In lieu of normal posts (working hard to wrap up my thesis) i’m going to try taking this blog back to where it began, sharing some of the quick summary translations i do for my own purposes. They’ll be mainly Chinese media and commentary that hasn’t been reported in English. I’ll let the pieces speak for themselves, but i’d love to hear any readers’ thoughts and analysis.
The first is an op-ed from the Huanqiu Shibao on Sunday (June 12), regarding events at the Shangri-la Dialogue. Most of the article addresses US Defense Secretary Carter’s reiteration of his “Great Wall of self-isolation” line, but it also raises the strong statements on the South China Sea issue from the French Defense Minister. The latter appears to have been the basis for the striking headline, which propelled the story to the top of the agenda over at Sina and Baidu on Sunday, and onto front pages elsewhere online.
When the Great Wall meets US aircraft carrier
(original headline from print version)
Widely reposted (under the “Eight-Nation Army” headline) – top headline on Baidu News, Sina News, front page on HQW, QQ, etc.
By Liu Zhixun, fellow of the Renmin University Chongyang Financial Research Institute.
Liu frames the story as a series of “thankyous” to Ashton Carter for using his Great Wall analogy at Shangri-la, because, first of all, the Great Wall is evidence of China’s thousands of years of purely defensive strategy.
“The reason we ought to thank Mr Carter is that he has given China the best opportunity to talk about history, to tell its story. At the same time, Mr Carter’s use of the correct analogy of the the Great Wall shows the world that everything China does in the South China Sea is merely building a Great Wall, and a Great Wall’s only function is defensive.”
Aircraft carriers are “not only the strongest weapon of attack, they are also an extension of territory” — so when US aircraft carriers meet the “Great Wall” in the South China Sea, the US’s aggressive intent is laid bare. In a line picked up as the headline in the print version, Liu likens the encounter to a scholar-official meeting a soldier in ancient China, ie. civilization and reasonableness against brute force (秀才遇见兵，有理说不清). “US aircraft carriers cruising the South China Sea are clearly not there to take in the view, but to show off and cause trouble, to give a demonstration of America’s military power.”
The Great Wall also, according to Liu, shows the unconquerability of the Chinese nation (民族). “Because, a nation that can construct a 10,000-li wall is a nation that can overcome 1,000 difficulties and 10,000 dangers, a nation that no force can conquer.”
However, contrary to what Carter said, the Great Wall was absolutely not a building of self-isolation and “defense is absolutely not a synonym for isolation.” To prove this, Liu offers Carter and his Huanqiu readers a lesson in European history:
“Whether in Germany, Rome, or any number of northern European countries, you can everywhere find principalities and city states that flourished whilst protected by city walls. There is no historian or military expert in the world who could describe these cities as ‘self-isolated’. On the contrary, people give the historical function and cultural contributions of these buildings high appraisals and respect.”
“…In passing through these ancient city walls, history becomes closer and more friendly. Because they became the best textbook linking together nations with different histories, cultures and beliefs.”
Liu says China should also thank Carter for showing its young people the US’s true “bandit logic” and “hoodlum behaviour”, thereby disabusing them of any unhelpful admiration they might have had for America.
“Mr Carter has greatly helped China’s media, or China’s propaganda organs: making China’s young people treasure the importance of national unity and the urgency of state power.”
Liu concludes by stating that other western countries have been “talking nonsense 妄言” about sending ships to the South China Sea.
“Some experts have made preliminary calculations that a new “Eight-Nation Alliance” may emerge in the South China Sea. If this situation really does appear, it will carry enormous warning to the world and China: people will not forget the great powers’ invasions of China in the 19th century, and the harm they caused China. If this history is repeated, Carter will be remembered in history as an inglorious character.
“China’s Great Wall is impassable, indestructible, indispensable defensive bottom line, and no one in the world should underestimate or overlook the strength and power of China’s Great Wall.”
But Liu finishes by noting that there is “reason to believe” China and America have the ability to prevent the occurrence of a destructive conflict.
On June 25, China’s Maritime Safety Administration announced the gargantuan drilling rig HYSY-981 had returned to the South China Sea for more drilling operations, raising concerns of a return of the serious on-water clashes last year.
