Japan upholding the “path of peaceful development”? China’s complimentary criticism of Abe’s collective self-defense

Abe - Article 9 reinterpretation

On Tuesday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that his cabinet had passed a new resolution on the interpretation of Article 9 of the post-war constitution, such that the Self-Defense Forces can now be used to defend Japan’s allies. Coverage of China’s official comments on the matter has typically focused on the “concern” it expressed, but there was also a curiously timed compliment contained within the PRC’s response.

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China’s expanding Spratly outposts: artificial, but not so new

China's Johnson Reef (赤瓜礁) reclamation project, as photographed by the Philippines Navy (click for source)

China’s Johnson Reef (赤瓜礁) reclamation project, as photographed by the Philippines Navy (click for source)

Here’s another attempt at what a blog post probably should be: a short comment on some things i’ve read online. It’s about the New York Times’ report this week on China’s island reclamation work in the Spratlys, which i think missed some important background context to China’s activities.

The subject, in summary:

China has been moving sand onto reefs and shoals to add several new islands to the Spratly archipelago, in what foreign officials say is a new effort to expand the Chinese footprint in the South China Sea. The officials say the islands will be able to support large buildings, human habitation and surveillance equipment, including radar.

This island reclamation is the latest in a long line of measures China has taken since the early 1980s to strengthen its presence in the Spratly Islands, which it views as crucial due to their proximity to China’s sea approaches, as well as present (fisheries) and future (energy) resource bounties.

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China’s Information Management in the Sino-Vietnamese Confrontation: Caution and Sophistication in the Internet Era

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Jamestown China Brief piece published last week:

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China’s Information Management in the Sino-Vietnamese Confrontation: Caution and Sophistication in the Internet Era

Publication: China Brief Volume: 14 Issue: 11 (June 4, 2014)

After the worst anti-China violence for 15 years took place in Vietnam this month, it took China’s propaganda authorities nearly two days to work out how the story should be handled publicly. However, this was not a simple information blackout. The 48-hour gap between the start of the riots and their eventual presentation to the country’s mass audiences exemplified some of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) sophisticated techniques for managing information during fast-breaking foreign affairs incidents in the Internet era. Far from seizing on incidents at sea to demonstrate China’s strength to a domestic audience, the official line played down China’s assertive actions in the South China Sea and emphasized Vietnamese efforts to stop the riots, effectively de-coupling the violence from the issue that sparked them. This indicated that, rather than trying to appease popular nationalism, China’s leaders were in fact reluctant to appear aggressive in front of their own people.[1]

By framing the issue in this way, China’s media authorities cultivated a measured “rational patriotism” in support of the country’s territorial claims. In contrast to the 2012 Sino-Japanese confrontation over the Diaoyu Islands, when Beijing appears to have encouraged nationalist outrage to increase its leverage in the dispute,[2] during the recent incident the Party-state was determined to limit popular participation in the issue, thus maximizing its ability to control the escalation of the situation, a cornerstone of the high-level policy of “unifying” the defense of its maritime claims with the maintenance of regional stability (Shijie Zhishi [World Affairs], 2011).

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Can the US tone down to ASEAN’s tune?

obama-ASEAN

Obama in Asia

East Asia Forum was yesterday kind enough to publish a piece called ‘Can the US tone down to ASEAN’s tune?’. I was asked to write about how the region should respond to crises like the Sino-Vietnamese standoff in the South China Sea, and the following is just my attempt at contributing something vaguely original to the discussion. I’m ready to be told it’s naive, silly or completely nuts; my only request is that if you think so, please say so!

As Bill Bishop suggested in the Sinocism Newsletter a couple of weeks back, the region at this point appears unable to impose costs on Beijing for the kind of escalatory conduct exemplified by its unilateral placement of the oil drilling rig HYSY-981 in disputed waters this month. This is definitely worth thinking long and hard about. We also need to consider the incentives that the international situation may be creating for this kind of assertiveness, and work to reduce these.

The following article’s bold proclamation about “what is needed” isn’t meant literally; although that wording suggests otherwise, i really am not claiming to know what is needed or tell the real experts that they don’t. It’s just a suggestion, a case to be made, which is based on:

  1. My reading of how China sees these issues and its strategic interests (relatively sensitive to the possibility of ASEANization of the issue, relatively insensitive to US grandstanding);
  2. What hasn’t worked to deter Beijing from assertive behaviour thus far (the US leading the criticism of China’s provocative actions and strengthening ties with China’s rival claimants); and
  3. Discussions with some friends and experts, whose feedback was vital to refining the idea (i’d name them but i’m not sure they wouldn’t prefer to remain nameless).

EAF allowed me a generous 1200-odd words, and i ought to thank the editors for their excellent job of compressing it. Nonetheless, a few other clarifications had to be left out for space reasons, so i’m adding them after the end of this post, mainly for my own benefit i imagine.

