What’s not in the latest photos of China’s Spratly island construction?


1. Gaven Fiery Cross Reef 永暑礁 in November 2014 (source: AMTI) & Gaven Reef 南薰礁 (source: IHS Janes)

The spectacular photographs of China’s progress in creating artificial islands in the South China Sea have deservedly generated a flurry of attention in the media and punditry in the past week or so.

The pictures show the amazing transformation, over the past year or so, of submerged atolls into sizeable islands with harbours, roads, container depots, workers’ dormitories and even cement plants. The reclamation activities have been documented periodically since early 2014 by Vietnamese bloggers, the Philippines foreign ministry, defense publisher IHS Janes, and, most recently, the Washington-based CSIS’s Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.

These images seem to have a special ability to catch people’s eyes and draw attention to the issue. On my own humble Twitter feed, where most posts are lucky to be noticed by anyone, when i’ve attached images of China’s artificial Spratlys, the stats suddenly light up with dozens of retweets, many from strangers.

With this viral quality, and visual impact, they could well become iconic images that define the South China Sea issue as a whole. So amidst the surge of interest, it’s worthwhile reflecting on what’s not in the pictures. Here’s my stocktake, together with a collection of less widely-circulated photos:

  1. The scoreboard: China is still well behind
  2. The company: reclamation is part of most claimants’ Spratly strategies
  3. The history: it’s not new, and that does matter for policy responses
  4. The regional context: easing tensions
  5. The environment: an unfolding tragedy

Additions, omissions and arguments most welcome!

Johnson South reclamation - building

gacma5 Johnson South Reef (source: Sina & Thiem Thu)

1. The scoreboard: China is still behind

The photos show how the PRC’s construction and logistical prowess is enabling it to rapidly change “facts on the ground” in the disputed area. Significantly, however, it has not altered the occupation status of any feature, despite a very unfavourable status quo. Mainland China was the latest of latecomers to the Spratly scramble. Its rivals, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia, all staked out islands and reefs by stationing troops there from the early 1970s onwards. Although the PRC regularly verbalized its claim from its founding in 1949, its ships only arrived in the late 1980s — and when they did, they had to win a live-fire battle with the Vietnamese Navy to establish their first tenuous foothold.

Today, China only occupies seven of the literally hundreds of reefs, shoals and islands of the archipelago. Vietnam has established permanent outposts on well over 20, and even the Philippines has more features under its control than China, with eight. Malaysia occupies another three. Right up to today, PRC personnel have never set foot on any of the dozen or so genuine islands in the Spratlys. So while the new photos quite rightly show that Team China is on a roll in the Spratly contest, they’re still well behind on the scoreboard.

Also less amenable to photography is the competition over the vast expanses of strategic maritime spaces. The waters surrounding the Spratly islands have bountiful fisheries and potential energy resources, and here the PRC’s position going forward is much stronger position than on the islands themselves. This is thanks to its large numbers of new Coastguard cutters, industrialized fishing fleet, and perhaps also its deepwater hydrocarbon drilling technology. On the other hand, all China’s rivals are upgrading their own capabilities, and all have permanent advantages in terms of geographical proximity. It is telling that the Philippines and Brunei have managed to carry out oil and gas operations in the disputed area despite having little capacity to secure them militarily, while the PRC so far has not.

Further to the west, safely distant from the treacherous shoals, lie the region’s main sea lanes. Carrying much of the trade, energy and raw materials that underpin most regional states’ economic development, this area is utterly vital to the CCP’s prospects of staying in power. This situation is a source of fundamental insecurity for the PRC since the security of this “lifeline” is ultimately guaranteed by the United States Navy (and even if the US were out of the picture, China’s weaker rivals could still threaten Chinese shipping with their submarines and other asymmetric capabilities).

Beyond the sea lanes, closer the coast of Indochina, geography tilts the playing field Vietnam’s way. We saw this last year when the PRC’s herculean HYSY-981 oil drilling platform required dozens of Coastguard and even PLA Navy ships to ward off harassment from rolling bands of Vietnamese fishing boats armed with little more than piles of driftwood. So again, while the PRC may have some momentum, it is still far from dominant in any of these maritime spaces.

