From ‘thumping’ to reclamation in the South China Sea, US accusations put China on the defensive. Is that the plan?
- The US has sensationalised claims of China’s island reclamation and exaggerated the danger of a Chinese pilot’s interception of a US spy plane, in what may be a larger effort to put China on the diplomatic defensive
Presenting sensationalism as fact is a part of “yellow journalism” which, in its late 19th century heyday, helped push the United States into war with Spain over Cuba and the Philippines, leading to US colonial control over the latter. Sensationalism seems to be enjoying a revival regarding China and the South China Sea.
Two recent incidents bear this out.
China, which often cites the carefully negotiated 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties, denies the reclamation accusation.
The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) at the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies made its reputation by “revealing” China’s South China Sea transgressions . But in this instance, its director Greg Poling said “commercial imaging cannot corroborate Bloomberg’s claims”.
But this allegation appears to be part of a US diplomacy campaign to portray the Chinese military as dangerously aggressive and reckless.
As a Newsweek report put it: “As the US and China compete across multiple domains, control of the information space is becoming increasingly important.” It added: “In 2022, the US and its allies began painting a picture of a Chinese military that was wildly audacious in asserting Beijing’s territorial claims, to the point of risking accidents.”
China’s response was the US had “deliberately misled public opinion” on this. It blamed the US for “seriously violating the US-China Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on the Rules of Behaviour for the Safety of Air and Maritime Encounters”.
The US said its aircraft was on a routine mission in international airspace.
The key questions are: what exactly was the intelligence collection aircraft doing and where, and who flew unsafely? The US has not clarified what its plane was doing and where exactly in international airspace it was when the incident occurred.
It may have been approaching China’s territorial airspace without identifying itself, an act that would attract a visual check from any country’s military.
Fact is, incidents such as aircraft interception happen more frequently than commonly thought and are not really dangerous. This incident and others are being exaggerated to bash China.
US pilots who fly these missions expect to be intercepted and know how to avoid a collision. Indeed, “thumping” – manoeuvring an aircraft so another is affected by its turbulent wake – is not rare. As a former pilot said: “Crying wolf over non-events desensitises the world to potential real incidents.”
The hullabaloo surrounding the two incidents seem unrelated. But they may be part of a larger effort to put China on the diplomatic defensive. As Ely Ratner, US assistant secretary of defence in Indo-Pacific security affairs, said, the US is entering “the most transformative year in US force posture in the region in a generation”. Given this, the US view must be taken with a big pinch of salt.
Mark J. Valencia is a non-resident senior research fellow at the Huayang Institute for Maritime Cooperation and Ocean Governance