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%.
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? 
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. 
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).
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. 
The bloody era of Chairman Mao is past 
Shelve disputes and jointly develop? Vietnam and India jointly develop. China jointly makes speeches. 
This bullying is seriously unbearable – even if the world would be destroyed, we must strike! If you agree then hit recommend! 
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. 
People’s Daily: Don’t let the South China Sea problems interfere with the general situation of cooperationPosted: August 25, 2011
The People’s Daily’s Special Commentator “Zhong Sheng” has swung between moderate and hardline rhetoric regarding the South China Sea of late.
On July 20, as China signed up to a new agreement to implement the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, the Special Commentator announced that the era of resolving territorial disputes by non-peaceful means was over, but less than two weeks later “he” was on the front page warning the Philippines that it would pay a high price for “strategic miscalculations” like advancing its claims over parts of the South China Sea.
Now the People’s Daily seems to have changed its mind again, with a strikingly conciliatory Page 3 Zhong Sheng commentary published on August 20 applauding the “restraint” of China’s main South China Sea adversaries, Vietnam and the Philippines:
Bloomberg reported on the 18th that Philippines President Aquino, in an obvious lowering of his tone, had said “the Philippines cannot overcome China by meeting force with force”. On the same day the Vietnamese government indicated it would put a stop to the anti-Chinese demonstrations that have taken place almost every Sunday for the past 11 weeks. We welcome the Philippine and Vietnamese government’s restraint, and remain willing to deal with the South China Sea dispute calmly. Heading in the same direction remains the key to creating a favourable regional atmosphere.
Most interestingly, the the importance of properly controlling public opinion is singled out for special praise:
Territorial disputes are extremely complex, involving the people’s emotions and sometimes becoming bound up with domestic disputes. Unless extra restraint is taken, emotions could get out of control, which would doubtless result in unintended consequences.
[. . .]
Looking at the big picture, restraining impulsive sentiments, and positively guiding public opinion is always the road to finding a constructive solution to the South China Sea issue.
This message may well be aimed squarely at those within China who would seek to stir up “nationalist” sentiment on the South China Sea as a means of advancing their standing within the Chinese Community Party.
The story didn’t capture the attention of a great many internet users, with discussions involving 11,000 at iFeng and 13,000 at NetEase. Here is a selection of responses:
“Popular comments” on NetEase, from 694 comments/13,024 participants:
桜木様 Ying Mu Yang (Luoyang, Henan): I’ve fanned your face, but still haven’t given you any dates to eat, and you’re this happy…. [2400 recommends]
5人0 (Lanzhou, Gansu): They’ve talked through how it’s going to be done, the oil is flowing, and the Philippines has recently occupied islands! 
百聞不如一見 [Seeing once is better than hearing 100 times] (Minhang District, Shanghai): The result of restraint will be no oil left…and editor, if you delete my comment again I’ll f**k your whole family. 
Anonymous (Dalian, Liaoning): I now have my doubts about whether some of these sands really are China’s – what if they’re not? 
Anonymous (Zhangjiakou, Hebei): China is really f**king . . . dead cheap 
Anonymous (Weifang, Shandong): The People’s Daily has taken the bait. 
The comment highlighted in bold appears to have escaped the censors’ attention.
Popular comments on Phoenix Online, from 301 comments/11,607 participants:
minjiang138: China gains absolutely nothing yet still thinks it’s had a great victory. [3424 recommends]
为国惩奸 [Punish the traitors on behalf of the country]: The South China Sea – with the Chinese government there, you will be peaceful and harmonious 
般若齐天 [Wonderous knowledge equal to heaven]: The Philippines and Vietnam should be as restrained as China, look how restrained the Chinese people are! 
zzc_china: It only has to be beneficial to staying in power domestically, giving in to outside countries is no big deal 
Chen Bingde: China and its neighbours will resolve the South China Sea issues appropriately, America need not worryPosted: July 25, 2011
China News Service/22-7-2011 (by Tao Shelan): After their meeting in Beijing, PLA Chief of Staff Gen. Chen Bingde and the visiting Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen held a joint press conference. Chen Bingde noted that China and its neighbours had the capability and wisdom to appropriately resolve their South China Sea issues, and the U.S. should not be concerned, let alone anxious.
The article goes on to say that General Chen was pleased at the improving relations between the two militaries, though he “bluntly said that some on the American side were deliberately making trouble”, for example those congresspersons who recently met with the Dalai Lama. And, quoting the General directly:
“America has indicated many times that it has no intention of interfering in the South Sea disputes. Yet the formal and actual signals it has been putting out are just the opposite. Even though they had done it before, to conduct military exercises in the South Sea with the Philippines and Vietnam at this sensitive time is extremely inappropriate.”
The Phoenix online discussion of the story, which involved 242 comments and participation by 19,649 people, was notable for the number of readers who seem to have been impressed by the “hardness” of Chen’s comments. But the link between corrupt officialdom and foreign policy was once again on prominent display, and there was still plenty of support for Maoist anti-’reform-and-opening’ sentiment.
