Wednesday, February 24, 2016

About Those Missiles on Woody Island

I have an article up exclusively at Asia Times Online, South China Sea Face-off: The Mystery of Woody IslandGo ahead, click the link!

It addresses the media freakout over a Fox News report that commercial satellite imagery revealed something that looked like HQ-9 surface-to-air missile launchers were on the beach at Woody Island in the Paracels.

Official reactions in the PRC were noticeably...strange.  The PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs was clearly blindsided by the whole thing, indicating that whatever was happening was not part of a carefully planned provocation/escalation.

On the US side, Admiral Harris said rather belatedly that the report, "if verified", was an unwelcome sign that Xi Jinping was breaking his "pledge" not to militarize the South China Sea.

(I don't go into in the AT piece, but as I noted at the time of Xi's visit, he never "pledged" not to militarize, he simply said he didn't intend to.  The idea that Xi would unilaterally and individually make "pledges" to the United States concerning areas the PRC considers sovereign territory is apparently not too ludicrous to be entertained by the Western media at large.)

Anyway, it turns out that the Woody Island deployment, if it actually occurred (I'm always a tad skeptical when these things are documented by expert photo analysis of fuzzy commercial imagery), was not the first time the PRC has put missile launchers on Woody Island; in fact it would have been the third time.

And since Woody Island is a key PRC military facility of decades standing, characterizing rotations of military equipment on and off the island are hard to spin as "militarization".

The HQ-9s might have been put on Woody Island to support the deployment of J-11 fighters, something which is supposedly happening now.  It would be the second deployment of J-11s since the airport was enlarged to accommodate them, apparently something the PRC does in rotations instead of stationing them permanently and risking corrosion of the airframes from prolonged exposure to salt air.

And, of course, the Paracels are genuine, not man-made islands a couple hundred kilometers from Hainan, not the infuriating fake-island Spratlys down by the Philippines.

The Paracels do have issues.  In fact they are a permanent obstacle to any formal settlement in the South China Sea since their seizure from Vietnam in 1974 is the hottest of hot button issues and Vietnam will never acknowledge PRC sovereignty over them.  The US doesn't like the archipelagic baseline the PRC claims around the whole group of island (instead of calculating individual territorial waters/EEZs like UNCLOS wants) and the most recent USN FONOP challenged this particular piece of cartography.

But the Paracels and Woody Island are not part of the Spratly island building/militarization fears/nine-dash-line/salami-slicing/arbitration fracas that obsesses the United States right now.

As such they are not a particularly effective venue for the PRC to "defy" President Obama and the ASEAN confrerees at Sunnylands, the allegation that Fox (and its DoD partner in leakage) were trying to push.

All of this, of course, just factual noise in the media  "Missiles in the South China Sea!"  frenzy. As I write in the piece:

Just like in Hollywood, the motto for reporting on the military in Asia is “Nobody knows anything.” Exactly the way the DoD likes it, I expect.

As far as I can tell, the big outlets ran with the Fox story without demanding a look at unambiguous high-res imagery from US spy satellites or, for that matter, trying to get a comment from the PRC apparatus before running the story.

No fun or profit in that, I guess.

The prevailing media zeitgeist appears to be that PRC propaganda must be balanced, in an info-war sort of way, with equally crappy adversarial reporting in part, I suspect, to punish the PRC for its serial mistreatment of foreign journos and their employers.

Might as well get used to it.