Abe’s Southeast Asian Diplomacy: intersection of the South and East China Sea disputes

Japanese & Vietnamese Prime Ministers Nguyen Tan Dung and Shinzo Abe on January 16 in Hanoi

Japanese & Vietnamese Prime Ministers Nguyen Tan Dung and Shinzo Abe on January 16 in Hanoi

This post was originally published on the China Policy Institute Blog:

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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%.

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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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“An issue of social stability”: the CCP’s Scarborough Shoal media blitz, Part II (May 10)

Yin Zhuo 尹卓 and Song Xiaojun 宋小军 recommend “violence” towards the Philippines on CCTV’s Huanqiu Shixian program, March 9, 2012

Whatever doubts i might have had regarding the effectiveness of the CCP’s campaign to focus Chinese people’s attention on the Scarborough Shoal standoff, they had disappeared by Thursday (May 10), when several Chinese friends here in Perth, Australia — whose usual attitude towards the South China Sea disputes ranges from tolerance-of-my-babblings to complete lack of interest — actively contacted me to say they thought China was about to go to war with the Philippines.

Thursday was probably the day the multimedia swell on Scarborough Shoal peaked, but the mechanics giving rise to it were in motion the evening before.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei had already taken the encouragement of public outrage to a new level on his Wednesday afternoon press conference when he stated that the Philippines’ behaviour had “triggered strong reaction and concerns from the Chinese people at home and abroad”.

Then CCTV News’ 10.30pm Huanqiu Shixian (World View) current affairs program hosted “special commentators” Song Xiaojun (宋小军) and Yin Zhuo (尹卓), who recommended violent action (暴力行动) in response to the Philippines’ alleged renaming of Huangyan as Panatag Shoal and plans to remove all signs of China’s presence. Said Yin:

Now if they use force to remove our sovereignty markers, that is taking violent action, and we have the right to take equivalent action.

As far as i can tell, both of these serious-sounding provocations by the Philippines are non-stories. First, the Philippines has not renamed Scarborough Shoal — it still officially refers the feature as Bajo de Masinloc (and has certainly never called it Huangyan Island). Second, as the Sohu photo tour translated here a couple of weeks ago clearly shows, there are no sovereignty markers on Huangyan for the Philippines to remove.

Late on May 9 the Huanqiu Shibaoreleased a report on Philippines Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin’s May 9 comment that he he had interpreted remarks made by Hillary Clinton during the 2+2 meeting on April 30 as indicating the US would protect the Philippines from any attack in the South China Sea. After being reposted on the People’s Daily’s website (with Gazmin wrongly referred to as “Foreign Minister” 外长), this became a prominent headline on the front pages of all 5 news portals on May 10.

Contrary to at least one western analyst’s claim, among all the inflammatory coverage there was actually little in the way of official criticism of the US — hardly surprising given Defense Minister Liang Guanglie was on an official visit Washington. In fact, the official media gave plenty of play to the idea that America had refused the Philippines’ requests to step in, an approach that might well have been intended to make Chinese military action appear more feasible.

The Phoenix online video site was particularly enthused, leading with “China meets opportunity to retake Huangyan Island: will China and Philippines go to war?”.

Phoenix Online Video lead story, May 10, 2012: China meets opportunity to retake Huangyan Island, will the Philippines and China go to war?

I frequently saw and heard the line that “the US is maintaining a neutral stance” on Chinese TV and radio on May 9 and 10, and the PLA Daily stated that “even [the Philippines'] backers are not convinced” of its claims. (Here are some English-language examples from Xinhua and the China Daily.) On May 10 NetEase chose to include “America refuses to take sides on Huangyan Island issue” on its front page, just below the main headline linking to Gazmin’s comments, “Philippines: US guarantees Philippines will not suffer any attack in the South China Sea“.

While Liang’s visit and the need to downplay the Philippines’ international backing probably dictated that the US connection had to be largely limited to online media, the offline media nonetheless had plenty of material to work with. And judging by the apparent injunction to promote Huangyan-related reports, they needed it.

The May 10 China Youth Daily‘s front page headlines included “Four points about the Huangyan Island incident” and “Philippines incites population’s emotions, seriously harming bilateral relations”. The Beijing Morning News had “Overseas Filipinos to hold anti-Chinese rally on May 11″ and “Hard to be optimistic on Huangyan Island incident: China claims to have made all preparations”.

China Youth Daily front page, May 10, 2012

Huangyan even made the front page of the apparently (i’ve never read it) entertainment-focused Beijing Star Daily (北京娱乐信报), which led with, “Philippine newspaper article says Huangyan Island indeed belongs to China”.

