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.
China’s expansion of “Regular Rights Defense Patrols” in the South China Sea: a map, courtesy of CCTVPosted: September 4, 2014
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.
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.
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.
“The whole world’s Chinese people are going”: decisive moments, and the perils of Diaoyu nationalismPosted: August 19, 2012
Located to the northeast of Taiwan, just under halfway to Okinawa, the Diaoyus have been controlled by Japan since the first Sino-Japanese War in 1895. China (both of them) claims that the islands were imperial Chinese territory before that, so Japan’s annexation of them in 1895 was an illegal land grab, and that they should have been returned to China at the end of WWII under the Potsdam Declaration.
The Diaoyus are not tiny coral atolls like the Spratlys and Paracels. They are (well, five of the eight features) genuine islands, albeit barren and uninhabited. Like the South China Sea islands, however, there’s believed to be black-gold in their bellies.
While the competition for the oil and gas resources can basically explain the two sides’ determination to claim sovereignty, on the Diaoyu the influence of nationalistic public opinion on the Chinese government’s behaviour appears more significant than on the South China Sea. To begin with, the public ill-will on both sides is deep-seated and getting worse, and political opportunists have the opportunity and motive encourage and exploit this.
The ICG’s Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt recently commented that the leaders of China and Japan have little “political capital” to spend on defying “nationalist or populist sentiment”. In this excellent interview, SKA identifies nationalist sentiment as a constraint on governments’ ability to compromise or back down during a dispute. There are counter-examples where Chinese and Japanese leaders have appeared to defy pressure to be uncooperative and confrontational, such as Noda’s government’s speedy release of the recent protagonists, and China’s decision not to send patrol boats to guard them. But the two countries’ recent record suggests this has been difficult at times in the past.
Public opinion offers an explanation for what learned observers consider to be China’s counterproductively hardline stance in the previous Diaoyu confrontation in September 2010 (itself a response to Japan’s abnormally trenchant action in detaining an infringing Chinese fishing boat captain for several weeks rather than releasing him swiftly, as they did yesterday). And the ill-will on the part of both publics may have had a lot to do with the non-implementation of a deal negotiated back in 2008 for cooperative development of some of the oil and gas deposits in the area.
Nationalist activists on both sides are true believers in their cause, so even where their actions may be deliberately incited and/or tacitly sanctioned by their governments, they nonetheless impact the dispute by necessitating responses from the other side. Once the Qifeng-2 escaped the clutches of the Hong Kong police and sailed beyond the reach of the PRC authorities, for example, Beijing had little or no control over whether the passengers of the Qifeng-2 would actually manage to set foot on the island last Wednesday.
At the same time, the PRC government has on numerous occasions proved willing and capable of preventing Diaoyu activists from making their journey in the first place, whether in Hong Kong or on the way to the Diaoyus. This suggests that where Chinese citizens’ action has an impact, a decision to allow this must be made at some level of leadership — which could be made as low as a local PRC Coastguard official, a China Maritime Surveillance branch commander or as high as the Politburo Standing Committee.
Such decisions have certain easily foreseeable outcomes (a diplomatic incident of some kind was almost inevitable once the Qifeng-2 left PRC-controlled waters) yet their exact consequences in international politics are unpredictable. Moreover, these leadership choices occur in a domestic political context, which in China includes not only party politics and ideology, but also domestic nationalist discourse — what groups of people are thinking about where the country is or should be going.
The recent episode illustrates vividly what a dynamic and contested process of simultaneous group interpretation and elite engineering ‘nationalism’ really is.
Take the above photo, for example — taken at the critical moment when the activists jumped ashore. Is the ROC flag something to be proud of, or ashamed? Is its appearance here a symbol of Chinese unity or division?
Weibo’s microbloggers appeared to see it more as a sign of cross-straits collaboration, enthusiastically forwarding it around as proof that the activists had made it onto the island. According to Weiboscope, it was at time of writing the most-forward image of the incident.
The PRC internet authorities also don’t seem to object to its dissemination, intact, on Weibo and other online news sources (see here and here). In stark contrast, however, the propaganda authorities overseeing China’s print media clearly saw it very differently to the online public, for among China’s main newspapers the ROC flag was either cropped out, crudely paint-bucketed red, or otherwise blotted out in very nearly every instance (among hundreds of covers on Abbao i found only one exception, the obscure Yimeng Evening News). The same was the case on mainland TV.
This might have had something to do with the gloating the official media have recently been engaging in over the fact that a group of Diaoyu activists from Taiwan last month waved a PRC flag to proclaim sovereignty from seas near the islands — even though they got an escort from the ROC Coastguard.
There was also perhaps the inconvenient fact that this time around the ROC authorities had pressured local activists into abandoning their trip and refused all but the most elementary assistance to the Qifeng-2 when it tried to stop past on its way from Hong Kong to the Diaoyus. According to the Global Times (English):
Earlier on Tuesday, the ship anchored in the waters near Taichung, after the local marine authority denied their application to reach land. The activists were only able to procure limited freshwater supplies.
The news on Tuesday that activists from Fujian who had wanted to join the expedition had canceled their plans due to “reasons of weather and procedure” also raised the question of exactly which of the ‘three regions’ (Taiwan, Hong Kong and the PRC) actually represents the Chinese people best. The top comments on Phoenix’s 111,000+ participant thread for ‘Mainland activists cancel trip to Diaoyu, citing weather and procedures‘:
“I know the reason you can’t go, I understand, backup is lacking, speechless.” [11,790 recommends]
“Clearly a crock of shit. Whoever believes it has got water in their brain.” 
