate.  

If Tsai is in power, on the other hand, she’ll have her hands full pushing her agenda while wrestling with the demands of the younger activists and coping with KMT obstructionism—and distracted from the vital task of trying to pull the island’s economy out of the mainland’s enormous gravitational field.

Friday, June 05, 2015

Did “China” Say “War” With the United States is “Inevitable”?

Spoiler: No.

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:

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 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 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 moves weapons on to artificial islands in South China Sea 

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 tagteaming 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.

Below the break, texts of the various op eds and news articles referenced.

Monday, June 01, 2015

What Should Be the Final Word on Freedom of Navigation in the South China Sea

...But Won't Be

Attendees at the Shangri La confab would like you to believe it’s about protecting Freedom of Navigation (hereinafter FoN) in the South Chinese Sea (hereinafter SCS) from the Perfidious Red Chinese (hereinafter PRC).


I debunked the FoN canard pre-conference at Asia Times.  The only nation with an existential interest in FoN in the SCS is the PRC.  In case you missed it, here’s the link:

And a couple more data points.

One is courtesy of an Australian wonk, Sam Bateman:

Bonnie Glaser has recently claimed that approximately 60 per cent of Australia’s seaborne trade passes through the South China Sea…

When measured by value, the figure of 60% of our seaborne trade passing through the South China Sea is way off the mark. Based on the latest data for Australia’s overseas trade, it mightn’t even be half that—and about three-quarters of it would be trade to and from China. Thus the notion of a threat to our seaborne trade from China is rather a non-sequitur.

And there’s this, via Corey Wallace’s Twitter feed:

Abe: CSD [Collective Self Defense; which, according to the interpretation of the Japanese cabinet, permits Japan “Self Defense” forces to participate in US operations far from home if they are crucial to Japanese national security—ed] will not allow minesweeping ops in SCS/Malacca Strait as unlike Hormuz there are alternative routes.

Emphasis added.

The PRC could mine the entire SCS, heck the PRC could pave the SCS & Japan could ship everything via the Lompok & Sunda Straits & up through the Philippine archipelago…like it does already with its Australian iron ore imports.

So, when you hear pundits, scribes, and pols docilely regurgitating the SCS FoN myth, feel free to pound your head against your desk in despair.  That’s what I do.