Malaysia's diving resort at Swallow Reef 弹丸礁, aka Pulau Layang Layang (source: TripAdvisor)

Malaysia’s diving resort at Swallow Reef 弹丸礁, aka Pulau Layang Layang (source: TripAdvisor)

2. The company: China’s rivals are reclaiming too

As AMTI’s Mira Rapp-Hooper noted at the end of her analysis, China’s rivals in the Spratly Islands have also engaged in extensive construction works over the years, including reclamation. Malaysia’s diving resort on Swallow Reef (my idea of a honeymoon destination, duly vetoed by someone more sensible), with its airstrip and reclaimed land, actually bears a superficial similarity to China’s at Fiery Cross Reef. By way of comparison, the Swallow Reef facilities take up around 0.35 sq km, which is only 1/3 of the size of the upgraded Fiery Cross. But it’s still around three times bigger than the PRC’s new islands at Gaven Reef 南薰礁, Johnson South Reef 赤瓜礁 and Hughes (often Kennan) Reef 东门礁, which are around 0.1 sq km. So China’s project may be bigger, but its scale isn’t out of the existing ballpark.

Much more sketchily documented are Vietnam’s land reclamation works in the Spratlys that were, as of May last year, proceeding at several locations in parallel with the PRC’s (see pictures below, and follow the link to the source to see more). I haven’t come across any updated pictures since then, but Taiwan’s defense ministry released surveillance information a couple of months ago reporting Vietnamese further military upgrades and reclamation at another island, Sand Cay 敦谦沙洲. In September 2014 a Taiwanese official told reporter Ralph Jennings high-res satellite imagery showed one of Vietnam’s landfill projects had already filled in an area equivalent to “eleven football fields”. A standard football field is about 0.01 sq km, so this too is roughly equivalent to the scale of the much better-known Chinese projects.

sinhton7 - Sin Cowe

sinhton8 - Sin Cowe
pongtongb.2013 - Discovery GreatTop-bottom: Vietnamese works on Sin Cowe Island 景宏岛 & West Reef 西礁, May 2014, and Discovery Great Reef 大现礁 in 2013 (source: Thu Thiem)

3. The history: it’s not a new approach (and that does matter)

Casual viewers of the recent dramatic photos might be forgiven for taking away an impression of a major PRC push towards asserting total control over the area. It certainly is an unprecedented effort to consolidate its position in the area. But in reality, engaging in unprecedented efforts to strengthen its position in the Spratlys is what China has been doing fairly constantly since the 1980s.

As i’ve mentioned here before, China upgraded its spartan “First Generation” outposts of the 1980s, known as huts-on-stilts 高脚室, to a “Second Generation” of pillboxes-on-stilts in the early 1990s. In 1995 it occupied an additional feature, Mischief Reef, and there, three years later, built its biggest structure yet (see pictures below). By the end of the 1990s “Third Generation” reef-castles 礁堡 with gun turrets and radars (and appropriately crenellated walls) were on each of the PRC-occupied reefs. Mischief Reef became home to an unprecedentedly large and well fortified structure that has served as a base for the PRC Fisheries Administration (including its law enforcement fleet) in the area. These were further expanded and upgraded in the 2000s, with helipads added to some.

Recognizing the continuities in China’s approach has potentially important implications for policy. Discussion continues to bubble, especially in Washington policy circles, over how the US and its allies should deter China from what some like to refer to as “bad behaviour”. Aside from abandoning such pompous terminology, the first task should be to understand on which kinds of actions a deterrence approach is most likely to work. A realist perspective might start by pointing out that assertive actions driven by insecurity, as opposed to expansionary ambition, won’t be easy to deter. However, it’s often hard to pinpoint the motivations of a particular action as either insecurity- or greed-driven, because in many cases it’s a mix. For example, to the extent that they might help China eventually control its own sea lanes, the reef reclamations could be seen as insecurity-driven. On the other hand, if they are used as bases for unilateral industrialized fishing and resource extraction, the Philippines and Vietnam would justifiably identify the motivation as greed. Then again, given China’s collapsing coastal fish stocks and ever-growing reliance on oil imports, one could also argue this too would be insecurity-driven.

