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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Songs of the disputed seas: patriotic music from the anti-Japanese protests and Paracels War

Lu Haitao & Mi Li recorded a theme song for the 2012 anti-Japan protests in China

CDs with a song (one song) were being handed out for free at the anti-Japanese protests on September 18.

The song was specially recorded after the protests began by Lu Haitao 陆海涛 and Mi Li 米粒, two moderately successful contestants from the CCTV talent show Star Avenue. (Lu made the grand final, Mi won one round of the competition last year.)

I don’t know who bankrolled its production, and neither did any of the other bemused attendees who, like me, rushed over to grab whatever everyone else was grabbing. But according to this BBS post, Mi Li herself shelled out her own money for 1000 of the CDs to be pressed.

As horrid as its mixture of Han-chauvinist and Maoist nationalism is, i have found it compulsive listening….and strongly advise against giving up before you get to 2 minutes in — for a spectacularly hammy rap section awaits there. Yes, Diaoyu RAP!

I particularly love the way the guy’s “之” syllables just become growls. Being based on the language of officials during imperial times, it’s not surprising that the Mandarin language is amenable to the kind of haughty authority the song attempts to voice.

As for the diva, well, she may be rather nastily screechy, but not nearly as screechy as the lady who sang ‘Battle Hymn of the Paracel Islands’ to celebrate China’s victory over hapless South Vietnamese remnants there in 1974:

Source for the background image is Chineseposters.net.


“Comfortable with their mistresses, the leaders haven’t gotten out of bed”: perplexing Chinese media coverage of the Scarborough standoff

Yuzheng-310 – the PRC Fisheries Law Enforcement Command ship at the centre of a wave of domestic criticism of the Chinese government

It’s one of the great puzzles of Chinese foreign policy in the 21st century, and particularly when it comes to the PRC’s behaviour in the South China Sea: which of China’s actions are co-ordinated, intentional, directed by the central leadership – and which are the result of individual agencies, political factions, and other actors in competition for resources or policy supremacy?

The International Crisis Group released a report on Monday this week emphasising the former, the “lack of coordination among Chinese government agencies” leading to an incoherent policy on the South China Sea. The same day, James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara of the US Naval War College published a piece that argued China’s “small-stick diplomacy” strategy in the dispute – principally the use of civilian maritime law enforcement agencies – is likely to succeed.

One of the problems is there are very limited ways of working out what’s actually going on, and one of the principal windows we do have is the Chinese mass media, including online media like news portals, the content of which we know to be shaped by the directives of the State Council Information Office and Ministry(s) of Propaganda. However, the Chinese mass media also operate to a large degree on commercial premises, so it’s a constant challenge to work out whether their coverage is best explained by sensationalism or political direction.

Watching the PRC’s media coverage of the Scarborough Shoal standoff over the past couple of weeks has been nothing short of bewildering. In one particularly strange example this week, the China Youth Daily, online news portals, and decision-makers combined to create a veritable firestorm of outrage against the government – all based on what appear to be false reporting.

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“We don’t need surveillance vessels, we need the navy”: the Standoff at Scarborough Shoal

Just as analysts pronounce all is quiet on the South China Sea front, along comes this spanner in the works — easily the most serious incident since the height of the tensions last year:

The Philippines’ largest warship was engaged in a tense standoff with Chinese surveillance vessels Wednesday at a disputed South China Sea shoal, after the ship attempted to arrest Chinese fishermen but was blocked by the surveillance craft.

The “warship” in question is the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, the former US coastguard cutter transferred to the Philippines Navy last year and commissioned in December. That the Philippines is already making “good” use of it does not bode well for the future. But back to the incident:

The current standoff began Sunday when a Philippine navy surveillance plane sighted eight Chinese fishing vessels anchored in a lagoon at Scarborough, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs said [. . .]

On Tuesday, Filipino sailors from the warship boarded the Chinese vessels for an inspection, discovering large amounts of illegally collected coral, giant clams and live sharks inside the first boat, the department said in a statement.

