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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Propaganda as Policy? Explaining the PLA’s “Hawkish Faction” (Part Two)

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Here is Part 2 on the PLA hawkish faction from China Brief, with added links to sources, and a couple of graphs from the utterly awesome Baidu Index (big hat tip to Kaiser Kuo). 

I’d also like to add my thanks to Xuan Cheng, John Garnaut, James Barker, Mark Stokes and Taylor Fravel for discussions and tips on this topic. They don’t necessarily agree with the content of the article.

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Propaganda as Policy? Explaining the PLA’s “Hawkish Faction” (Part Two)

Publication: China Brief Volume: 13 Issue: 16

August 9, 2013

By: Andrew Chubb

Rise of the hawks: searches for "China hawkish faction" by logged-in Baidu users since 2008. I'm requesting further info from Baidu regarding the extremely low pre-2010 numbers. One point that can be made with confidence is that user interest in the "Chinese hawkish faction" peaked during the Scarborough Shoal and (especially) Diaoyu Islands crises.

Rise of the hawks: searches for “China hawkish faction” by logged-in Baidu users since 2008. I’m requesting further info from Baidu regarding the extremely low pre-2010 numbers. One point that can be made with confidence is that user interest in the “Chinese hawkish faction” peaked during the Scarborough Shoal and (especially) Diaoyu Islands crises.

If outspoken Chinese military officers are, as Part One suggested, neither irrelevant loudmouths, nor factional warriors, nor yet the voice of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on foreign policy, and are instead experts in the PLA-CCP propaganda system, then what might explain the bad publicity they often generate for China? This article explores how the activities of China’s military hawks may contribute to the regime’s domestic and international goals. On a general level, the very appearance of a hawkish faction—the “opera” that Luo Yuan has described—serves the domestic purposes of promoting national unity (Global Times, May 4). By amplifying threat awareness and countering perceived Western plots to permeate the psyche of the Chinese populace and army, the “hawks” direct public dissatisfaction with the policy status quo away from the system as a whole. 

In specific crises, such as the standoff at Scarborough Shoal last year or in the wake of the Diaoyu Islands purchase, hard-line remarks from uniformed commentators serve to rally domestic public opinion behind the prospect of military action, instil confidence in the PLA’s willingness to fight over the issue and deter China’s adversary. By amplifying the possibility of otherwise irrational Chinese military action and inevitable escalation should Beijing’s actions be interfered with, they have contributed to a thus-far successful effort to convince the Philippines and Japan to accept the new status quo around Scarborough Shoal and the Diaoyu Islands.

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Propaganda, Not Policy: Explaining the PLA’s “Hawkish Faction” (Part One)

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Latest Jamestown China Brief piece, with links to sources:

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Propaganda, Not Policy: Explaining the PLA’s “Hawkish Faction” (Part One)

 By Andrew Chubb

The regular appearance in the Chinese media of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) figures calling for aggressive foreign policy causes controversy and confusion among foreign observers. The most sensational remarks usually are made by academics at PLA institutions. Foreign media routinely pick up sensational quotes from these military officers—such as Major General Luo Yuan’s repeated suggestion for declaring the Diaoyu Islands a Chinese military target range or Rear Admiral Zhang Zhaozhong’s recent call for a blockade of Philippine outposts in the Spratly Islands (Beijing TV/Huanqiu Wang, May 27)—and attribute them to senior military leaders, as their ranks seem to suggest (New York Times, August 20, 2012; TIME, Februrary 20; Tea Leaf Nation, February 25; South China Morning Post, March 6; Reuters, March 17). Operational commanders, however, seldom comment in public on policy issues. Prominent foreign policy analyst Wang Jisi has publicly complained about “reckless statements, made with no official authorization” which had “created a great deal of confusion” (Asian Wall Street Journal, July 1, 2012). In April, recently-retired deputy military region commander Wang Hongguang wrote military pundits had “misled the audience” and caused “interference with our high-level policy decision-making and deployments” (Global Times, April 20). This two-part series assesses who these outspoken PLA officers represent and the implications of their hawkish statements through an evaluation of their backgrounds, affiliations and statements on their work.