Many, possibly even a majority, of the regional papers had the issue on their front pages too, including the Southeastern Business Daily 东南商报, City Evening News 城市晚报, the Chutian Metropolitan News 楚天都市报, and the Chuncheng Evening News 春城晚报 (those examples were obtained just by glancing through the Bs and Cs on ABBao). Shandong’s Weifang Evening News (Shandong) had one of the more dramatic splashes. The yellow headline reads “Trampling over China’s bottom line, Philippines miscalculates”.

Weifang Evening News 《潍坊晚报》 (Shandong) front cover, May 10, 2012. Headline: “Trampling over China’s bottom line, Philippines miscalculates”

The People’s Daily had a page 3 commentary, synthesizing most of the recent official Chinese comments, talking up the Philippines’ provocations (including the apocryphal renaming and removal of sovereignty markers). But most importantly of all, the People’s Liberation Army Daily came to the party with a foreboding piece that called Scarborough Shoal “an issue of territorial integrity, national dignity and even social stability“. Social stability is of course official code for popular protest (or lack thereof), so the implication was that China could be forced to attack the Philippines because the Chinese people are so angry.

This article was publicised in the main headline clusters on the front pages of all the 5 news portals except NetEase (for some reason consistently the least sensationalistic over the past few weeks), and it became the most-read news story on Sina that day, as well as the most commented-on (rankings here). The top comments, predictably, called for military action. Phoenix’s thread, involved more participants (62,000+) but Sina‘s were slightly more interesting:

“If [China is] not a paper dragon, please retake all the claimed islands that the Philippines is occupying.” [495 supports]

“Not taking active hardline measures in response is just verbal kung-fu. Protest protest protest, territory  needs protecting, protests cannot possibly address the root of the problem. What is a great power? One that can steadfastly uphold sovereignty and territory, protect its people’s life and property security, and not be subject to encroachments.” [399]

” ‘We resolutely oppose! We strongly protest!’ —- is this a dragon or an insect, we common people can tell at a glance, the Philippines understands quite clearly too. China’s current situation has gotten to the point where it is being bullied, we have been bullied for 100 years by Western imperialist powers, now even the running dogs of imperialism can come into our backyard and bark their heads off. At a time when we think we’re strong and powerful, can yelling out a few ‘opposes’ and ‘protests’, as we’ve done for the past 30 years, really scare away these wild mongrels? Chairman Mao once said, even the poorest man has a dog-whacking stick; now we’re not poor,our whacking sticks are thicker and more numerous, so i don’t understand why we’re covered in bruises and bite marks. Are the dogs just too fierce, or are we too cowardly?” [351]

The latter comment was deleted sometime between Friday and today. Why? Hard to say, given its only difference with the comments elsewhere was that it was more entertaining and better-written. Actually that could be one possible explanation.

More seriously, though, one clue may be the general lack of “treasure the memory of Chairman Mao”-type comments in comment threads of late. They were absolutely dominant last year. If the portals have indeed received instructions to reduce Maoism in the public discourse on this issue, that would support Jeremy Goldkorn’s suggestion that the Scarborough Shoal media frenzy has been an attempt to shift public attention away from domestic politics and the Bo Xilai affair.

That explanation is quite compatible with the one repeatedly put forward here, namely that the leadership is promoting domestic expressions of outrage, including criticism of its own stance as weak, in order to improve its position at the international negotiating table……something about two birds, one stone……single arrow, pair of eagles……etc. The Chinese ruling party is good at that.


People’s Daily: Don’t let the South China Sea problems interfere with the general situation of cooperation

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! [1688]

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. [1368]

Anonymous (Dalian, Liaoning): I now have my doubts about whether some of these sands really are China’s – what if they’re not? [1152]

Anonymous (Zhangjiakou, Hebei): China is really f**king . . . dead cheap [823]

Anonymous (Weifang, Shandong): The People’s Daily has taken the bait. [581]

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 [1744]

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! [945]

zzc_china: It only has to be beneficial to staying in power domestically, giving in to outside countries is no big deal [752]


Philippines to pay a price… “what price?” ask Netizens

The People’s Daily‘s short front-page commentary, ‘Certain countries have serious strategic misunderstandings on the South China Sea issue’ has created quite a stir inside and outside China. This was clearly the intention, since the commentary appears to have been republished or reported in every mainland newspaper, and Xinhua put out an English-language summary of the article.