Anyway, here’s my crackpot idea, which which i put out there to be critiqued, so please don’t hold back . . .

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China-Vietnam clash in the Paracels: history still rhyming in the Internet era?

Vietnamese diplomats are saying Chinese and Vietnamese ships collided today in the disputed Paracel Islands, where China has stationed the massive oil and gas drilling platform HYSY-981. The incident may be in some ways unprecedented as the first time China has attempted to drill for hydrocarbons in a disputed area of the South China Sea. But it also resonates with the past in some surprising ways, from the PRC’s initiation of the incident, to Vietnam’s response, and even the information environment facing the two sides.

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“War is good, it reshuffles the cards”: Qiu Zhenhai’s taxi ride

China Anti-Japan Protests - Beijing

Instability threat: Anti-Japan protesters in Beijing, September 2012

The introduction to Phoenix TV host and international affairs commentator Qiu Zhenhai’s book, excerpted in Southern Weekend a couple of weeks back, reprises an important issue for everyone studying nationalism in China: to what extent should we really understand the phenomena that get labelled “Chinese nationalism” in those terms?

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Creative tensions and soft landings: Wang Yizhou explains China’s foreign policy agenda

Wang Yizhou 王逸舟

Wang Yizhou 王逸舟

Peking University Professor Wang Yizhou, one of China’s top foreign policy scholars, did an interview for the excellent new Carnegie-Tsinghua podcast last month (Part 1 and Part 2), covering a very broad sweep of China’s emerging foreign policy, regional strategy, territorial disputes, global role, and bilateral relations with the US.

His main points are noted below, starting with regional strategy and China’s maritime territorial disputes. I’ve just done this as an exercise to try to better grasp the significance of what Wang says; for most people it’s probably better to just go listen to the podcast. The italicized blockquote bits are a mix of direct quotes and paraphrasing.

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Xi’s task: a “soft landing” for the South China Sea dispute

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Are China’s hawks actually the PLA elite after all? [Revised]

Yawei Liu

Dr Yawei Liu, of the Carter Center

[Updated 17 Dec: As with most things on here, this was bashed out hastily in the not-so-early hours of a morning, so i've taken the liberty of revising and adding some bits as i read through it two weeks later. In particular i felt the need to add in the various things i agree with from Liu and Ren's excellent article, in addition to the criticisms i made.]

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In an upcoming Journal of Contemporary China article addressing the always fascinating question of PLA officers’ belligerent media statements, Yawei Liu and Justine Zheng Ren advance exactly the opposite case to the one made here earlier this year. They argue that military commentators’ media statements represent the “consensus” voice of the PLA, fighting to influence the CCP’s foreign policy. 

Dr Liu, who directs the Carter Center’s China Program, happens to be the brother of General Liu Yazhou, most recently of Silent Contest fame. General Liu himself even features in the article, but references to his thinking are indirect (“General Liu seems to share the conviction that…”), presumably meaning that the two brothers have not talked over these work-related issues. Still, if anyone is in a position to knock the teeth out of my “propaganda, not policy” argument, Dr Liu should be the man.

To briefly recap, my argument was that, based on the backgrounds and affiliations of the main “hawks”, the belligerent military voices in the Chinese media are largely those of nominated propaganda/publicity experts (the two terms conflated as 宣传), whose job is to mould a positive image of the PLA among the domestic population and augment the military’s capabilities by shaping international audiences’ perceptions.[1]

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“Silent Contest”: Liu Yazhou’s warmed-over McCarthyism

The latest “leaked” video from the PLA, and its subsequent deletion from the Mainland Chinese internet, has the western China watching community grasping for explanations. Leftist battle-cry ahead of a rightist Third Plenum? Harbinger of an assertive turn in China’s US policy? A glimpse of what the PLA really thinks? My humble addition to this motley list is: powerful statement of self-importance by the CCP-PLA propaganda apparatus?

The video itself is really quite a masterpiece in my view, produced by a master of political warfare, PLA National Defense University Political Commissar Liu Yazhou. It details how America is waging a smokeless war of “political genetic modification” against China, utilizing the permeation (渗透) and “peaceful evolution” strategy that brought down the Soviet Union.

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Yin Zhuo Thought?

Yin Zhuo CPPCC 2013

CPPCC member Yin Zhuo at the 2013 ‘Two Meetings’ in Beijing, where he hosed down talk of war with Japan

PLA Marines on CMS boats patrolling Diaoyu hatching island-landing plans…’C-shaped Encirclement’ nothing but nonsense and online hype…China planned to attack Taiwan in 2006…America isn’t trying to contain China. What hostile imperialist could be dreaming up such baseless slander, inverting black and white, misleading the masses?