Debate about belligerent public remarks from military personnel often surrounds the extent to which they might represent the voice of hawkish PLA constituencies, pressuring the leadership to adopt more aggressive policies. Some analysts tend to dismiss such bluster as largely irrelevant on the basis that military media pundits have no operational military authority, despite their high rank. Others, however, emphasize how continued outspokenness by military figures presupposes high-level party or military support, and that they thus give voice to behind-the-scenes political struggles. A third view proposes that the hawks are the voice of the PLA as an institution, pushing the military’s policy preferences [1]. Analysis of scattered biographical information on the most prominent hawkish PLA media commentators, plus comments regarding their own work, suggests each perspective is partially right. None is a general in a conventional military sense, yet they are far from irrelevant. Their backgrounds, affiliations and positions, however, indicate their role probably has more to do with the regime’s domestic and international propaganda work objectives than political debates.

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Major-General Luo Yuan’s “real and fake” dove-hawk opera

Luo Yuan, which part will you sing?

Luo Yuan, which part will you sing?

As usual, I should be doing other things, but i couldn’t let this pass into the shadows: a chat session between Major-General (Retd) Luo Yuan and netizens from Huanqiu Wang  (Global Times Website) in which Luo says the PRC’s debates between hawkish and dovish factions are “mixture of truth and deceit, real and fake”.

An English-language summary of the exchange was published on Chinascope in May, but that excluded many interesting parts, including, crucially, the ending. The more i read through the original, in fact, the more it seemed that just about everything in the article was pertinent.

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Luo Yuan’s hopes for the masses

It starts almost exactly where i left off in this previous piece, discussing the strong market appeal of the PLA’s “hawkish” academic corps. The Huanqiu transcript claims to be a “actual record” of the chat, though the perfect, formal language the netizens allegedly used indicates that they were carefully vetted and edited. With questions prefaced by lines like, “Our country is currently situated in a period of complicated external circumstances,” we might legitimately wonder whether there were any netizens involved in the production of the questions at all.

Huanqiu netizen: China has always practiced peaceful coexistence, but in recent years our country has faced challenges everywhere in upholding territorial sovereignty. A significant number of the Chinese masses appeal for the coming of a “Flying General” from the poem line, “But when the Flying General is looking after the Dragon City / No barbarian horseman may cross the Yin Mountains.“[1] May I please ask, General Luo, how do you view these kinds of appeals?

“Flying General” refers to Li Guang 李广, the early Han Dynasty commander known for striking terror into the hearts of the Xiongnu raiders to the northwest. This raises a basic tension in China’s contemporary nationalist identity, between peaceful coexistence and merciless vengefulness and exclusion. Chairman Mao, of course, explained this away with his famous 1939 dictum, “If others do not assault me, I will not assault them; if others assault me, I will certainly assault them,” (人不犯我我不犯人,人若犯我我必犯人). Perhaps not surprisingly, that phrase became a slogan for destroying all kinds of real and fabricated enemies during Mao’s reign.

So, how does Luo Yuan view the masses’ alleged desire for a messianic “Flying General” figure to fight those fearsome Filipino raiders?

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Lieutenant-General Wang Hongguang blasts PLA pundits’ “interference” in decisions and deployments

Increase vigilance

Increase vigilance: the reasonable conclusion of PLA pundits like Dai Xu?

[I spent hours on this post, then WordPress kindly lost it without a trace, hence this is a bit out-of-date, sorry]

The April 20 edition of the Huanqiu Shibao (Global Times) carried an article by recently-retired PLA Lieutenant-General Wang Hongguang, directly criticizing the Chinese media’s hawkish military commentators. 

The article is brief — indeed so brief that the obligatory preface declaring support for the pundits’ patriotic mission does not even run to a full sentence:

In recent years, military affairs experts have frequently appeared on TV and in all kinds of publications, with the positive effect of strengthening the masses’ national defense awareness and arousing patriotism, but it cannot be denied that some have said off-key things, things that have misled the audience and been irresponsible.

Lt-Gen Wang, who now serves as Vice President of the PLA’s Academy of Military Science, made it quite clear that by “military affairs experts” he was referring to fellow PLA academics, particularly Zhang Zhaozhong, Luo Yuan, and of course Dai Xu.

It’s unusual to hear a PLA academic criticize his comrades in public; even more so for someone of such high rank. But most remarkable was Lt-Gen Wang’s claim that PLA academics’ war talk is “interfering” with the CCP-PLA leadership’s decision-making, citing the specific example of Sino-Japanese relations:

Some experts have inappropriately made comparisons of China and Japan’s military strength, claiming “China and Japan will inevitably go to war”, and that this “would not significantly affect our period of strategic opportunity”, [thus] inciting public sentiment and causing some interference with our high-level policy decision-making and deployments.