Looking at the issue from the perspective of domestic politics might be helpful. The wheels of the Chinese Communist Party-state’s policymaking grind very slowly, and this suggests that long-established patterns of behaviour or carefully implemented consensus policies will be relatively difficult to deter. Upgrades to PLA facilities in the Spratlys, increasing routine Coastguard patrols, legal and administrative upgrades like the establishment of Sansha City and some other central aspects of what the CCP calls “comprehensive maritime management 综合海洋管理”, fall into this category. It would make sense, therefore, to concentrate on trying to deter more ad hoc PRC initiatives, rather than entrenched or regularized ones for which the wheels have been in motion for years or even decades. Examples of irregular or recent PRC initiatives include unilateral energy explorations in disputed waters, coercive on-water actions against foreign ships or fishing boats, and perhaps new ADIZ announcements. Refraining from these kinds of actions might require less of a reorientation of long-established policy or practice on the part of the PRC. And they are precisely the kinds of escalatory Chinese actions that the region as a whole has the greatest common interest in opposing.


Fiery Cross works in progress 1988 Fiery Cross: the PRC’s first reclamation project, 1988 (sources: ThePaper & meyet.cn

2012051712232693777 - chigua

The first three generations of PRC reef outposts (sources: various, please contact if you want to claim)

Mischief Reef

15 Mischief Reef upgrades (sources: various, please contact if you want to claim)

4. The context: easing tensions

China’s new islands have drawn renewed international attention to the South China Sea issue, ironically at a time when China’s conduct has been relatively moderate for a while. Broadly speaking, it has not made any big moves in the South China Sea since July, when it withdrew the HYSY-981 from disputed waters a month ahead of schedule.

Since that time, Vietnam and China have held numerous high-level meetings involving Presidents, Defense Ministers, Foreign Ministers and other Politburo Standing Committee Members, each time addressing the maritime disputes and pledging cooperation. They also reportedly established a hotline between their respective fisheries authorities, promising to inform the other side within 48 hours of any detentions of the other side’s fishers. All the while, the reclamation work on both sides has apparently continued apace, suggesting they may have some kind of tacit or explicit understanding that both will be upgrading their outposts in the area.

The Communist Party’s Central Work Conference on Foreign Affairs last November indicated that Chairman Xi and the leadership might be planning on paying extra attention to relations with China’s “periphery” in the coming years. This is no reason to expect them to start backing down or altering basic policies in the disputed seas, but it does hold out the possibility that China could be more attuned to the strategic risks that destabilizing courses of action carry. The widespread, ASEAN-led expressions of “serious concerns” in response to China’s oil rig deployment in the Paracels last year may have helped Beijing realize the importance of not undermining regional stability if its “peaceful rise” is to be accepted in the long term. Similarly, Xi has shown signs of a new and more accepting attitude towards the premises of confidence-building measures with the United States, and there has even been some movement in this direction.

Unless we start to see escalatory countermeasures on the part of China’s rivals, it is not clear that the reclamation activities themselves are particularly destabilizing on either a regional or systemic level. To be sure, it would be better if they did not happen, but so far it appears that they are not the kind of action that demands an escalatory response from rivals.

Spratly nature Swallow Reef Layang Layang (SCUBAZOO on Flickr)

Spratly nature Swallow Reef Layang Layang (Leander on Flickr) 2
Spratly nature Swallow Reef Layang Layang (Mohammad Al mahroos on Flickr) 2
Spratly wonderland, Swallow Reef/Pulau Layang Layang (source: Layang-Layang Island, Malaysia Flickr group, users in file name)

5. The environment: an unfolding tragedy

Throughout discussions of the Spratly reclamation activities, the effects on this near-pristine natural environment have seldom rated a mention. In aerial shots, the dredged-up sand gleams white, and the harbour channels deep blue or brilliant turquoise, but the underwater wonderlands of the coral reefs — what is left of them — are merely shrinking areas of nondescript discolouration.