The answer is PLA Navy Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo 尹卓, at least according to someone who claims to have taken notes at his closed lecture  in Chongqing on July 20. In addition to those admittedly rather more eye-catching claims, the translation appended below has raised once again (if only in my mind) the question of what the PLA’s appointed propaganda experts might really think about war, peace and strategy.

Admiral Yin is one of the most prominent PLA experts in the Chinese media, whose notable comments have included declaring the need for overseas PLA bases, sanctioning “violence” against the Philippines, arguing a Diaoyu war would be fought (and presumably won) in a “very short” space of time, and speculating about the prospect of Japanese warning shots over Diaoyu leading to military conflict.

At other times, however, such as during this year’s CPPCC, he has refused to speculate on future potential conflicts. He publicly refuted the idea of Japan and China inevitably fighting a war, echoing the argument General Liu Yuan was propounding at the time by stating that “only America would benefit” from such an occurrence. He has even been labeled “traitorous” after expressing disapproval of the idea of a more assertive stance in the South China Sea.

He is a princeling, the son of revolutionary hero Major-General Yin Mingliang, who held numerous positions in the PLA General Political Department’s political commissar system after 1949. Interestingly, he studied in France and returned in 1968 at the height of the Cultural Revolution to join the PLA. Aside from his membership of the CPPCC, he is the Director of the PLA Navy’s Informatized Warfare Experts Committee, and a member of the whole-army version of the same body. A recent provincial party magazine article stated that Admiral Yin has “participated in evaluation work for important national military strategy decision-making”.

All up, he is a relatively credible PLA policy voice compared to, say, Dai Xu.

He started appearing on CCTV in 1999, and in 2004 the PLA gave him the task of hosting a new CCTV military affairs program Military Picture Matching  军情连连看. Then, with the approval of the CCP Central Propaganda Department and GPD Propaganda Dept, Yin Zhuo obtained the titles of “CCTV special commentator” and “executive external propaganda expert” — the latter issued by then-GPD Director Gen Li Jinai.

So here, it seems, is a genuine PLA military thinker, a princeling thoroughly plugged into the policy-making system — who also just happens to be one of its most experienced and trusted propaganda operators.

Based on the following summary of his lecture, presented in the form of 30 points, it was quite a tour-de-force, with a broad scope, insight, inside knowledge and nuance (though my rough, cursory translation may obscure that).

Yin Zhuo civilian

On July 20, under invitation from China Mobile, Yin Zhuo came to Chongqing for a lecture titled ‘China’s security circumstances and the Diaoyu Islands issue’. The weather was favourable for Yin Zhuo’s two-day visit, as the temperature happened to drop from around 38C to 30C, and the air quality improved somewhat. In addition, the venue was at the foot of Jinyun Mountain, in nice surrounds with plenty of foliage, giving Yin Zhuo a good impression.

I was fortunate enough to be there. Because no recordings or video were allowed, I used a pen and paper to record the following main points, which I present as follows:

1. . . . America’s top priority in its quest to stay world hegemon is to disintegrate Sino-Russian relations.

2. America is extremely strong and China will be in a position of weakness until at least 2030. To escape the US’s pressure China must avoid its strengths and attack its weaknesses. . . .

3. America faces 3 problems, which are its weaknesses: declining politico-economic status, reduced ability to control the world geopolitically, and weakening alliances esp. in Asia-Pacific.

4. China was planning to attack Taiwan in 2006.

5. America and China have competition and confrontation, but confrontation is the main part . . . 

6. China’s national strategy is to dig deeply to undermine the US, store up grain, and slowly seek to be king [modifying Mao Zedong's 1970s dictum, "Dig deep holes, store up grain, do not seek hegemony 深挖洞,广积粮,不称霸].

7. . . . Some within the state and within the military think China can fight a war for the Diaoyu Islands and South China Sea to break out of America’s blockade, but [Yin Zhuo thinks] China should never underestimate America’s desire to attack us. . . . China can’t rely on America not wanting to get involved, we can’t even rule out the US using nukes.

8. Productive forces are still the element driving historical development. . . .

9. The wars of the 20th century and the Cold War caused a great deal of military technology to be converted to civilian use, spurring the information industries. . . .

10. Combined together, points 8 & 9 mean have led to America’s realignment towards the Asia-Pacific. As a capitalist country its national strategy must serve domestic economic development. Therefore, America’s strategic realignment is an inevitable trend, and one borne of the need to lead the Asia-Pacific, and is not directly aimed at China.

11. The PLA’s construction programme is geared towards winning a high-intensity conventional war under informatized conditions. This is an excellent approach but has its limitations.

12. In the Asia-Pacific region America lacks staunch allies, its military actions rely on NATO or itself.

13. The Snowden affair shows that freedom, democracy and human rights count for shit with the American people when faced with actual threats.