Wang Hongguang is in a position to know. Until recently he was Deputy Commander of the PLA’s Nanjing Military Region.

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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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“You cannot not support this”: the passport saga impresses China’s online nationalists

New PRC e-passport and old version

Students of PRC foreign policy constantly come up against the question of whether the actions of the Chinese state are the result of decisions made by the centralised leadership or individual state agencies.

Linda Jakobson and Dean Knox’s 2010 SIPRI report, ‘New Foreign Policy Actors in China‘ provided an excellent overview of the range of players on the Chinese foreign policy scene. Taking a similar approach in relation to the South China Sea issue, the International Crisis Group’s ‘Stirring up the Sea (I)‘ report earlier this year emphasised the incoherence that can result from individual (and sometimes competing) agencies acting according to their own priorities rather than a consistent centralized policy.

In the PRC’s latest diplomatic disaster, images embedded on the visa pages of the PRC’s new passports have managed to simultaneously provoke the official ire of Vietnam, the Philippines, India and Taiwan.

Close-up of nine-dash line depiction in new People’s Republic of China passport

The two South China Sea claimants have protested the inclusion of a map including the nine-dash line representing China’s “territory” in the disputed sea, India disputes the maps’ depiction of Arunachal Pradesh as part of Tibet, and the passports’ pictures of Taiwan landmarks prompted rare expressions of anger from Ma Ying-jeou and the ROC’s Mainland Affairs Council.

This looks to be a classic case of policy uncoordination resulting from a domestically-focused agency taking actions that directly impinge on other countries’ interests. From the FT’s report breaking the story:

China’s ministry of public security oversees the design and issuing of the new Chinese passports, according to an official at the Chinese foreign ministry who declined to comment further.

The next day the Guardian quoted MFA spokeswoman Hua Chunying saying, “The outline map of China on the passport is not directed against any particular country.” Yet neither the Chinese nor the English versions of the official transcript of Hua’s November 23 press conference include the comment, suggesting that the Foreign Ministry remained disinclined to take responsibility for the move.

The SIPRI and ICG reports mentioned above didn’t focus much attention on the Ministry of Public Security as a player in PRC foreign policy, but it has certainly become one, inadvertently or otherwise.

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The problem with claims about Chinese nationalism

Robert S. Ross built a reputation over the 1980s and 1990s as one of the leading realist analysts of Chinese foreign policy. He published a seminal article in 1986 highlighting the importance of the US-USSR-PRC “security triangle” in explaining China’s behaviour under Deng Xiaoping, and after the Cold War made a successful switch into the richer and murkier terrain of the domestic security situation of the CCP leadership and its relationship to Chinese foreign policy.

Ross’s shift in emphasis towards the importance of domestic factors in explaining China’s behaviour towards the outside world was foreshadowed in his 1986 piece, which noted:

The relative importance of domestic politics has been a function of the range of choice allowed by the pattern of triangular politics [ie. the international environment]. When the range of choice was narrow, domestic politics had a small impact on China’s US policy. When the choices expanded, domestic critics wielded greater influence on foreign policy making.

In recent years, this Boston College professor and Harvard Fairbank Center associate has become fixated on the idea of nationalistic public opinion as a singular driving force behind the Communist Party’s foreign policy.

One early example was 2009′s ‘China’s Naval Nationalism’, which argued the  PLA Navy’s modernization, especially its aircraft carrier program, was irrational and against China’s national interest. Instead, Ross wrote, “widespread nationalism, growing social instability, and the leadership’s concern for its political legitimacy drive China’s naval ambition”. This contention provoked a lengthy response from Michael Glosny and Phillip Saunders, who pointed out a range of national interest arguments that could be made for China’s naval modernization.

Ross was evidently unmoved by this critique, for in a 2011 piece in the National Interest he produced a greatly expanded list of PRC foreign policy actions allegedly designed to appease nationalist public opinion. Although there is no question that domestic public opinion, including its loudly hawkish trends, form an element of the CCP leadership’s decision-making environment, there are obvious interest-based explanations for each of the examples on Ross’s list:

