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Dangerous ‘False News’ About China Missile Tests In The South China Sea – Analysis

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On 2 July, the US Department of Defense claimed that China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) undertook missile tests in the South China Sea including from man-made structures there. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-china-southchinasea/pentagon-says-china-missile-test-in-south-china-sea-disturbing-idUSKCN1TX2QZ  Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Dave Eastburn said “The Pentagon was aware of the launch of Chinese missiles from the artificial structures of the South China Sea near the Spratly islands.”

The term “fake news” has been widely used by US President Donald J. Trump, his administration and his supporters.  They use it to deny, deride and suppress truths that they do not like.  That does not apply here.  But there is also such a thing as “false news” which is just as dangerous.  I define false news as misinformation and subsequent interpretation based on it and biased assumptions. The recent coverage and analysis of China’s late June-early July military exercises and missile tests in the South China Sea was a significant case in point.  The media coverage and subsequent analysis could have been just another incidence of faulty US intelligence and anti-China bias to be ignored or countered.  But given the politically fraught US-China relations in the South China Sea it took on a tint of “yellow journalism”—a sensationalizing of false information that fans the fires of nationalism.  It needs to be exposed for what it was as a caveat to those who might have believed it or are exposed to similar “false news” in future.

Well known promoter of the China ‘threat’, Bill Gertz of the Washington Free Beacon, and others accepted it without question and thus helped promulgate this misinformation around the world. https://freebeacon.com/national-security/pentagon-s-china-sea-missile-test-violated-xi-militarization-pledge/

Eastburn also said the tests were “disturbing” in that they were “in direct contradiction to President Xi’s statement__ _ that he would not militarize these artificial outposts”. Moreover Xi did not say that China would not militarize the islands. According to the translation, he said “_ _ China does not intend to pursue militarization [of the features].  The key words are “intend” and “militarization”. https://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/united-states/article/2172977/south-china-sea-us-and-chinese-military   As for “intent”, China has repeatedly warned that if the US persisted with provocative intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) probes and Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) near its coast and occupied features it would defend itself.  Moreover China apparently does not consider defensive installations “militarization”.  The U.S. frequently claims that it is defending its national security interests by what China  and many others consider its “militarization” of the region – – including its forward military deployments, its ISR probes, its FONOPs and its beefed up naval presence in the South China Sea. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/military/article/2166910/us-navy-plans-major-show-strength-south-china-sea-warning

But more importantly, it apparently was “false news” that the missiles were fired from China-occupied features in the Spratlys.  Nevertheless, some analysts used the information to hype the China threat. For example, Ankit Panda, in the same article published in both the South China Morning Post and the Diplomat, concluded based on the “false news” that “The deployment of anti-ship ballistic missiles to the Spratlys would represent a major shift in China’s posture in the South China Sea.” https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3018520/how-chinese-missile-tests-could-stakes-us-south-china-sea  Of course it would –if it occurred.

But deploying “carrier killer” missiles to the Spratlys would not significantly increase their range and would needlessly make such long range-missiles more vulnerable to strikes rather than continuing to hide them on the Mainland. https://www.asiatimes.com/2019/07/article/beijing-strengthens-its-hold-on-south-china-sea/ To deploy such missiles to the tiny Spratly features it occupies would not make much strategic or tactical sense. 

Panda admits”_ _ _ the missiles tested remain unknown _ _ _.”  Nevertheless that did not prevent him from speculating that they were either “carrier killers” or a longer range weapon.  He and others may have confused these tests with earlier ones that did include six anti-ship ballistic missiles. https://www.newsmax.com/newsfront/admiral-navy-china-missile/2019/07/19/id/925222/ The latest ones could just as likely have been a short range missile, not “carrier killers” and fired from Hainan or the Mainland, or warships. But Panda focused on “carrier killers” as a move forward for China because it wants to “win without fighting” by demonstrating that  US  assets in the South China Sea could be vulnerable to such missile strikes. Panda then lamented that the U.S. did not “more forcefully protest at its establishment of a large maritime exclusion zone where the missiles splashed down.”  This all indicates a China-threat mind set and may explain why some analysts so readily used this false news to further their views. 

If logic was not enough to raise questions about this “false news”, China’s published words should have been.  China’s Ministry of Defense said that the Pentagon’s claim of a “Chinese missile launch from the man-made structures in the South China Sea” is malicious and misleading. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-usa-southchinasea/china-denies-us-accusations-of-south-china-sea-missile-tests-idUSKCN1U01QN  Some details come from thin air,  _ _.” http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1156925.shtml The Global Times quoted an anonymous source as saying that “the PLA conducted routine live-fire drills “near Hainan Island” implying that the missiles were not fired from Chinese occupied features in the South China Sea.  Although somewhat belatedly, analysts like Collin Koh of Nanyang Technological University and Panda himself apparently came round to the possibility that the Pentagon information was indeed “false news”.  But this did not affect the latter’s playing up of the China “threat”. https://twitter.com/BonnieGlaser/status/1146477260200906752

China’s development of intermediate range ballistic missiles should be seen in context. China’s anti-ship ballistic missile capability has long been known. Indeed, the Trump administration withdrew from an agreement with Russia that banned land-based nuclear capable intermediate range missiles so that it could develop – – and is developing – – the same kind of missiles as China. The apparent US intent is to put Chinese warships in danger in the South China Sea just as a “carrier killer” does for US warships.  This raises the questions of who is reacting to whom, and where these Chinese missile tests fall in the cycle of this “arms race”.

This recent episode is a poignant example of quickly to jumping to preferred conclusions and then using them to justify their own biased preferences.  It deserves exposure for what it was – – tantamount to “yellow journalism” and straight out China-bashing. Unfortunately there is a lot of similar examples these days.  The recent nationalist uproar in the Philippines and the beating of the China threat drum in the U.S. are good examples. https://www.google.com/search?q=mark+valencia+sad+affair+all+around&rlz=1C1NHXL_enUS733US733&oq=mark+valencia+sad+a; https://ippreview.com/index.php/Blog/single/id/620.html; https://www.eastasiaforum.org/2015/06/18/new-round-of-china-bashing-over-the-south-china-sea/It is worth repeating here a phrase from the recent open letter to President Trump and Congress by a group of prominent China watchers. “We do not believe that Beijing is _ _an existential national security threat that must be confronted in every sphere.” https://www.google.com/search?q=making+china+a+us+enemey+is+counter&rlz=1C1NHXL_enUS733US733&oq=making+china+a+us+enemey+is+counter&aqs=chrome..69i57.9192j0j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8  

Analysts and policy makers alike should refrain from jumping to conclusions that fit their prejudices lest they contribute to promulgating false news and faulty analyses based thereon.

Mark J. Valencia

Mark J. Valencia

Mark J. Valencia, is an internationally known maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. He is the author or editor of some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles. He is currently an Adjunct Senior Scholar, National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.

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