Luconia Breakers: China’s new “southernmost territory” in the South China Sea?

Luconia Breakers (Shan Zhiqiang blog)

The “island” at Luconia Breakers 琼台礁/Hempasan Bantin (source: Chinese National Geography, October 2010)

In a vivid illustration of how dynamic the status quo in the South China Sea can be, an apparently new Spratly island, formed by the forces of nature, has become a source of tension between China and Malaysia.

Luconia Breakers (Hempasan Bantin / 琼台礁) is just over 100km north of James Shoal, the shallow patch of ocean that Chinese people are routinely taught is the southernmost point of their country’s “territory“, despite it being several metres underwater.

As this post will show, unlike James Shoal, the territory at Luconia Breakers actually exists above the waterline. This is significant because if the PRC ever needs to clarify the nature of its maritime claims under international law, it could end up adopting the “new” feature as its southernmost territory.

Topping off the intrigue, the train of events leading to the current Sino-Malaysian standoff may well have been set in motion by an adventurous Chinese magazine team.

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China’s expansion of “Regular Rights Defense Patrols” in the South China Sea: a map, courtesy of CCTV


“….patrolling along the nine-dash line…”: Haijian-83 captain Wang Yun outlines the route of an April 2012 CMS regular rights defense patrol 定期维权巡航

One of the key aspects of the PRC’s assertive maritime policy in recent years has been the increasing presence of Chinese law enforcement vessels in disputed areas of the South China Sea. While the actions of white-hulled government boats in specific incidents have been the subject of debate, authorities on all sides agree that China has greatly expanded the frequency of its patrols there. A video report from a CCTV correspondent embedded with a China Marine Surveillance “regular rights defense patrol” in 2012 reveals the route of the patrol, helping shed light on this core element of China’s approach in the South China Sea.

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China’s expanding Spratly outposts: artificial, but not so new

China's Johnson Reef (赤瓜礁) reclamation project, as photographed by the Philippines Navy (click for source)

China’s Johnson Reef (赤瓜礁) reclamation project, as photographed by the Philippines Navy (click for source)

Here’s another attempt at what a blog post probably should be: a short comment on some things i’ve read online. It’s about the New York Times’ report this week on China’s island reclamation work in the Spratlys, which i think missed some important background context to China’s activities.

The subject, in summary:

China has been moving sand onto reefs and shoals to add several new islands to the Spratly archipelago, in what foreign officials say is a new effort to expand the Chinese footprint in the South China Sea. The officials say the islands will be able to support large buildings, human habitation and surveillance equipment, including radar.

This island reclamation is the latest in a long line of measures China has taken since the early 1980s to strengthen its presence in the Spratly Islands, which it views as crucial due to their proximity to China’s sea approaches, as well as present (fisheries) and future (energy) resource bounties.

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Yin Zhuo Thought?

Yin Zhuo CPPCC 2013

CPPCC member Yin Zhuo at the 2013 ‘Two Meetings’ in Beijing, where he hosed down talk of war with Japan

PLA Marines on CMS boats patrolling Diaoyu hatching island-landing plans…’C-shaped Encirclement’ nothing but nonsense and online hype…China planned to attack Taiwan in 2006…America isn’t trying to contain China. What hostile imperialist could be dreaming up such baseless slander, inverting black and white, misleading the masses?

The answer is PLA Navy Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo 尹卓, at least according to someone who claims to have taken notes at his closed lecture  in Chongqing on July 20. In addition to those admittedly rather more eye-catching claims, the translation appended below has raised once again (if only in my mind) the question of what the PLA’s appointed propaganda experts might really think about war, peace and strategy.

Admiral Yin is one of the most prominent PLA experts in the Chinese media, whose notable comments have included declaring the need for overseas PLA bases, sanctioning “violence” against the Philippines, arguing a Diaoyu war would be fought (and presumably won) in a “very short” space of time, and speculating about the prospect of Japanese warning shots over Diaoyu leading to military conflict.

At other times, however, such as during this year’s CPPCC, he has refused to speculate on future potential conflicts. He publicly refuted the idea of Japan and China inevitably fighting a war, echoing the argument General Liu Yuan was propounding at the time by stating that “only America would benefit” from such an occurrence. He has even been labeled “traitorous” after expressing disapproval of the idea of a more assertive stance in the South China Sea.