  • The Impeccable incident in the South China Sea, in which a motley flotilla of fishing boats and patrol ships harassed a US surveillance ship. (Forget the undesirability, from the PRC’s strategic perspective, of having US surveillance ships gathering data on its new submarine facilities at the bottom end of Hainan Island.)
  • China’s intransigence at the Copenhagen climate change conference. (Never mind that the PRC’s delegation was led by the National Development and Reform Commission, which has responsibility for China’s economic planning and thus a vested interest against binding carbon reduction targets. And ignore the repeated studies showing Chinese people to be relatively climate-aware.)
  • The harsh reaction to the announcement of US arms sales to Taiwan in 2010. (Disregard how US military support for Taiwan stands between the PRC and fulfillment of its “sacrosanct mission” of “national reunification”.)
  • China’s repeated strong protests against joint US-Korean naval exercises in the Yellow Sea in June-July 2010. (Also cited as an example of media-driven nationalist influence by Michael Swaine & M. Taylor Fravel, though China wound back its statements somewhat when further exercises were announced in November 2010.)
  • The PRC’s lack of denouncement of North Korea for the sinking of the Cheonan. (Nothing to do with North Korea’s status as China’s only true ally in East Asia.)
  • The party-state’s overreaction to the September 2010 detention of Captain Zhan, the Chinese fisherman who rammed a Japanese Coastguard vessel near the Diaoyu Islands. (Japan’s deviation from the established precedent of quickly releasing detained Chinese fishermen must have been irrelevant, likewise the opportunity this offered for China to use its burgeoning maritime law enforcement fleets to advance its sovereignty claims.)
  • Denouncing the awarding of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo. (Liu’s jailing for criticizing the Chinese government was presumably won widespread praise from nationalist critics of the Chinese government.)
  • The treatment of Google. (Unrelated to the latter’s refusal to censor its search results.)

“[T]he source of all the aggressive Chinese diplomacy,” wrote Ross, is “the party’s effort to appease China’s nationalists”.

The same dubious list has been extended and wheeled out again in the latest edition of one of the US’s top foreign policy journals Foreign Affairs, along with a number of related misperceptions, in a piece called ‘The Problem With the Pivot’.

For the benefit of any time-stretched readers, my problems with Ross’s argument, detailed below, are that it:

  1. Relies on the mistaken premise that there has been a severe economic downturn in China since 2009, from which a legitimacy crisis has ensued.
  2. Wrongly assumes that China’s assertive foreign policy actions are seen as such by nationalist sections of Chinese public opinion.
  3. Discounts the huge strategic and economic interests China has, or perceives it has, in advancing its claims to disputed islands and maritime space.
  4. Claims, in the face of strong evidence to the contrary, that the Chinese party-state is unable to prevent anti-foreign protests.
  5. Argues that the recent protests over Diaoyu caused the PRC’s foreign policy escalation, without considering the uses that such protests can serve in advancing the government’s foreign policy objectives.

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“The headline speaks to the Chinese people’s heart!”: Zhong Sheng on Diaoyu patrols, gets a Phoenix twist

‘China needs to stand its ground like this’ by “Zhong Sheng”, Renmin Ribao, October 8, 2012, p.3. Phoenix and Sina changed the headline to ‘People’s Daily: if the territory cannot even be protected, what significance does China’s rapid development have?’, misrepresenting the article as an attack on the policy status quo.

Monday’s “Zhong Sheng” article in the Renmin Ribao set out to tell the world that the People’s Republic’s fisheries and surveillance ships are going to continue their patrols around the Diaoyu Islands.

The basic point was simple (official English translation):

Not only will the ship fleet of the Chinese Fishery Administration continue to stand its ground, but the Chinese Marine Surveillance ships will also stand their ground.

Beginning October 1, Chinese government boats have entered the 12nm territorial zone twice (on October 2 and 3) and patrolled in the 12nm “contiguous zone” every day since then. Zhong Sheng offered an explanation of sorts for the timing:

China needs to stand its ground in this manner. Otherwise, China’s territorial sovereignty and legitimate right and interest could never be truly maintained, and Chinese people wouldn’t be able to celebrate the festive season securely and happily.

So the patrols recorded each day from October 1 to 7 were probably aimed in part at giving China’s holidaying families a sense that their government taking the requisite action to protect the homeland during National Day Golden Week. The Japanese media were of course crucial to the effectiveness of this.(†)

“Zhong Sheng” repeatedly claimed that the patrols were regularized and would not go away, but in so doing, effectively admitted that China had changed the status quo on the waters out there: “Japan is not accustomed to this . . . Japan must learn to adapt to these regular actions of China.” In fact, the writer(s) even went one step further in this direction, nominating the specific date for one significant change in PRC policy:

The Chinese Fishery Administration has normalized the fishery-protection patrol in the waters near the Diaoyu Islands and its subsidiary islands since as early as 2010.

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