“Such a loss of face………speechless. Support the Hong Kong and Taiwan compatriots.” 
“The whole world’s Chinese people are going, it’s just the mainland…” 
Once again, the idea of the PRC government’s rule being based on anything that can be usefully understood as “nationalist legitimacy” appears questionable. And the idea that the party-state is trying to build up such “nationalistic legitimacy” via its foreign policy actions looks patently absurd.
“This is the Hong Kong people that Kong Qingdong said are running dogs! Is he cross-eyed?” [17,489]
The other widely-circulated decisive-moment photograph from the scene of the confrontation further illustrates how deficient in nationalistic credentials the PRC state is:
This stunning image cast the Chinese activists in an intensely helpless position. When i first saw it i couldn’t believe that it was real; Photoshop-wielding nationalist students wanting to raise a rabble could hardly have done better. Taken by a Japanese photographer for the Yoimuri Shimbun, it makes the two Japanese Coastguard boats look positively evil.
But it also rams the viewer with an almost unavoidable question: why was no-one there to help?
The giant comment threads on the portals indicate that exactly this kind of question is in the forefront of many ordinary PRC people as they read the news on the internet.
Perhaps this contributed the speed and fervour with which Sunday’s protesters turned their destructive powers onto the authorities:
I knew it was incident season but I went anyway. A mistake i have learned from: from this point onward, until the disputes are resolved or my thesis is finished, i vow never to take a holiday in July, unless the destination is the South China Sea. Ten days after my return, i’ve only just finished properly studying all the recent action. The next few posts will sketch out in basic chronological order, recent developments as seen through the PRC’s major internet news media.
The establishment of Sansha City looms large. According to a keyword study of 15 major Chinese newspapers, it was in the top five most-mentioned domestic politics-related terms in the first 6 months of 2012 — a (suspiciously) remarkable achievement, given that its creation was only announced on June 21. There is no doubt, however, that Sansha has been very heavily covered in China’s state-controlled media since its announcement. The extent to which it has “attracted” this attention or had this attention ordered towards it is, of course, hard to say — the answer is clearly both, but in what proportions?
The flurry of first-hand accounts of visits by reporters began well before the opening ceremony on June 24. Beijing Youth Daily reporter Li Chen 李晨 visited on July 2, filing a story that ran on July 9 under the headline, ‘Hello, Sansha’. (The story was made available in English by the China Daily but the translation has since been taken down. It remains online here.) This was accompanied by the graphic above, with the nine-dashed line superimposed. It began:
Would you be surprised if I told you there was a city with an area equivalent to one quarter of China’s territory?
The graphic and the opening line show that the view of the nine-dashed line as representing China’s territorial waters, far beyond the officially-stated claim to the islands within, continues to be propagated through the official media. The apparent lack of desire to educate the Chinese public on the limits of China’s claims in the South China Sea suggests that the government sees nationalistic public opinion on the issue as more of a weapon than a threat.
Li Chen’s report also ran prominently in the July 15 edition of the Shanxi Evening News, but there were numerous other accounts of visits to Sansha around that time. Notable among them was this ‘Exclusive visit to South Sea frontline Sansha’ from the intrepid Cheng Gang 程刚 of the Huanqiu Shibao, who wrote that he was making his fifth visit to Woody Island/Yongxing 永兴岛. Some of Cheng’s reporting was made into an English-language article for the Global Times, but many of the interesting details have been left out.
After a three-week tour of the Paracels, Spratlys and Scarborough Shoal, the Huanqiu Shibao‘s special South Sea correspondent Cheng Gang 程刚, an experienced war journalist, filed a lengthy feature story that ran in the paper’s June 1 edition. It was titled, ‘Fisherfolk’s grief: we don’t fire the first shot, countries occupying the islands have fired countless shots‘.
It was really good reading, with loads of interesting detail, so i’ve done a summary translation. The photos are inserted to illustrate the places Cheng is talking about — i’ve attempted to link to the source wherever i have it on file, but they are taken from all over the internet, including Google images, Google maps, Panoramio and Vietnamese social networking sites, so if one belongs to you please don’t hesitate to demand a credit.
Cheng’s piece starts by describing how May is the best time to be sailing on the South Sea, because the northeast wind has blown out but the southwest monsoon and associated typhoons haven’t yet arrived. Seabirds abound and dolphins follow the boat through the glassy blue waters. “The beauty of each day is far beyond picture scrolls,” Cheng writes, “but as a Chinese person who pays attention to the South China Sea issue, travelling with Chinese law enforcement boats on patrols through the Paracels, Spratlys and Zhongsha [ie. Scarborough Shoal and the Macclesfield Bank], this Huanqiu Shibao reporter could hardly think about the intoxicating views; on the contrary, it was more regret and unease.”
At Fiery Cross Reef 永暑礁, site of the PRC’s biggest Spratly installation [and a UN-sponsored meteorological station] reporter Cheng witnesses “a certain country’s” fishermen blatantly refusing to obey instructions to desist in their fishing activities, until finally a duty vessel was sent out and they resentfully left. “Fiery Cross Reef is Mainland China’s biggest reef fort 礁堡 in the Spratlys, and the place where its garrisons are the strongest. If it’s like this at Fiery Cross Reef, one can imagine how the situation in other areas is even more turbulent.”