He is a princeling, the son of revolutionary hero Major-General Yin Mingliang, who held numerous positions in the PLA General Political Department’s political commissar system after 1949. Interestingly, he studied in France and returned in 1968 at the height of the Cultural Revolution to join the PLA. Aside from his membership of the CPPCC, he is the Director of the PLA Navy’s Informatized Warfare Experts Committee, and a member of the whole-army version of the same body. A recent provincial party magazine article stated that Admiral Yin has “participated in evaluation work for important national military strategy decision-making”.

All up, he is a relatively credible PLA policy voice compared to, say, Dai Xu.

He started appearing on CCTV in 1999, and in 2004 the PLA gave him the task of hosting a new CCTV military affairs program Military Picture Matching  军情连连看. Then, with the approval of the CCP Central Propaganda Department and GPD Propaganda Dept, Yin Zhuo obtained the titles of “CCTV special commentator” and “executive external propaganda expert” — the latter issued by then-GPD Director Gen Li Jinai.

So here, it seems, is a genuine PLA military thinker, a princeling thoroughly plugged into the policy-making system — who also just happens to be one of its most experienced and trusted propaganda operators.

Based on the following summary of his lecture, presented in the form of 30 points, it was quite a tour-de-force, with a broad scope, insight, inside knowledge and nuance (though my rough, cursory translation may obscure that).

Yin Zhuo civilian

On July 20, under invitation from China Mobile, Yin Zhuo came to Chongqing for a lecture titled ‘China’s security circumstances and the Diaoyu Islands issue’. The weather was favourable for Yin Zhuo’s two-day visit, as the temperature happened to drop from around 38C to 30C, and the air quality improved somewhat. In addition, the venue was at the foot of Jinyun Mountain, in nice surrounds with plenty of foliage, giving Yin Zhuo a good impression.

I was fortunate enough to be there. Because no recordings or video were allowed, I used a pen and paper to record the following main points, which I present as follows:

1. . . . America’s top priority in its quest to stay world hegemon is to disintegrate Sino-Russian relations.

2. America is extremely strong and China will be in a position of weakness until at least 2030. To escape the US’s pressure China must avoid its strengths and attack its weaknesses. . . .

3. America faces 3 problems, which are its weaknesses: declining politico-economic status, reduced ability to control the world geopolitically, and weakening alliances esp. in Asia-Pacific.

4. China was planning to attack Taiwan in 2006.

5. America and China have competition and confrontation, but confrontation is the main part . . . 

6. China’s national strategy is to dig deeply to undermine the US, store up grain, and slowly seek to be king [modifying Mao Zedong’s 1970s dictum, “Dig deep holes, store up grain, do not seek hegemony 深挖洞,广积粮,不称霸].

7. . . . Some within the state and within the military think China can fight a war for the Diaoyu Islands and South China Sea to break out of America’s blockade, but [Yin Zhuo thinks] China should never underestimate America’s desire to attack us. . . . China can’t rely on America not wanting to get involved, we can’t even rule out the US using nukes.

8. Productive forces are still the element driving historical development. . . .

9. The wars of the 20th century and the Cold War caused a great deal of military technology to be converted to civilian use, spurring the information industries. . . .

10. Combined together, points 8 & 9 mean have led to America’s realignment towards the Asia-Pacific. As a capitalist country its national strategy must serve domestic economic development. Therefore, America’s strategic realignment is an inevitable trend, and one borne of the need to lead the Asia-Pacific, and is not directly aimed at China.

11. The PLA’s construction programme is geared towards winning a high-intensity conventional war under informatized conditions. This is an excellent approach but has its limitations.

12. In the Asia-Pacific region America lacks staunch allies, its military actions rely on NATO or itself.

13. The Snowden affair shows that freedom, democracy and human rights count for shit with the American people when faced with actual threats.

14. There are many East Turkestan [Xinjiang] terrorists fighting with Al-Qaeda, with around 1400 having received training. This is a threat to China domestically.

15. America is being opposed on a global scale by Islamic organizations. This will continue because the US is controlled by Israel [at least, on the Palestinian issue], so that problem can never be solved.