14. There are many East Turkestan [Xinjiang] terrorists fighting with Al-Qaeda, with around 1400 having received training. This is a threat to China domestically.

15. America is being opposed on a global scale by Islamic organizations. This will continue because the US is controlled by Israel [at least, on the Palestinian issue], so that problem can never be solved.

16. The US deliberately left Diaoyu to Japan in order to maintain Sino-Japanese enmity, “like Kashmir”.

17.  The Japanese are increasingly right wing . . . they blame China for their prolonged recession.

18. Japan’s political system is gridlocked . . . under those circumstances we cannot rule out extremists taking control.

19. Economics is the best area for China to oppose the US. Make free trade agreements with neighbouring countries . . .

20. [Yin Zhuo is] unhappy with the feeble behaviour of the Department of Selling Out the Country [ie. the Ministry of Foreign Affairs]

21. Prepare to deal with Japan two-handed, we will not actively provoke armed confrontation but if Japan does then we will take a hardline stance and make them feel more pain than us in order to avoid an even greater conflict.

22. This year there have been marines on board CMS Haijian [now China Coast Guard] boats on patrols to Diaoyu, making contingency plans for landing on the islands. Also, there are a great many officers and men 官兵 applying to transfer 专业 to join them [I'm not sure if he means the Coast Guard or Marines?].

23. The [indigenous] large transport [plane] is progressing smoothly, design may be complete by 2015.

24. The C-Shaped Encirclement of China that gets hyped up online is nonsense. During the Cold War the US network of alliances, that was a real C-shaped encirclement. Nowadays the circle simply does not exist.

25. The ‘String of Pearls’ plan in the Indian Ocean is also nonsense. . . . China’s ports in the Indian Ocean are for civilian use.

26. Gwadar is an excellent port, but not suitable for building a military base due to the militant extremists in the area. We would be sending our troops there to serve as hostages.

27. China’s Indian Ocean strategy is focused on East Africa. It’s basically a blank slate out there.

28. The success of the Western development strategy depends on it being self-supporting, the Eastern provinces cannot support it long-term. The keys to making this happen are the sea links out of Yunnan and Tibet, and linking Xinjiang with Central Asia . . .

29. Our military modernization is progressing smoothly.

30. In the drawing of maritime boundaries with neighbouring countries [Vietnam and South Korea?] we have lost out badly.

I am inclined to think the above summary of his lecture is quite accurate. The lecture really happened, apparently in front of a businesslike audience of China Mobile VIP customers 全球通VIP客户, and the summary was posted online on July 21, the following day.[1]

Surprisingly perhaps, given the flagrant attack on Colonel Dai Xu’s flagship C-Shaped Encirclement thesis (Point 24), Dai Xu’s portal Hainan-sponsored website HaijiangZX.com posted the summary on July 26 under the headline, ‘Rare statement from Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo: Do not underestimate America’s determination to use force against China.

That could be explained as a result of HaijiangZX.com’s greediness for content (maybe Colonel Dai’s employees don’t bother to read the content of the articles they post). Or could it have been that Yin Zhuo knows C-Shaped Encirclement to be mere propaganda, irrelevant to policy? The fact that Yin described C-Shaped Encirclement as mere internet hype suggests he doesn’t consider it a serious analysis. On the other hand, it might have been a veiled putdown of a militant policy rival.

Interesting too that in Yin Zhuo’s speech the US is the main threat to China, but not because it has evil intentions, rather, because their interests are opposed. Does this imply Yin Zhuo is taking a kind of Yan Xuetong-style realist position, to respectfully disagree with the likely consensus behind General Qi Jianguo’s Study Times article in January, which argued that “points of common interest” between China and the US were likely to increase over the long term?

Some points in the speech seem to contradict what Yin Zhuo has said in the Chinese media. For example, in 2012 he wrote off nuclear weapons development as useless to China, yet here he talks about how the US might use them on China — thus rendering them crucial. He has also previously claimed that the US military is vulnerable to the PLA, stating for example that a US aircraft carriers can “definitely be sunk”. But in this lecture he emphasizes China’s weakness in comparison.[2]

What do you think — is this the capital-T Thought of a PLA princeling strategist, or is it more likely to be expertly delivered propaganda designed to look like “leak“, in order to influence what Chinese and foreign audiences believe about how the PLA sees the world? Or is it something else entirely?

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[1] e.g. here and here; the first may have been this World of Warcraft forum here, from which it has been deleted.

[2] This might also reflect a CCP propagandist’s paradox: often, the more you characterize the US as a threat, the less military conflict looks like a good idea, but the less your people think military conflict is a good idea, the more susceptible they could be to the enemy’s psychological disintegration campaigns in the event that conflict occurs.

Yin Zhuo interviewed

Yin Zhuo interviewed


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