Two Chinese maritime surveillance ships, identified as Zhonggou Haijian 75 and Zhonggou Haijian 84, later approached and positioned themselves between the Philippine warship and the Chinese fishing vessels “thus preventing the arrests of the erring Chinese fishermen,” the statement said.

Philippine Foreign Affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez said Wednesday that the situation at the shoal “has not changed as of this morning. There’s a standoff.”

The big 5 Chinese news portals all have the story on their front page, though there is some variation in prominence. NetEase has it in the prime “cover photo” position (the photo above), accompanied by the caption: “Philippines Navy arrests Chinese fishermen at gunpoint at Scarborough Island”, which links to a gallery of photos related to the incident. Phoenix is keeping it among the big headlines at the top, and the other three have let it slip down into the top layer of small headlines.

As far as i can see from my cursory readings, the news that the Philippines has ruled out the use of force and agreed to resolve the situation diplomatically has not been widely reported yet in China.

The top few comments from the 35,000-strong thread attached to NetEase’s photo gallery:

We don’t need surveillance vessels, we need navy vessels (administrator, won’t you please have just enough conscience to display my comment?) [8,495 recommends]

Using maritime surveillance vessels for coastal defence, China really is unique. [5205]

Who does Scarborough Shoal really belong to? Since it’s ours, why are we being so restrained? [3698]

[. . .]

After I read this I was angry at first, but then I thought: if it’s this hard for me to find a place to rest my body, if I’ll work for a lifetime and still not afford a snail’s home to keep the wind and rain out, every day suffering high prices yet not being able to eat anything safely, stress levels that make me think about suicide every day, can’t afford to see a doctor, can’t afford a house, don’t dare consume,,,,,,,,,,,,,,fearing that what money I can save won’t feed a family…. What do I care who owns the South China Sea, whether Little Japan gets given the Diaoyu Islands? [1231]

In the world outside China, the use of China Maritime Surveillance, rather than the PLA Navy, is seen as a key part of China’s strategy in the South Sea: making sure they’re civilian law enforcement agencies rather than the Navy demonstrates that China already exercises jurisdiction, where it actually doesn’t. The top comments reflect a lack of appreciation for, or more likely a lack of awareness of, that strategy.

Also interesting to see a strong expression of apathy getting a gig among the top comments. It is my hypothesis that when I do my offline polling later this year, I will find this to be the mainstream majority Chinese view of the South China Sea disputes.

Censorship appears to be minimal on this topic, too, and it’s probably not as a result of the military’s much-vaunted “rising” engagement with public debate, judging by this top comment over on Phoenix‘s discussion thread:

Why isn’t the PLA Navy protecting our territory? [8812]

…or this, sitting in 5th position on this separate 73,000-strong (and rapidly growing, even at 2.45am) NetEase thread:

Our warships are all fake, all that [military] expenditure’s gone to Moutai. [4119]

It should be noted that this has been an utterly extraordinary day in Chinese domestic politics, with Bo Xilai, until recently the high-profile Party Secretary of Chongqing, officially suspended from the Politburo and placed in the hands of judicial authorities pending an investigation for “serious breaches of discipline”, and his wife, Gu Kailai officially named as the prime suspect in a murder case. In fact, a Chinese friend has suggested that it might be a very bad time for the Philippines to try to play hardball, since the Party might want to divert attention from the domestic scandal by making a move in the South China Sea. However, the Party appears to be mobilising all its media resources towards publicising the Bo Xilai scandal, which would suggest just the opposite – the domestic pressure on the CCP government to use force against the Philippines will be lessened due to people’s attention being primarily focused on Bo Xilai’s disgrace.

One could even imagine a rather hilarious inversion of the all-too-often-invoked (in relation to China at least) theory of diversionary military adventurism, in which ordering the news to be dominated by the Bo Xilai scandal was a tactical decision by the government aimed at diverting people’s attention away from the South Sea standoff. That is not the case of course, because the CCP is not suppressing coverage of the standoff, but i think it illustrates the point that there’s no evidence to my knowledge of the CCP state ever having used that tactic.