Wan Ye (Henan): I support General Chen. Military leaders have to toughen up. [4522 recommends]
Hu Fei (Changzhou, Jiangsu): What boss Chen said is cool. If America really likes to worry, I would ask them to send back all the corrupt officials who have fled there. But I always wonder, whether we’re selling out the country’s interest – the old wolf America never does something for nothing. Unless it’s getting a bite of meat or a sip of blood it won’t even respond. [2715 recommends]
Mainland Hawk 6 (Daqing, Heilongjiang): Chen Bingde is a real military elite. When this kind of person takes the stage, his intention and role are clear, greatly increasing our national prestige. [1706 recommends]
Xiao Cun (Shanxi): General Chen spoke extremely confidently, he is worth listening to. [1412 recommends]
Eagle Talon 12 (Beijing): History has shown time and again that peaceful methods cannot solve territorial and sovereignty disputes, and only pass on more troubles for future generations. Military means are the only way out of this situation, and military means are also the only way to great power status. The Chinese people do not fear war, and all ideas of protecting the so-called fruits of ‘reform and opening’ are just selling out the country’s territory and sovereignty. It’s the behaviour of certain interested classes, and can never represent the wishes of the broad masses of China. [1207 recommends]
Mobile Phone User (Shandong): Tactful yet still domineering, Chen is definitely a worthy Chief of Staff. [822 recommends]
Yang Tianhao (Shenzhen, Guangdong): Strongly support minister Chen. [790 recommends]
The discussion over at CNS, the original source of the story, was much smaller, with only 37 comments. One of those expressed an idea that has sometime come up in South Sea conversations with Chinese friends – that of America provoking the “little countries” like Vietnam to infringe on China’s interests. I wonder how widespread this notion really is of “little” Vietnam (pop. 90,000,000) being a mere puppet for America’s grand anti-China scheme?
Phoenix TV has brought together a highly interesting array of short video clips of South China Sea commentary from both their own satellite channel, and CCTV.
The “brief introduction reads”:
China has three strategic countermeasures [available to it]: the America card, the economics card, and the Taiwan card. ‘To capture the bandits, first go after the king’ (qin zei xian qin wang) – countering America is the most important. The economic card applies mainly to Vietnam and the Philippines. The Taiwan card could initiate cross-strait collaborative defence of the South China Sea.
The video line-up has received 23,930 ‘likes’, and 15,969 ‘dislikes’ (actually ‘tramples’), suggesting many viewers strongly disagree with the overall assessment presented in the videos, which plays down the urgency and strength of action required, with several commentators pointing out that China should try to ensure that its actions do not push neighbours like Vietnam into an alliance with the US (something which has to some extent happened already). The comments section provides some clue as to what so many viewers are objecting to:
wangdashan5658 (Hebei): [Quoting llciven (Suzhou)]: “Previous generations have told us, dignity must be fought for, merely talking is useless!!! [12 recommends]” – Looking at the domestic and overseas [situations], what dignity do we common Chinese people currently have? 
qq987645 (Yunnan): Don’t talk about cards this and cards that, other people are actually controlling [these islands]. 
wo7133998 (Liaoning Huludao): Why am I sensing the final years of the Qing Dynasty? 
ssssssssd (Anhui Chaohu): Nothing at all has happened in the South China Sea, only big-talking. It’s tragic. 
lbds (Shenzhen): It’s time to retake the South China Sea islands. 
Leader Li [Li Lingdao] (Guangzhou Panyu District): Truth comes from the barrel of a gun, let’s attack. Give the nation a bit of blood. 
Li Lü (Hebei Hedan): I miss the Great Mao very much. It was him who made the Chinese people feel proud and stand tall [yang mei tu qi, ang shou ting xiong] in the world’s orient. In those years we defeated America twice, taught India a lesson, and did not give up an inch of sovereign soil or territorial water – even for just one square kilometre, he dared to take back Zhenbao Island from the big-brother superpower the Soviet Union. 
Li Lü (Hebei Hedan): It now looks like the “shelve differences, develop jointly” approach was completely wrong. Who is going to take responsibility? 
Yi剑 (Jiangxi Shangrao): Corrupt officials running amok, unable to fight, let’s just give the South China Sea away. Others will say good things about us. 
Once again we see the CCP’s foreign-policy status quo, especially the “shelve differences” approach, under attack from the Maoist left, whose viewpoints attract strong agreement from readers. How many of these readers, or even the commenters themselves, are ‘fifty-centers’ is unclear (and even if they were it would be impossible to tell whose fifty-centers, since many agencies are known to deploy them), but we can clearly see that this kind of criticism is not being censored out by any central decree at this stage.
Perhaps more significant is that comments linking official corruption with weak foreign policy are also okay with the censors. The third comment, by wo7133998, and the last comment by Yi剑, have strong overtones of “waihuan neiluan” (“external aggression + internal chaos”), the most widely-accepted formula answering the original Chinese nationalist question: what happened to China’s greatness? Seeing China today as afflicted by waihuan neiluan appears to be a refutation of the Chinese Communist Party’s achievements, and a damning indictment of its present rule.
We have to remember though (and one of the talking heads on the Phoenix video reel actually points this out), internet opinion always tends to be more extreme than public opinion in general. As argued elsewhere, a ‘netizen’ (wangmin) is very different to a citizen.
In a side note, He Liangliang, the talking head who puts forward the ‘playing cards’ analogy in the most detail, also puts forward a theory that Vietnam’s internal problems – namely inflation, slow economic growth and corruption – mean that it might be trying to provoke conflict with China to divert the Vietnamese people’s attention. This exact line of reasoning often gets applied by outside analysts to explain China’s actions, and its possible motivations into the future.