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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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?

~

[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


Radar Incident Obscures Beijing’s Conciliatory Turn toward Japan

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As seen on TV…well, not quite but almost

Apologies to anyone who may have visited in hope of new material in the past few weeks. This year I need to write a PhD dissertation so posts will be even more sporadic than usual. There are a number of unfinished ones in the pipeline that I really hope to get around to completing at some point, and I will try to also post some of the summary translations of significant PRC media articles and comment threads that I normally keep to myself.

What follows is a piece I wrote for the Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief which came out last Friday: Radar Incident Obscures Beijing’s Conciliatory Turn. This version here has the addition of links to the sources at the end.

Also, since there are no comments on the Jamestown website, I encourage anyone who wants to discuss to leave comments here on this post.

Thank you for tuning in and making this blog such a temptation to write on.

Radar Incident Obscures Beijing’s Conciliatory Turn Towards Japan

China Brief, Vol 13, Issue 4

February 15, 2013

On February 5, Japanese Defense Minister Onodera Itsunori told the world that a Chinese Navy frigate had pointed “something like fire-control radar” at a Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) destroyer some 100-150 kilometers north of the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands on January 30. He said the same may have happened to a MSDF helicopter on January 19, though this remained unverified (Daily Yomiuri, February 7; Sydney Morning Herald, February 7).

This marked the first direct involvement of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy ships in the ongoing confrontations around the islands since Japan’s government purchased three of them from a private Japanese owner on September 10 last year. Accordingly, much reportage and analysis has characterized this as part of an ongoing series of escalatory Chinese actions in the East China Sea. Yet the radar incidents ran counter to a distinctly conciliatory trend since mid-January in China’s official rhetoric, diplomatic action, media discourse and even maritime activities.

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Xi Jinping: a hardline nationalist in control of China?

April, 2012: Vice President Xi Jinping Meets with the Japanese Association for the Promotion of International Trade Delegation

April, 2012: Vice President Xi Jinping Meets with the Japanese Association for the Promotion of International Trade Delegation

Last week the New York Times ran a story on how Ling Jihua’s attempt to cover up his son’s death in that Ferrari crash may have severely weakened Hu Jintao’s position during this year’s CCP leadership transition.

It might just be me and my island-centricness, but this story certainly didn’t seem to be following the inverted-pyramid rule, for only those readers who persisted to the very last paragraph (or read the Sinocism China Newsletter) would have learned that:

By September, party insiders said, Mr. Hu was so strained by the Ling affair and the leadership negotiations that he seemed resigned to yielding power. As Mr. Hu’s influence faded, Mr. Xi began taking charge of military affairs, including a group coordinating China’s response to the escalating row with Japan over disputed islands.

Given both the vital role Ling had played in managing the logistics of the General Secretary’s day-to-day activities, and the likely emotional toll of the death of a close associate’s son, this idea of a Human Jintao feeling the pinch is logical enough.

Although the Times‘ sources say Ling’s replacement as CCP General Office Director, Li Zhanshu, arrived in July, the public announcement of Ling’s reassignment from the post was only made on September 1. Then Noda reached his agreement with the Kurihara family to make the purchase on September 4. Could all this explain Xi Jinping’s lack of a public appearance between September 2 and September 12? If i were gearing up to take over as CCP General Secretary in a few months’ time and then found myself taking charge of the country’s response to a rapidly-escalating crisis, i’d have trouble finding time for photo ops.

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Consensus at the top? China’s opportunism on Diaoyu and Scarborough Shoal

“New facts on the water”

In last week’s Sinica Podcast, M. Taylor Fravel discussed the March 1988 Sino-Vietnamese battle in the Spratly Islands, recounting how the PLAN Commander was moved from his post afterwards as a result of his unauthorized decision to open fire on the Vietnamese Navy.

This could make the 1988 battle appear as a historical example of uncoordination in the PRC’s behaviour towards the outside world — a rogue commander taking foreign policy into his own hands. However, the decision to send the Navy in to establish a presence on unoccupied reefs in the Spratlys was a centralized, high-level one.

Today, the Chinese Navy is better equipped and better trained, so the chances of something similar happening are small. The unwavering non-involvement of the PLAN in China’s maritime territorial disputes, even as tensions have risen to boiling point, is a testament to the navy’s professionalization, and a site of consensus among China’s policymakers. The US Department of Defense in 2011 presciently pinpointed (see p.60) the increasing use of non-military law enforcement agencies to press China’s claims in disputed waters as an important component of PRC policy. Since then, this approach has become ever-more salient.