Here we go again was a widespread sentiment on Twitter. The apparent expectations of impending repeat showdown appear to result in part from the headline of a widely-shared Reuters story, ‘China moves controversial oil rig back towards Vietnam coast‘. This might be technically correct (i’m not sure exactly where the rig was before) but this year’s situation is quite different to last year’s.
Serious on-water confrontation is unlikely this time around because the rig is positioned in a much less controversial area. It is a similar distance from the Vietnamese coast (~110nm) but much further from the disputed Paracel Islands (~85nm), and much closer to the undisputed Chinese territory of Hainan (~70nm, compared to more than 185nm in 2014).
As explained below, the parallels between this area and others where China has objected — sometimes by coercive means — to Vietnamese oil and gas activities, make the latest move a good opportunity to grasp an important aspect of the PRC’s position in these disputes, and pin down some of its inconsistencies.
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.
Below is a piece published at The Diplomat, running through what the “status quo” is in the South China Sea, and the difficulties encountered in trying to define it. Aside from identifying some key metrics of the current situation in the disputed area, the aim was generate some debate, or at least second thoughts, about the usefulness of the “status quo” as a normative standard. The concept has proved useful in diplomacy over Taiwan, Korea and elsewhere, and (arguably) in international relations theory. But given the complex, watery nature of the South China Sea dispute, i argue it’s not likely to help in establishing the kind of clear-cut, universally recognized standards the region needs to forestall escalation there.
The term’s broad-brush vagueness – it simply means “the existing situation” – may make it appealing for practitioners of diplomacy, but the lack of clarity limits its usefulness as an analytic tool. More troublingly, being such an all-encompassing term, its use as a normative standard is inevitably selective, resulting in inconsistencies that risk breeding misunderstanding and mistrust. Unless used with care and nuance, it is a term that is more likely to undermine than underpin a “rules-based order” in maritime Asia.
The U.S. position on the East and South China Sea disputes, as Defense Secretary Ash Carter and other officials have frequently reiterated in recent months, is that it opposes changes to the status quo made through force or coercion. Senior U.S. military and civilian officials have used this standard formulation frequently since mid-2013, most prominently in relation to the PRC’s East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), and its well-publicized island-construction project in the South China Sea.
Claimants in the disputed seas have also embraced the idea of defending the status quo from Chinese advances. The leaders of Japan and the Philippines on June 4 affirmed their opposition to “unilateral attempts to changes the status quo.” Vietnam maintains a slightly subtler position that stops short of outright opposition, as typified by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s call for countries to refrain from “actions that would complicate the situation and change the status quo of rocks and shoals.”
Somehow i’ve omitted to mention the report released in November on my first survey of Chinese public opinion on the country’s maritime disputes: Exploring China’s ‘Maritime Consciousness’: public opinion on the South and East China Sea disputes.
If you’re reading this blog you would probably have come across the report already. But since it’s based on on 1,413 conversations on the South China Sea and Diaoyu disputes, it probably does warrant a mention on this blog.
I’m doing a presentation and panel discussion on the report today (Monday, March 2) at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, which Canberra-based readers may be interested in. I think the RSVP date has passed, but it’s probably a case of the more the merrier so if you’re keen i suggest clicking the link and getting in contact with ASPI.
Also based on the survey, a recent piece published on the University of Nottingham’s excellent China Policy Institute blog, as part of a special issue on nationalism in Asia. My contribution to that below:
China Policy Institute Blog, February 3, 2015
By Andrew Chubb
Few terms in public political discourse are as contested, contradictory and downright slippery as nationalism. Deployed to describe an enormous variety of social movements, ideologies, popular attitudes, mass sentiments, elite policy agendas and even consumption patterns, use of the word carries with it a risk of stringing together superficially related phenomena with very different causes under the same label. The recently released results of a survey on the South and East China Sea disputes offer further reason for caution when approaching Chinese public opinion through the lens of nationalism.
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:
- The scoreboard: China is still well behind
- The company: reclamation is part of most claimants’ Spratly strategies
- The history: it’s not new, and that does matter for policy responses
- The regional context: easing tensions
- The environment: an unfolding tragedy
Additions, omissions and arguments most welcome!