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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“You cannot not support this”: the passport saga impresses China’s online nationalists

New PRC e-passport and old version

Students of PRC foreign policy constantly come up against the question of whether the actions of the Chinese state are the result of decisions made by the centralised leadership or individual state agencies.

Linda Jakobson and Dean Knox’s 2010 SIPRI report, ‘New Foreign Policy Actors in China‘ provided an excellent overview of the range of players on the Chinese foreign policy scene. Taking a similar approach in relation to the South China Sea issue, the International Crisis Group’s ‘Stirring up the Sea (I)‘ report earlier this year emphasised the incoherence that can result from individual (and sometimes competing) agencies acting according to their own priorities rather than a consistent centralized policy.

In the PRC’s latest diplomatic disaster, images embedded on the visa pages of the PRC’s new passports have managed to simultaneously provoke the official ire of Vietnam, the Philippines, India and Taiwan.

Close-up of nine-dash line depiction in new People’s Republic of China passport

The two South China Sea claimants have protested the inclusion of a map including the nine-dash line representing China’s “territory” in the disputed sea, India disputes the maps’ depiction of Arunachal Pradesh as part of Tibet, and the passports’ pictures of Taiwan landmarks prompted rare expressions of anger from Ma Ying-jeou and the ROC’s Mainland Affairs Council.

This looks to be a classic case of policy uncoordination resulting from a domestically-focused agency taking actions that directly impinge on other countries’ interests. From the FT’s report breaking the story:

China’s ministry of public security oversees the design and issuing of the new Chinese passports, according to an official at the Chinese foreign ministry who declined to comment further.

The next day the Guardian quoted MFA spokeswoman Hua Chunying saying, “The outline map of China on the passport is not directed against any particular country.” Yet neither the Chinese nor the English versions of the official transcript of Hua’s November 23 press conference include the comment, suggesting that the Foreign Ministry remained disinclined to take responsibility for the move.

The SIPRI and ICG reports mentioned above didn’t focus much attention on the Ministry of Public Security as a player in PRC foreign policy, but it has certainly become one, inadvertently or otherwise.

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India joins the South China Sea party

The news that the Indian Navy ship Airavat had been told over radio that it was “entering Chinese waters” while sailing in the South China Sea on a “goodwill visit” to Vietnam may have marked the start of a new era in the South China Sea dispute.

Soon after, last Thursday, September 15, the Global Times reported that India plans to develop oil and gas, claims to already have “Vietnamese approval”. The report said India’s foreign ministry had expressed disregard for Chinese objections, saying that “China’s opposition has no legal basis”.

This story was of potentially great gravity, especially given China and Vietnam’s recent official talk of South Sea cooperation. It may have been given publicity on the command or at least coordination of high-level political figures, because it was released on the major web portals at precisely the same time – 13:58. However, it happened to appear on the same day as CCTV host Rui Chenggang’s latest episode stole the headlines (this time Rui asked US Ambassador Gary Locke whether he took economy class because of America’s debt – he was promptly set upon by China’s “netizenry”, among whom Locke is becoming popular for his down-to-earth attitude, activities and travel methods, which contrast starkly with those of Chinese officials). Probably as a result of Rui’s antics, this initial news of India’s foray into the South China Sea dispute provoked only a relatively modest 22,000-strong discussion on Phoenix, but this nonetheless included a couple of sarcastic gems, such as:

Relax, India, go ahead and extract, China will at most protest! It’s really alright, your disregard is correct! [3853 recommends]

[. . .]

I welcome India’s exploitation of South Sea oil, afterwards it can be smuggled in and sold cheaply, enriching the common Chinese people! If we let our SOEs do it the price will be even higher, emptying our pockets, and high officials will squander all the profits with the rest going to overseas investors – the state won’t see any advantage, neither the people, so what’s the need? [1197]

Most interesting was the following comment, which was attracting the third-most “recommends” as of Thursday, but which has since been harmonized:

I now wonder whether this South Sea is China’s? If it is ours why not simply take it back? If it’s not, just calm down and stop railing on about it cos there’s no point. [775]

It is perfectly permissible, it seems, to criticize the central government’s weakness and inaction in the boldest of terms, as almost every entry on this blog has documented. But to actually question whether China’s claims are valid probably crosses the line into the disharmonious, at least this time and on Phoenix (an earlier post on NetEase asked a similar question but remains unharmonized).

On Sunday September 18, the Beijing News, one of the two papers in the capital that were recently taken over by the Beijing Municipal Propaganda Department, reported:

India “determined” to gain foothold in South China Sea oil exploitation

On September 16th, the Indian and Vietnamese governments announced they would step up cooperation in the areas of military affairs, trade and investment, and culture and education.

At a meeting of the two countries’ foreign ministers in Hanoi, Vietnam declared “full support” for an Indian company’s plans to exploit oil and gas resources in the South China Sea.

If drawing public attention to this new and profound development was indeed the objective, the Beijing propaganda chiefs succeeded where the Global Times had failed just three days before. At Phoenix, the story attracted more than 2.8 million hits in just over 24 hours, and provoked a discussion involving 1,155 comments and a staggering 136,214 participants:

Extracting oil in China’s Paracels, we must surely make sure India’s OVL [a state-owned enterprise] gets no return for its efforts. Lay down some rules for everyone to follow!!! [14,094 recommends]

Do whatever you need to do with peace of mind, India, according to convention China will at most feel regret, it’s nothing you should worry about. [9733]

The bloody era of Chairman Mao is past [8843]

Shelve disputes and jointly develop? Vietnam and India jointly develop. China jointly makes speeches. [5972]

This bullying is seriously unbearable – even if the world would be destroyed, we must strike! If you agree then hit recommend! [2683]

On the South Sea issue it’s hard to put down those little countries. Now that India’s coming, it’s time to grab the turban heads and wield the ax, then clean up the mess together. [2541]