China’s maritime law enforcement fleets have long been seen as a source of policy disorganization, both within China and abroad; back in 2002, for example, the Hainan Provincial NPC delegation tabled a motion to establish a unified maritime law-enforcement fleet.

But in the podcast Fravel drew attention to how this year the China Maritime Surveillance and Fisheries Law Enforcement fleets have actually coordinated rather well, both with each other and with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in advancing China’s maritime claims.

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“The whole world’s Chinese people are going”: decisive moments, and the perils of Diaoyu nationalism

Located to the northeast of Taiwan, just under halfway to Okinawa, the Diaoyus have been controlled by Japan since the first Sino-Japanese War in 1895. China (both of them) claims that the islands were imperial Chinese territory before that, so Japan’s annexation of them in 1895 was an illegal land grab, and that they should have been returned to China at the end of WWII under the Potsdam Declaration.

The Diaoyus are not tiny coral atolls like the Spratlys and Paracels. They are (well, five of the eight features) genuine islands, albeit barren and uninhabited. Like the South China Sea islands, however, there’s believed to be black-gold in their bellies.

Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands

While the competition for the oil and gas resources can basically explain the two sides’ determination to claim sovereignty, on the Diaoyu the influence of nationalistic public opinion on the Chinese government’s behaviour appears more significant than on the South China Sea. To begin with, the public ill-will on both sides is deep-seated and getting worse, and political opportunists have the opportunity and motive encourage and exploit this.

The ICG’s Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt recently commented that the leaders of China and Japan have little “political capital” to spend on defying “nationalist or populist sentiment”. In this excellent interview, SKA identifies nationalist sentiment as a constraint on governments’ ability to compromise or back down during a dispute. There are counter-examples where Chinese and Japanese leaders have appeared to defy pressure to be uncooperative and confrontational, such as Noda’s government’s speedy release of the recent protagonists, and China’s decision not to send patrol boats to guard them. But the two countries’ recent record suggests this has been difficult at times in the past.

Public opinion offers an explanation for what learned observers consider to be China’s counterproductively hardline stance in the previous Diaoyu confrontation in September 2010 (itself a response to Japan’s abnormally trenchant action in detaining an infringing Chinese fishing boat captain for several weeks rather than releasing him swiftly, as they did yesterday). And the ill-will on the part of both publics may have had a lot to do with the non-implementation of a deal negotiated back in 2008 for cooperative development of some of the oil and gas deposits in the area.

Nationalist activists on both sides are true believers in their cause, so even where their actions may be deliberately incited and/or tacitly sanctioned by their governments, they nonetheless impact the dispute by necessitating responses from the other side. Once the Qifeng-2 escaped the clutches of the Hong Kong police and sailed beyond the reach of the PRC authorities, for example, Beijing had little or no control over whether the passengers of the Qifeng-2 would actually manage to set foot on the island last Wednesday.

At the same time, the PRC government has on numerous occasions proved willing and capable of preventing Diaoyu activists from making their journey in the first place, whether in Hong Kong or on the way to the Diaoyus. This suggests that where Chinese citizens’ action has an impact, a decision to allow this must be made at some level of leadership — which could be made as low as a local PRC Coastguard official, a China Maritime Surveillance branch commander or as high as the Politburo Standing Committee.

Such decisions have certain easily foreseeable outcomes (a diplomatic incident of some kind was almost inevitable once the Qifeng-2 left PRC-controlled waters) yet their exact consequences in international politics are unpredictable. Moreover, these leadership choices occur in a domestic political context, which in China includes not only party politics and ideology, but also domestic nationalist discourse — what groups of people are thinking about where the country is or should be going.

The recent episode illustrates vividly what a dynamic and contested process of simultaneous group interpretation and elite engineering ‘nationalism’ really is.

Chinese activists jump from the Qifeng-2 onto Diaoyu Island, carrying PRC and ROC flags, August 15, 2012.

Take the above photo, for example — taken at the critical moment when the activists jumped ashore. Is the ROC flag something to be proud of, or ashamed? Is its appearance here a symbol of Chinese unity or division?

Weibo’s microbloggers appeared to see it more as a sign of cross-straits collaboration, enthusiastically forwarding it around as proof that the activists had made it onto the island. According to Weiboscope, it was at time of writing the most-forward image of the incident.