This commentary by ‘Zhong Sheng’ (钟声 – Clock Sound), takes a completely different tone to the one published on July 20 under the same byline (discussed on this blog here), which was titled ‘The South China Sea problems cannot possibly be solved without a good environment’ and argued that “the time of using non-peaceful means to resolve territorial disputes has passed”. ‘Zhong Sheng’ takes aim at the Philippines for its construction of an army shelter on Feixin/Flat Island, one of the Spratly islands it occupies:

The “peace agreement” is obviously just a cheap trick by Manila. What happened on Feixin Island a few days ago shows that what the Philippines says and does are two different things, and that Manila clearly lacks sincerity in resolving the South China Sea issues peacefully.

. . .

The Philippines’ actions not only violate Chinese territorial sovereignty, they also ruin ASEAN’s position.

The article concludes with the ominous warning that the Chinese and international media picked up on:

All sides must be awake to the fact that China’s principled position does not mean it can casually allow other countries to opportunistically “nibble” at its territory. Those who make serious strategic misjudgements on this issue will pay the appropriate price.

Far from dousing down public anger over recent events in the South China Sea, as it did on July 20, those in charge of the People’s Daily now appear to be consciously directing the Chinese people’s attention towards the issue. A ready explanation for this is offered by the Wenzhou high-speed rail crash that took place in the interim, and which turned the blowtorch of critical attention on the Party. As it tries to dampen down the frenzy of chatter and speculation about the causes of the disaster in Wenzhou, the Party may deploying be the very same process of “misdirection” or “shifting the people’s focus” (zhuanyi renmin de shixian) that He Liangliang says Vietnam is deploying in its escalation of the South China dispute.

However, if the aim of the article was to direct public outrage away from the CCP and towards the Philippines, it doesn’t seem to have worked very well, judging by the following most-recommended comments on the story on Phoenix Online.

“Hottest comments” from 25,154 participants/663 comments as at August 4, 2011, 6.00pm BJ:

湖 南山东人 [Hunan Shandongese] (Wenzhou, Zhejiang): If the little Filipinos’ [/nobodies' 小非] brains are any good at all, they will listen to the subtext of this article, which says that backing off is the only wise course of action. Many things in this world cannot be solved by persuasion. China has a saying, “even the worst child fears the big stick”, and this could be very usefully applied to the Philippines and Vietnam. For them, if their morals are not up to the task, let us meet on the battlefield. [5218 recommends]

gmgb (Zibo, Shandong): By not acting when it should have China has missed a good opportunity, every day talking about how “this or that island is ours” while not a single one of the countries around us supports this. Heixiazi Island [on the northeastern border with Russia] – we’ll take half of that. There’s a large swath of territory that’s subject to unresolved disputes with India, and getting back the Diaoyu Islands is looking even more difficult. Reality has shown that “shelve differences, develop jointly” is unworkable, and this is the bad consequence of not acting when one should act. [3801 recommends]

天 地神人 [God of Heaven and Earth] (Nanning, Guangxi): The signing of the “guidelines” [with ASEAN in July] marks the latest of China’s unequal treaties. Since the South Sea is Chinese territory, on what basis are ASEAN countries deciding on rules of conduct? If China signs the “guidelines”, that means accepting that the South Sea is not Chinese territory, but rather an area of sea whose ownership is undecided. [3012 recommends]

asqcc (Wuhan, Hubei): What have China’s specific actions been? China’s intrinsic domains cannot be lost from the hands of this generation! We will not be sinners of history! [2222 recommends]

刚 才 [Just Now] (Pingxiang, Jiangxi): Who will recognize the authority of a rising great power that does not verify its capabilities through military force? When even a third-rate little country like the Philippines dares to break ground on the regional boss’s [太岁] head, what sort of regional boss are you? [1631 recommends]

易水寒禅 (Yunnan): “Those who make serious strategic misjudgements on this issue will pay the appropriate price.” What price is the Philippines paying? At this point I can’t see any! [1237 recommends]

Deal1 [奈何1] (Zhejiang): They have occupied it for more than 30 years, their judgement is perfectly correct, you don’t dare do anything~ [1049 recommends]

If the Communist Party leaders really do monitor internet opinion as they say they do, they must have been able to predict the kinds of responses above – the comments translated on this blog suggest that many netizens have long been frustrated and even embarrassed by the Chinese government’s strategy, seeing it as all talk and no action. The most-supported comment on iFeng in the wake of China’s agreement with ASEAN and the subsequent news story about the five Filipino MPs’ visit to a disputed island expressed the view that in the absence of genuine actions aimed at recovering the “lost” islands, the government’s menacing words were making China a laughing stock. An alternative explanation might imagine the writers or sponsors of the article as intending to provoke public criticism of the policy status quo. This could only help the cause of any potential leftist/Maoist or conservative forces aiming to increase their influence through the 2012 leadership transition. Is the notion of Party hardliners whipping up criticism of the Party status quo a crackpot theory or a plausible explanation?


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