On Tuesday this week, Defense Minister Liang Guanglie attempted to dispel any prospect of the PLA influencing China’s handling of the Scarborough Shoal standoff by expressly stating that the military would act in accordance with the needs of diplomacy. However, for at least one PLA officer, this was no barrier to openly criticising the civilian leadership’s recent decisions.
“At present we have the diplomatic departments and relevant maritime departments dealing with this issue,” Liang said, “and I believe they will do a good job.”
Now, although the Defense Ministry is not considered a powerful ministry, Minister Liang is a PLA general, and a member of the Central Military Commission, so his words carry weight well beyond his ministerial position.
For Major-General Luo Yuan, however, Liang’s warning was no barrier to publicly criticising the civilian leadership’s decisions, especially the the so-called “withdrawal” of Yuzheng-310, the Fisheries Law Enforcement Command’s best ship, from the scene of the standoff. In yesterday’s Huanqiu Shibao, Luo Yuan wrote:
China, as a result of big-picture considerations, has decided, of its on volition to withdraw two law-enforcement vessels, including the most advanced “Yuzheng-310”, and this has been seen as an act of “goodwill”. It was one option for stabilising the situation, but the test of history will tell whether it was the best option.
The author believes, in light of high-level strategic considerations, we should not “withdraw firepower”, but should take this chance to increase our presence at Huangyan Island. We should raise the national flag, establish a sovereignty marker and build a military base, or at the very least a fisheries base. Huangyan Island should be a testing ground for breaking free of our South China Sea difficulties.
Director of the Academy of Military Science Deputy Secretary-General of the China Society of Military Science (see comments), is the military’s most active media commentator, and he has been particularly vocal on the South China Sea issue of late. At the ‘Two Meetings’ in March, Luo commanded a great deal of media attention with a proposal to declare the South China Sea a Special Administrative region, increase troop numbers and naval patrols, and encourage more Chinese fishermen to trawl in the area.
His recent arguments, ‘Watch the bullying Philippines, China is giving peace its last chance’, and ‘If Philippines dares provoke us again, the navy will attack with both fists’, have generated overwhelmingly positive reader reactions; the latter sparked a 174,000-strong discussion on Phoenix, almost exclusively, it would appear, in support of his position.
He has been particularly active in pushing his hawkish position ever since the Scarborough Shoal standoff started, and what’s particularly interesting is that he has actually started invoking the public support he has received, to buttress his argument. His article yesterday finished with the line:
“Comfortable with their mistresses, the leaders haven’t gotten out of bed”: perplexing Chinese media coverage of the Scarborough standoffPosted: April 26, 2012
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.
Readers (if there are any) may be wondering exactly what and where the mysterious Scarborough Shoal, where law enforcement ships from China and the Philippines remain engaged in a standoff, actually is. Here’s an annotated gallery of photos from Sohu, giving the Chinese perspective. It’s called “The dispute between China and the Philippines over Zhongsha Huangyan Island”.
Note: The Chinese term for Scarborough Shoal (or Scarborough Reef) is 黄岩岛, meaning Huangyan Island. As you will see, it’s really not an island at all, but i’m making the translation on its own terms.
Here we go:
Huangyan Island Overview
1. Huangyan Island (Scarborough Shoal) is the only one of the Zhongsha group of islands (Zhongsha Qundao) that protrudes above the waterline. It is surrounded by a ring-shaped reef with water depth between 0.5 and 3 metres. The atoll is the shape of a right triangle, and encloses lagoon of 130 square kilometres with water depth of 10 to 20 metres. In the southeastern corner there is a 400-metre-wide channel that links the lagoon with the outside ocean, through which medium-sized fishing boats and small naval vessels can enter. It is an extremely good fishing area and a shelter during storms.
2. In terms of geographical position Huangyan Island is about 800 kilometres from Hong Kong, and about 350 kilometres from the Philippine capital Manila. Like the Spratly Islands, the area around Huangyan is an important shipping lane, at the throat of the main thoroughfare into and out of Subic Bay (Philippines). In addition, the area is super-rich in marine resources, producing plenty of economically valuable species of fish.
3. Scattered pieces of reef appear above the waterline around the Huangyan Island atoll, each piece with a surface area of approximately 1 to 5 square metres.
4. This is the biggest of Huangyan Island’s rocks, R2. According to the relevant rules of the International Convention on the Law of the Sea, islands are naturally formed land areas that are above the waterline at high tide. Confirmed islands can be used to draw baselines for territorial waters, exclusive economic zones and continental shelf areas.
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. 
Who does Scarborough Shoal really belong to? Since it’s ours, why are we being so restrained? 
[. . .]
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? 
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? 
…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. 
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.