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.
Publication: China Brief Volume: 13 Issue: 16
August 9, 2013
By: Andrew Chubb
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.
[I spent hours on this post, then WordPress kindly lost it without a trace, hence this is a bit out-of-date, sorry]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.
Over the past few weeks i’ve counted five instances of PLA General Liu Yuan publicly warning against military conflict with Japan over the Diaoyu Islands. If this puzzled the SCMP’s seasoned reporters, who described Liu as “hawkish” in a story quoting him saying, “The friendship between people in China and Japan is everlasting,” it was positively shocking for many the Chinese internet’s e-nationalists. 
Actual serving General Liu Yuan is not to be confused with retired academic “Major-General” Luo Yuan (i’ll continue to put his rank in quotes to distinguish them), who was dumped from the CPPCC this month for being “too outspoken”.
That rationale was a bit ironic given he too has been oddly conciliatory on the Diaoyu issue of late. Not only did “Major-General” Luo categorically refute a Japanese media report that he had called for Tokyo to be bombed, he also seemed to deny he had ever suggested establishing a military presence on Diaoyu. And in one of his earliest Weibos, Luo raised a historical episode that seemed to imply that the US could secretly be trying to fool China into giving it a rationale for military intervention over Diaoyu:
In 1990, as Iraq massed military forces on the Kuwait border, the US ambassador told Saddam, “We do not take a position.” On July 31, US Assistant Secretary of State affirmed that “there is no duty compelling us to use our military”. As a result Iraq invaded Kuwait, under the belief that the US would not intervene, whereupon the US gained a great number of rationales for sending troops. From this we can see, the US wields not only high technology, but also strategic deception.
This post was originally published on the China Policy Institute Blog:
Between January 10 and 19 this year, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida paid formal bilateral visits to the Philippines, Singapore, Brunei, Australia, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia: seven countries in the space of 10 days. The diplomatic blitz illustrates the intersection of the East and South China Sea disputes, and the impetus this has given to Japan’s policy of deepening regional engagement since the early 2000s.
Six of Abe and Kishida’s seven destination countries were ASEAN member states, and three of them were parties to the South China Sea disputes. In fact, Taiwan aside, the only non-PRC South China Sea claimant state that Japan’s leaders did not visit was Malaysia, which continues to quietly extract hydrocarbons and develop tourism in the disputed area with little hindrance, thanks to its steadfast determination to avoid antagonizing Beijing.
Abe had actually wanted Washington to be his first destination after taking office, in line with his publicly stated intention to strengthen ties with the US, but Barack Obama was too busy to host a January summit. The hasty arrangement of Abe’s jaunt through Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia — he set out on January 16, only nine days after being told Obama’s schedule was full – seems to suggest receptiveness to Japan’s advances in major ASEAN capitals.
Not surprisingly, the Philippines and Vietnam were the most openly enthusiastic about the Japanese leaders’ visits. Kishida arrived in Manila on January 9, exactly one month after Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario told the Western media the Philippines would “very much” welcome a rearmed Japan free from pacifist constitutional constraints. This time Del Rosario took the opportunity to denounce the PRC’s South China Sea policy in probably the strongest terms yet seen from a serving minister, telling reporters after the meeting that the China was engaging in “very threatening” behaviour: “We do have this threat and this threat is shared by many countries not just by Japan.”
If the rhetoric sounded highly-strung, it was almost matched by the two countries’ actual actions. Del Rosario said Kishida had brought with him an offer of 10 brand-new patrol boats for the Philippines Coast Guard, later confirmed to be supplied under Japan’s Official Development Aid program. To put that in context, the Philippines Coast Guard only has 15 ships currently in service, plus 5 on order from France, so Japan is single-handedly increasing the PCG’s ship numbers by more than 30%.
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
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Relies on the mistaken premise that there has been a severe economic downturn in China since 2009, from which a legitimacy crisis has ensued.
- Wrongly assumes that China’s assertive foreign policy actions are seen as such by nationalist sections of Chinese public opinion.
- Discounts the huge strategic and economic interests China has, or perceives it has, in advancing its claims to disputed islands and maritime space.
- Claims, in the face of strong evidence to the contrary, that the Chinese party-state is unable to prevent anti-foreign protests.
- 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.