The PRC internet authorities also don’t seem to object to its dissemination, intact, on Weibo and other online news sources (see here and here). In stark contrast, however, the propaganda authorities overseeing China’s print media clearly saw it very differently to the online public, for among China’s main newspapers the ROC flag was either cropped out, crudely paint-bucketed red, or otherwise blotted out in very nearly every instance (among hundreds of covers on Abbao i found only one exception, the obscure Yimeng Evening News). The same was the case on mainland TV.

Paintbucketed: Xiamen Business News 厦门商报, August 16, 2012

Blotted: Wuhan Morning News 武汉晨报, August 16, 2012

Intact: Yimeng Evening News 沂蒙晚报, August 16, 2012

This might have had something to do with the gloating the official media have recently been engaging in over the fact that a group of Diaoyu activists from Taiwan last month waved a PRC flag to proclaim sovereignty from seas near the islands — even though they got an escort from the ROC Coastguard.

There was also perhaps the inconvenient fact that this time around the ROC authorities had pressured local activists into abandoning their trip and refused all but the most elementary assistance to the Qifeng-2 when it tried to stop past on its way from Hong Kong to the Diaoyus. According to the Global Times (English):

Earlier on Tuesday, the ship anchored in the waters near Taichung, after the local marine authority denied their application to reach land. The activists were only able to procure limited freshwater supplies.

The news on Tuesday that activists from Fujian who had wanted to join the expedition had canceled their plans due to “reasons of weather and procedure” also raised the question of exactly which of the ‘three regions’ (Taiwan, Hong Kong and the PRC) actually represents the Chinese people best. The top comments on Phoenix’s 111,000+ participant thread for ‘Mainland activists cancel trip to Diaoyu, citing weather and procedures‘:

“I know the reason you can’t go, I understand, backup is lacking, speechless.” [11,790 recommends]

“Clearly a crock of shit. Whoever believes it has got water in their brain.” [8166]

“Such a loss of face………speechless. Support the Hong Kong and Taiwan compatriots.” [5157]

“The whole world’s Chinese people are going, it’s just the mainland…” [4291]

Once again, the idea of the PRC government’s rule being based on anything that can be usefully understood as “nationalist legitimacy” appears questionable. And the idea that the party-state is trying to build up such “nationalistic legitimacy” via its foreign policy actions looks patently absurd.

On the topic of absurdity and Hong Kongers’ Chinese patriotic credentials, Kong Qingdong didn’t escape the participants of the Tencent thread above:

“This is the Hong Kong people that Kong Qingdong said are running dogs! Is he cross-eyed?” [17,489]

The other widely-circulated decisive-moment photograph from the scene of the confrontation further illustrates how deficient in nationalistic credentials the PRC state is:

Japanese patrol vessels ram the Hong Kong Diaoyu activists’ boat, August 15, 2012

This stunning image cast the Chinese activists in an intensely helpless position. When i first saw it i couldn’t believe that it was real; Photoshop-wielding nationalist students wanting to raise a rabble could hardly have done better. Taken by a Japanese photographer for the Yoimuri Shimbun, it makes the two Japanese Coastguard boats look positively evil.

That’s probably why it has been placed on newspaper covers all over China (once again, Abbao can illustrate), and pumped around the internet by the People’s Daily website’s Weibo account.

But it also rams the viewer with an almost unavoidable question: why was no-one there to help?

The giant comment threads on the portals indicate that exactly this kind of question is in the forefront of many ordinary PRC people as they read the news on the internet.

Perhaps this contributed the speed and fervour with which Sunday’s protesters turned their destructive powers onto the authorities:


“Hello, Sansha”: Cheng Gang returns, brandishes Vietnam’s name . . . and lies

‘Hello, Sansha’ – graphic accompanying Beijing Youth Daily report on a July 2 visit to Woody Island 永兴岛. (Note superimposed nine-dash line.)

I knew it was incident season but I went anyway. A mistake i have learned from: from this point onward, until the disputes are resolved or my thesis is finished, i vow never to take a holiday in July, unless the destination is the South China Sea. Ten days after my return, i’ve only just finished properly studying all the recent action. The next few posts will sketch out in basic chronological order, recent developments as seen through the PRC’s major internet news media.

