In the aftermath of the Solomon Islands-China Security Agreement, Radio Free Asia staff quoted a think tank expert as saying: “I think now that the security agreement has been officially signed, there is little the US or Australia can do to reverse it. The key question now is how fast will China move to establish a permanent presence, leading to a base, in the Solomon Islands.”
When the media report this kind of statement, they really need to take the time to provide their readers with the conceptual framework necessary to make sense of China’s overseas military posture.
This not only includes the ability to grasp the concepts of overseas military agreements, overseas military forces and overseas military footprints, it also includes the ability to understand a related set of higher-level and lower-level concepts.
Problematically, these concepts are not commonly known outside of a few epistemic communities.
Among the NATO allied and partner militaries, the overseas military posture of a sovereign state is commonly understood as the overseas agreements, forces and footprints of its military. These are outlined in US Department of Defense Instruction 3000.12, which defines the above concepts respectively as the agreements and arrangements that set the agreed upon terms of a military’s presence within the territory of another country; the forward deployed and/or stationed forces, military capabilities, equipment and units of the military; and the locations, infrastructure, facilities, land and prepositioned equipment of the military that exist in overseas and/or foreign territories.
At a lower level, these concepts are commonly understood as being composed of different kinds. These are described in Overseas Basing of U.S. Military Forces as follows: overseas military agreements include overflight and in-transit rights, status of forces agreements, basing and access agreements and mutual defense treaties; overseas military forces include temporary deployed forces, rotationally deployed forces and permanently deployed forces; and overseas military footprints include prepositioned support infrastructure, en route support infrastructure, command and control infrastructure, access facilities, expansible facilities and primary facilities.
Armed with this conceptual framework, one not only has the knowledge required to make sense of claims made by experts in China’s overseas military posture, one also has the power to uncover the presence of ambiguity, generalization, vagueness and contestation in those claims.
University of Colorado Boulder professor Michele Moses said: “The media have a responsibility to help educate a citizenry so that it is adequately prepared for well-informed deliberation.”
If one accepts this premise, then it seems to follow that the Radio Free Asia staff not only had a responsibility to tell their audience that a security agreement has been signed between the Solomon Islands and China, and an expert in the subject is concerned that it could lead to a permanent presence in the region; it also had a responsibility to empower its audience to respond with follow-up questions regarding what kind of security agreement and what kind of permanent presence was being discussed.
Taiwanese should demand more from those who cover China’s overseas military posture, even if Radio Free Asia is a US government-funded news service.
Michael Walsh is an affiliate of the Center for Australian, New Zealand and Pacific Studies of the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. The views expressed are his own.
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