Until the 1970s the whole area was, by and large, conscientiously avoided by agents of the world’s states (with the notable exception of the Kingdom of Morac-Songhrati-Meads). Even today, the entire area is often marked on navigational charts as “DANGER AREA”, due to being pockmarked by treacherous reefs and shoals just below the surface of the water. But the disastrous effects of the sudden influx of human activity since the 1970s are already becoming apparent: a recent study by marine biologists found coral cover near Taiwan’s Itu Aba outpost declined by about three-quarters between 1980 and 2007.

The Chinese authorities are probably among the best-informed regarding the marine ecology of the Spratlys, having sent dozens of scientific missions to study them over the past 30 years. Perhaps the CCP has assessed the impact of these reclamation activities on the reef ecosystems; after all, it does at least seem keen to address the threat from destructive unregulated tourism in the Paracels. But it’s sadly apparent that none of the treasures of the Spratlys pictured above and below will be spared in the face of increased military, fishing and resource exploitation activities.

Spratly nature Swallow Reef Layang Layang (Albert Kok on Flickr)

Spratly nature Swallow Reef Layang Layang (Butch Javier on Flickr)

Spratly nature Swallow Reef Layang Layang (Mohammad Al mahroos on Flickr)
Spratly wonderland, Swallow Reef/Pulau Layang Layang (source: Layang-Layang Island, Malaysia Flickr group, users in file name)

None of this is to say China’s landfill activities aren’t significant, or that the latest batches of pictures are inaccurate or misleading. But the true significance of these activities isn’t yet clear. Carl Thayer says that the artificial islands would make useful fisheries and resource exploitation bases. Others believe it might be related to the Philippines UNCLOS case. Another theory is that the islands portend the announcement of a Chinese Air Defense Identification Zone over the South China Sea. This does make a lot of sense, given the runway taking shape at Fiery Cross Reef, though it doesn’t explain the upgrades at the other atolls.

It would also be a mistake to equate China putting the conditions in place to do so with an intention to actually make that announcement at the first available opportunity. In the recent past, notably in the case of Sansha City (and perhaps the East China Sea ADIZ), the PRC had everything in place many years before it eventually followed through. In the case of Sansha City, this careful, staged approach enabled China to squeeze every last drop of political juice from the initiative, wielding it for years as an eminently credible threat of punishment for its rivals. Patiently waiting for the right moment to follow through — in this case, the day that Vietnam enshrined its Spratly claims in a new domestic maritime law — allowed China to minimize the regional opprobrium associated with implementing a provocative, long-planned administrative upgrade. If there is a South China Sea ADIZ announcement coming, the timing, context and language could offer more valuable insight into the machinations and motivations of China’s policy in the South China Sea, and the meaning of its focus on “peripheral diplomacy”.

Japan upholding the “path of peaceful development”? China’s complimentary criticism of Abe’s collective self-defense

Abe - Article 9 reinterpretation

On Tuesday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that his cabinet had passed a new resolution on the interpretation of Article 9 of the post-war constitution, such that the Self-Defense Forces can now be used to defend Japan’s allies. Coverage of China’s official comments on the matter has typically focused on the “concern” it expressed, but there was also a curiously timed compliment contained within the PRC’s response.

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Can the US tone down to ASEAN’s tune?


Obama in Asia

East Asia Forum was yesterday kind enough to publish a piece called ‘Can the US tone down to ASEAN’s tune?’. I was asked to write about how the region should respond to crises like the Sino-Vietnamese standoff in the South China Sea, and the following is just my attempt at contributing something vaguely original to the discussion. I’m ready to be told it’s naive, silly or completely nuts; my only request is that if you think so, please say so!

As Bill Bishop suggested in the Sinocism Newsletter a couple of weeks back, the region at this point appears unable to impose costs on Beijing for the kind of escalatory conduct exemplified by its unilateral placement of the oil drilling rig HYSY-981 in disputed waters this month. This is definitely worth thinking long and hard about. We also need to consider the incentives that the international situation may be creating for this kind of assertiveness, and work to reduce these.