The establishment of Sansha City looms large. According to a keyword study of 15 major Chinese newspapers, it was in the top five most-mentioned domestic politics-related terms in the first 6 months of 2012 — a (suspiciously) remarkable achievement, given that its creation was only announced on June 21. There is no doubt, however, that Sansha has been very heavily covered in China’s state-controlled media since its announcement. The extent to which it has “attracted” this attention or had this attention ordered towards it is, of course, hard to say — the answer is clearly both, but in what proportions?

The flurry of first-hand accounts of visits by reporters began well before the opening ceremony on June 24. Beijing Youth Daily reporter Li Chen 李晨 visited on July 2, filing a story that ran on July 9 under the headline, ‘Hello, Sansha’. (The story was made available in English by the China Daily but the translation has since been taken down. It remains online here.) This was accompanied by the graphic above, with the nine-dashed line superimposed. It began:

Would you be surprised if I told you there was a city with an area equivalent to one quarter of China’s territory?

The graphic and the opening line show that the view of the nine-dashed line as representing China’s territorial waters, far beyond the officially-stated claim to the islands within, continues to be propagated through the official media. The apparent lack of desire to educate the Chinese public on the limits of China’s claims in the South China Sea suggests that the government sees nationalistic public opinion on the issue as more of a weapon than a threat.

Li Chen’s report also ran prominently in the July 15 edition of the Shanxi Evening News, but there were numerous other accounts of visits to Sansha around that time. Notable among them was this ‘Exclusive visit to South Sea frontline Sansha’ from the intrepid Cheng Gang 程刚 of the Huanqiu Shibao, who wrote that he was making his fifth visit to Woody Island/Yongxing 永兴岛. Some of Cheng’s reporting was made into an English-language article for the Global Times, but many of the interesting details have been left out.

The Qiongsha-3 that plies between Hainan and Yongxing (Woody) Island in the Paracels

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Adventure, regret, anger: one Global Times reporter’s epic South China Sea journey

Huanqiu Shibao (Global Times) journalist Cheng Gang pictured in the Diaoyu Islands, 2010

After a three-week tour of the Paracels, Spratlys and Scarborough Shoal, the Huanqiu Shibao‘s special South Sea correspondent Cheng Gang 程刚, an experienced war journalist, filed a lengthy feature story that ran in the paper’s June 1 edition. It was titled, ‘Fisherfolk’s grief: we don’t fire the first shot, countries occupying the islands have fired countless shots‘.

It was really good reading, with loads of interesting detail, so i’ve done a summary translation. The photos are inserted to illustrate the places Cheng is talking about — i’ve attempted to link to the source wherever i have it on file, but they are taken from all over the internet, including Google images, Google maps, Panoramio and Vietnamese social networking sites, so if one belongs to you please don’t hesitate to demand a credit.

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Cheng’s piece starts by describing how May is the best time to be sailing on the South Sea, because the northeast wind has blown out but the southwest monsoon and associated typhoons haven’t yet arrived. Seabirds abound and dolphins follow the boat through the glassy blue waters. “The beauty of each day is far beyond picture scrolls,” Cheng writes, “but as a Chinese person who pays attention to the South China Sea issue, travelling with Chinese law enforcement boats on patrols through the Paracels, Spratlys and Zhongsha [ie. Scarborough Shoal and the Macclesfield Bank], this Huanqiu Shibao reporter could hardly think about the intoxicating views; on the contrary, it was more regret and unease.”

At Fiery Cross Reef 永暑礁, site of the PRC’s biggest Spratly installation [and a UN-sponsored meteorological station] reporter Cheng witnesses “a certain country’s” fishermen blatantly refusing to obey instructions to desist in their fishing activities, until finally a duty vessel was sent out and they resentfully left. “Fiery Cross Reef is Mainland China’s biggest reef fort 礁堡 in the Spratlys, and the place where its garrisons are the strongest. If it’s like this at Fiery Cross Reef, one can imagine how the situation in other areas is even more turbulent.”

Fiery Cross Reef (永暑礁), occupied by PRC

PRC sovereignty marker on Fiery Cross Reef 永暑礁

Fiery Cross Reef 永暑礁, Spratly Islands

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“Relax wife, the fisheries administration is here!”: triumph, grief and human interest with the fisherfolk of Tanmen

Special total-coverage page in the Zhengzhou Evening News 郑州晚报, May 4, 2012. The headlines read: “We need to watch over this place”/Less than a day after returning, Hainan fishermen return to the “standoff”/”Wife, the fisheries administration is here, so relax!”

