Who does Major-General Luo Yuan speak for?

On Tuesday this week, Defense Minister Liang Guanglie attempted to dispel any prospect of the PLA influencing China’s handling of the Scarborough Shoal standoff by expressly stating that the military would act in accordance with the needs of diplomacy. However, for at least one PLA officer, this was no barrier to openly criticising the civilian leadership’s recent decisions.

“At present we have the diplomatic departments and relevant maritime departments dealing with this issue,” Liang said, “and I believe they will do a good job.”

Now, although the Defense Ministry is not considered a powerful ministry, Minister Liang is a PLA general, and a member of the Central Military Commission, so his words carry weight well beyond his ministerial position.

For Major-General Luo Yuan, however, Liang’s warning was no barrier to publicly criticising the civilian leadership’s decisions, especially the the so-called “withdrawal” of Yuzheng-310, the Fisheries Law Enforcement Command’s best ship, from the scene of the standoff. In yesterday’s Huanqiu Shibao, Luo Yuan wrote:

China, as a result of big-picture considerations, has decided, of its on volition to withdraw two law-enforcement vessels, including the most advanced “Yuzheng-310”, and this has been seen as an act of “goodwill”. It was one option for stabilising the situation, but the test of history will tell whether it was the best option.

The author believes, in light of high-level strategic considerations, we should not “withdraw firepower”, but should take this chance to increase our presence at Huangyan Island. We should raise the national flag, establish a sovereignty marker and build a military base, or at the very least a fisheries base. Huangyan Island should be a testing ground for breaking free of our South China Sea difficulties.

Luo, the Director of the Academy of Military Science Deputy Secretary-General of the China Society of Military Science (see comments), is the military’s most active media commentator, and he has been particularly vocal on the South China Sea issue of late. At the ‘Two Meetings’ in March, Luo commanded a great deal of media attention with a proposal to declare the South China Sea a Special Administrative region, increase troop numbers and naval patrols, and encourage more Chinese fishermen to trawl in the area.

His recent arguments, ‘Watch the bullying Philippines, China is giving peace its last chance’, and  ‘If Philippines dares provoke us again, the navy will attack with both fists’, have generated overwhelmingly positive reader reactions; the latter sparked a 174,000-strong discussion on Phoenix, almost exclusively, it would appear, in support of his position.

He has been particularly active in pushing his hawkish position ever since the Scarborough Shoal standoff started, and what’s particularly interesting is that he has actually started invoking the public support he has received, to buttress his argument. His article yesterday finished with the line:

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“Comfortable with their mistresses, the leaders haven’t gotten out of bed”: perplexing Chinese media coverage of the Scarborough standoff

Yuzheng-310 – the PRC Fisheries Law Enforcement Command ship at the centre of a wave of domestic criticism of the Chinese government

It’s one of the great puzzles of Chinese foreign policy in the 21st century, and particularly when it comes to the PRC’s behaviour in the South China Sea: which of China’s actions are co-ordinated, intentional, directed by the central leadership – and which are the result of individual agencies, political factions, and other actors in competition for resources or policy supremacy?

The International Crisis Group released a report on Monday this week emphasising the former, the “lack of coordination among Chinese government agencies” leading to an incoherent policy on the South China Sea. The same day, James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara of the US Naval War College published a piece that argued China’s “small-stick diplomacy” strategy in the dispute – principally the use of civilian maritime law enforcement agencies – is likely to succeed.

One of the problems is there are very limited ways of working out what’s actually going on, and one of the principal windows we do have is the Chinese mass media, including online media like news portals, the content of which we know to be shaped by the directives of the State Council Information Office and Ministry(s) of Propaganda. However, the Chinese mass media also operate to a large degree on commercial premises, so it’s a constant challenge to work out whether their coverage is best explained by sensationalism or political direction.

Watching the PRC’s media coverage of the Scarborough Shoal standoff over the past couple of weeks has been nothing short of bewildering. In one particularly strange example this week, the China Youth Daily, online news portals, and decision-makers combined to create a veritable firestorm of outrage against the government – all based on what appear to be false reporting.

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