The following article’s bold proclamation about “what is needed” isn’t meant literally; although that wording suggests otherwise, i really am not claiming to know what is needed or tell the real experts that they don’t. It’s just a suggestion, a case to be made, which is based on:

  1. My reading of how China sees these issues and its strategic interests (relatively sensitive to the possibility of ASEANization of the issue, relatively insensitive to US grandstanding);
  2. What hasn’t worked to deter Beijing from assertive behaviour thus far (the US leading the criticism of China’s provocative actions and strengthening ties with China’s rival claimants); and
  3. Discussions with some friends and experts, whose feedback was vital to refining the idea (i’d name them but i’m not sure they wouldn’t prefer to remain nameless).

EAF allowed me a generous 1200-odd words, and i ought to thank the editors for their excellent job of compressing it. Nonetheless, a few other clarifications had to be left out for space reasons, so i’m adding them after the end of this post, mainly for my own benefit i imagine.

Anyway, here’s my crackpot idea, which which i put out there to be critiqued, so please don’t hold back . . .

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“War is good, it reshuffles the cards”: Qiu Zhenhai’s taxi ride

China Anti-Japan Protests - Beijing

Instability threat: Anti-Japan protesters in Beijing, September 2012

The introduction to Phoenix TV host and international affairs commentator Qiu Zhenhai’s book, excerpted in Southern Weekend a couple of weeks back, reprises an important issue for everyone studying nationalism in China: to what extent should we really understand the phenomena that get labelled “Chinese nationalism” in those terms?

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Creative tensions and soft landings: Wang Yizhou explains China’s foreign policy agenda

Wang Yizhou 王逸舟

Wang Yizhou 王逸舟

Peking University Professor Wang Yizhou, one of China’s top foreign policy scholars, did an interview for the excellent new Carnegie-Tsinghua podcast last month (Part 1 and Part 2), covering a very broad sweep of China’s emerging foreign policy, regional strategy, territorial disputes, global role, and bilateral relations with the US.

His main points are noted below, starting with regional strategy and China’s maritime territorial disputes. I’ve just done this as an exercise to try to better grasp the significance of what Wang says; for most people it’s probably better to just go listen to the podcast. The italicized blockquote bits are a mix of direct quotes and paraphrasing.


Xi’s task: a “soft landing” for the South China Sea dispute

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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 HaijiangZX.com 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 HaijiangZX.com’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

A “strategic communication” with India, via Luo Yuan?

Luo Yuan meets the press, July 4, 2013 - photo by Ananth Krishnan

Luo Yuan meets the press, July 4, 2013 – photo by Ananth Krishnan

To those people who subscribe to this blog via email, thankyou and i’m sorry — you guys always miss out on various additions and clarifications (e.g. headings, signpost & summary sentences) to the shoddy initial versions i post. If you’re interested in the topics but find my chaotic writing confusing, i’d always recommend waiting a few hours and then viewing via the web, rather than email.

If it wasn’t clear, the point of yesterday’s typically unwieldy post was actually quite simple: Luo Yuan, and the other “hawks”, are probably in the game of military political work, rather than policy competition.

With impeccable timing, Luo Yuan has provided a lovely example to illustrate this. [UPDATE JULY 8: Not really an example at all, it turns out.]

On Thursday, only hours before AK Antony arrived in Beijing for the first visit by an Indian Defense Minister for seven years, Luo held a press briefing and told India to be “very cautious in what it does and what it says.” [UPDATE: The briefing was not about India, and Luo only commented on India when asked by a journalist to do so. I have been told Luo made no attempt to raise the topic of India. Thus, the working hypothesis this piece was written under — that this was a carefully timed piece of strategic communication aimed at India — is invalid. It was almost certainly just a coincidence that Luo commented on India just before the Defense Minister’s visit. However, this doesn’t diminish the likelihood that Luo Yuan is in the business of political communication, only that this particular action was targeted at India.]

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