This year the PRC media have published a succession of detailed stories on the plight of Chinese fisherfolk through the South China Sea disputes.

On February 22, for example, the Guangzhou-based Yangcheng Evening News 羊城晚报 published ‘More than 95% of licenced Chinese fishermen have withdrawn from the Spratlys, afraid of detention by foreign gunboats‘.

There was no joy in 2011 for Spratly fishing boat captain Chen Songhan 陈松汉 of Taishan in Guangdong Province. He said that harassment from foreign gunboats had led to greatly increasing costs, declining fisheries resources, and decreasing benefits. And on May 9 last year, Beihai (Guangxi) fisherman Li Rixi’s 李日喜 fishing boat was siezed by foreign gunboats, causing economic losses of 1.23 million RMB, and he told the Yangcheng Evening News he was still a long way from recovering his strength.

Following the Chinese fishing boats’ escape from Philippines authorities at the start of the Scarborough Shoal standoff in mid-April, Xinhua put out some rather more rousing stories of triumph. There were numerous interviews with the returnees, apparently all from Tanmen town in Qionghai City, Hainan Province, such as this one, for which a version is available in English here under the headline, ‘Chinese fishermen recall clash with Philippine navy‘.

In early May there emerged the tale of more Qionghainese fishermen who had come home to avoid a typhoon, then turned around the very next day and gone straight back to Scarborough Shoal to “participate in the standoff”. That story contained the rather unforgettable line, as one fisherman’s wife recalled hearing her husband saying:

Relax wife, the fisheries administration is here!

This was splashed across the special total-coverage page in the May 4 edition of the Zhengzhou Evening News seen at the top. According to that story, it was originally taken from the Legal System Evening News 法制晚报.

Mid-May saw the return of Xu Detan 许德潭, the skipper of one of the Scarborough protagonist vessels, Qiong-Qionghai 09099, and who had featured prominently in Xinhua’s stories the previous month. This time he was telling CCTV that he’d just brought back a bumper haul of fish, and that it was all thanks to FLEC and the State Oceanic Administration’s China Maritime Surveillance force. According to the English version (here), Xu said:

Our boats are everywhere around the island, and we are afraid of nothing. The Chinese Marine Surveillance ships kept in contact with us around-the-clock.

Actually, Xu sort-of uttered words to that effect, but he didn’t name either of the agencies. Instead, their names were inserted by a CCTV editor as the subtitles in this frame show:

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Scarborough Shoal – a Chinese photo tour

Readers (if there are any) may be wondering exactly what and where the mysterious Scarborough Shoal, where law enforcement ships from China and the Philippines remain engaged in a standoff, actually is. Here’s an annotated gallery of photos from Sohu, giving the Chinese perspective. It’s called “The dispute between China and the Philippines over Zhongsha Huangyan Island”.

Note: The Chinese term for Scarborough Shoal (or Scarborough Reef) is 黄岩岛, meaning Huangyan Island. As you will see, it’s really not an island at all, but i’m making the translation on its own terms.

Here we go:

Huangyan Island Overview

1. Huangyan Island (Scarborough Shoal) is the only one of the Zhongsha group of islands (Zhongsha Qundao) that protrudes above the waterline. It is surrounded by a ring-shaped reef with water depth between 0.5 and 3 metres. The atoll is the shape of a right triangle, and encloses lagoon of 130 square kilometres with water depth of 10 to 20 metres. In the southeastern corner there is a 400-metre-wide channel that links the lagoon with the outside ocean, through which medium-sized fishing boats and small naval vessels can enter. It is an extremely good fishing area and a shelter during storms.

2. In terms of geographical position Huangyan Island is about 800 kilometres from Hong Kong, and about 350 kilometres from the Philippine capital Manila. Like the Spratly Islands, the area around Huangyan is an important shipping lane, at the throat of the main thoroughfare into and out of Subic Bay (Philippines). In addition, the area is super-rich in marine resources, producing plenty of economically valuable species of fish.

3. Scattered pieces of reef appear above the waterline around the Huangyan Island atoll, each piece with a surface area of approximately 1 to 5 square metres.

4. This is the biggest of Huangyan Island’s rocks, R2. According to the relevant rules of the International Convention on the Law of the Sea, islands are naturally formed land areas that are above the waterline at high tide. Confirmed islands can be used to draw baselines for territorial waters, exclusive economic zones and continental shelf areas.

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