Cloak and Danger: Could Risky U.S. Intelligence Missions in the South China Sea Provoke War with Beijing?

By Bamford, James | Foreign Policy, November-December 2015 | Go to article overview

Cloak and Danger: Could Risky U.S. Intelligence Missions in the South China Sea Provoke War with Beijing?


Bamford, James, Foreign Policy


In May, the U.S. Defense Department invited a CNN team onto the Navy's newest, most sophisticated spy plane, the P-8A Poseidon. After taking off from Clark Air Base in the Philippines, pilots flew the aircraft near three islands in the South China Sea, where Chinese reclamation and military building projects are taking place. The operation, however, wasn't just intended to collect intelligence. It appears it was also meant to provoke a hostile reaction from China and, thanks to the news cameras on board, use that response for propaganda-to blatantly tell the world that America thinks China's territorial claims are illegal and dangerous.

The Chinese sent eight strong warnings to the plane. "This is the Chinese navy," said one radio operator. "Please go away ... to avoid misunderstanding." Later, the Chinese Foreign Ministry called the flight "very irresponsible and dangerous" and noted that Beijing would "take the necessary and appropriate measures to prevent harm to the safety of China's islands and reefs as well as any sea and air accidents."

When CNN broadcast its story, it played a recording of the warnings, and Jim Sciutto, the correspondent who had been on the plane, dutifully adopted the Pentagon's party line as his own. "China's enormous land grab ... [is] alarming," Sciutto said. "It's hard to see how this tension doesn't escalate going forward." To reinforce the need for alarm, the network also featured former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell, who cautioned that war is "absolutely" a possibility. (CNN did not present opposing viewpoints on the complex legal issues involved in the South China Sea.)

The incident is just one confrontation in a duel now escalating between the United States and China. This September, the Pentagon blamed China for allowing military jets to make an unsafe maneuver by passing in front of the nose of a U.S. RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft over the Yellow Sea. The following month, the U.S. Navy penetrated the 12-nautical-mile limit that China claims as territory around its artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago--a deliberate challenge to Beijing's self-declared sovereignty. U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told Congress, "We will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law permits and whenever our operational needs require." China's Foreign Ministry responded to the incident by stating that Beijing "will not condone any action that undermines China's security."

American history shows that this perversion of purpose--turning missions into provocations--is fraught with hazard. Half a century ago, for instance, the Pentagon ordered a National Security Agency (NSA) spy ship, the USS Maddox, to breach North Vietnam's territorial limit in the Gulf of Tonkin. The series of events that ensued (namely false reports of attacks on the ship) led Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which authorized the use of force in Southeast Asia and catapulted the United States into a war that killed millions of people.

But even routine intelligence missions that do not defiantly breach boundaries sometimes go terribly wrong. …

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