16. The US deliberately left Diaoyu to Japan in order to maintain Sino-Japanese enmity, “like Kashmir”.

17.  The Japanese are increasingly right wing . . . they blame China for their prolonged recession.

18. Japan’s political system is gridlocked . . . under those circumstances we cannot rule out extremists taking control.

19. Economics is the best area for China to oppose the US. Make free trade agreements with neighbouring countries . . .

20. [Yin Zhuo is] unhappy with the feeble behaviour of the Department of Selling Out the Country [ie. the Ministry of Foreign Affairs]

21. Prepare to deal with Japan two-handed, we will not actively provoke armed confrontation but if Japan does then we will take a hardline stance and make them feel more pain than us in order to avoid an even greater conflict.

22. This year there have been marines on board CMS Haijian [now China Coast Guard] boats on patrols to Diaoyu, making contingency plans for landing on the islands. Also, there are a great many officers and men 官兵 applying to transfer 专业 to join them [I’m not sure if he means the Coast Guard or Marines?].

23. The [indigenous] large transport [plane] is progressing smoothly, design may be complete by 2015.

24. The C-Shaped Encirclement of China that gets hyped up online is nonsense. During the Cold War the US network of alliances, that was a real C-shaped encirclement. Nowadays the circle simply does not exist.

25. The ‘String of Pearls’ plan in the Indian Ocean is also nonsense. . . . China’s ports in the Indian Ocean are for civilian use.

26. Gwadar is an excellent port, but not suitable for building a military base due to the militant extremists in the area. We would be sending our troops there to serve as hostages.

27. China’s Indian Ocean strategy is focused on East Africa. It’s basically a blank slate out there.

28. The success of the Western development strategy depends on it being self-supporting, the Eastern provinces cannot support it long-term. The keys to making this happen are the sea links out of Yunnan and Tibet, and linking Xinjiang with Central Asia . . .

29. Our military modernization is progressing smoothly.

30. In the drawing of maritime boundaries with neighbouring countries [Vietnam and South Korea?] we have lost out badly.

I am inclined to think the above summary of his lecture is quite accurate. The lecture really happened, apparently in front of a businesslike audience of China Mobile VIP customers 全球通VIP客户, and the summary was posted online on July 21, the following day.[1]

Surprisingly perhaps, given the flagrant attack on Colonel Dai Xu’s flagship C-Shaped Encirclement thesis (Point 24), Dai Xu’s portal Hainan-sponsored website posted the summary on July 26 under the headline, ‘Rare statement from Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo: Do not underestimate America’s determination to use force against China.

That could be explained as a result of’s greediness for content (maybe Colonel Dai’s employees don’t bother to read the content of the articles they post). Or could it have been that Yin Zhuo knows C-Shaped Encirclement to be mere propaganda, irrelevant to policy? The fact that Yin described C-Shaped Encirclement as mere internet hype suggests he doesn’t consider it a serious analysis. On the other hand, it might have been a veiled putdown of a militant policy rival.

Interesting too that in Yin Zhuo’s speech the US is the main threat to China, but not because it has evil intentions, rather, because their interests are opposed. Does this imply Yin Zhuo is taking a kind of Yan Xuetong-style realist position, to respectfully disagree with the likely consensus behind General Qi Jianguo’s Study Times article in January, which argued that “points of common interest” between China and the US were likely to increase over the long term?

Some points in the speech seem to contradict what Yin Zhuo has said in the Chinese media. For example, in 2012 he wrote off nuclear weapons development as useless to China, yet here he talks about how the US might use them on China — thus rendering them crucial. He has also previously claimed that the US military is vulnerable to the PLA, stating for example that a US aircraft carriers can “definitely be sunk”. But in this lecture he emphasizes China’s weakness in comparison.[2]

What do you think — is this the capital-T Thought of a PLA princeling strategist, or is it more likely to be expertly delivered propaganda designed to look like “leak“, in order to influence what Chinese and foreign audiences believe about how the PLA sees the world? Or is it something else entirely?


[1] e.g. here and here; the first may have been this World of Warcraft forum here, from which it has been deleted.

[2] This might also reflect a CCP propagandist’s paradox: often, the more you characterize the US as a threat, the less military conflict looks like a good idea, but the less your people think military conflict is a good idea, the more susceptible they could be to the enemy’s psychological disintegration campaigns in the event that conflict occurs.

Yin Zhuo interviewed

Yin Zhuo interviewed

Radar Incident Obscures Beijing’s Conciliatory Turn toward Japan


As seen on TV…well, not quite but almost

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

China Brief, Vol 13, Issue 4

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.

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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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