India joins the South China Sea party

The news that the Indian Navy ship Airavat had been told over radio that it was “entering Chinese waters” while sailing in the South China Sea on a “goodwill visit” to Vietnam may have marked the start of a new era in the South China Sea dispute.

Soon after, last Thursday, September 15, the Global Times reported that India plans to develop oil and gas, claims to already have “Vietnamese approval”. The report said India’s foreign ministry had expressed disregard for Chinese objections, saying that “China’s opposition has no legal basis”.

This story was of potentially great gravity, especially given China and Vietnam’s recent official talk of South Sea cooperation. It may have been given publicity on the command or at least coordination of high-level political figures, because it was released on the major web portals at precisely the same time – 13:58. However, it happened to appear on the same day as CCTV host Rui Chenggang’s latest episode stole the headlines (this time Rui asked US Ambassador Gary Locke whether he took economy class because of America’s debt – he was promptly set upon by China’s “netizenry”, among whom Locke is becoming popular for his down-to-earth attitude, activities and travel methods, which contrast starkly with those of Chinese officials). Probably as a result of Rui’s antics, this initial news of India’s foray into the South China Sea dispute provoked only a relatively modest 22,000-strong discussion on Phoenix, but this nonetheless included a couple of sarcastic gems, such as:

Relax, India, go ahead and extract, China will at most protest! It’s really alright, your disregard is correct! [3853 recommends]

[. . .]

I welcome India’s exploitation of South Sea oil, afterwards it can be smuggled in and sold cheaply, enriching the common Chinese people! If we let our SOEs do it the price will be even higher, emptying our pockets, and high officials will squander all the profits with the rest going to overseas investors – the state won’t see any advantage, neither the people, so what’s the need? [1197]

Most interesting was the following comment, which was attracting the third-most “recommends” as of Thursday, but which has since been harmonized:

I now wonder whether this South Sea is China’s? If it is ours why not simply take it back? If it’s not, just calm down and stop railing on about it cos there’s no point. [775]

It is perfectly permissible, it seems, to criticize the central government’s weakness and inaction in the boldest of terms, as almost every entry on this blog has documented. But to actually question whether China’s claims are valid probably crosses the line into the disharmonious, at least this time and on Phoenix (an earlier post on NetEase asked a similar question but remains unharmonized).

On Sunday September 18, the Beijing News, one of the two papers in the capital that were recently taken over by the Beijing Municipal Propaganda Department, reported:

India “determined” to gain foothold in South China Sea oil exploitation

On September 16th, the Indian and Vietnamese governments announced they would step up cooperation in the areas of military affairs, trade and investment, and culture and education.

At a meeting of the two countries’ foreign ministers in Hanoi, Vietnam declared “full support” for an Indian company’s plans to exploit oil and gas resources in the South China Sea.

If drawing public attention to this new and profound development was indeed the objective, the Beijing propaganda chiefs succeeded where the Global Times had failed just three days before. At Phoenix, the story attracted more than 2.8 million hits in just over 24 hours, and provoked a discussion involving 1,155 comments and a staggering 136,214 participants:

Extracting oil in China’s Paracels, we must surely make sure India’s OVL [a state-owned enterprise] gets no return for its efforts. Lay down some rules for everyone to follow!!! [14,094 recommends]

Do whatever you need to do with peace of mind, India, according to convention China will at most feel regret, it’s nothing you should worry about. [9733]

The bloody era of Chairman Mao is past [8843]

Shelve disputes and jointly develop? Vietnam and India jointly develop. China jointly makes speeches. [5972]

This bullying is seriously unbearable – even if the world would be destroyed, we must strike! If you agree then hit recommend! [2683]

On the South Sea issue it’s hard to put down those little countries. Now that India’s coming, it’s time to grab the turban heads and wield the ax, then clean up the mess together. [2541]


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