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
UPDATE FRI PM: the detainees are being released in two batches, with 7 sent by plane to Hong Kong and the other 7, including the captain and bosun, told to sail their boat back. The activist group says a second landing attempt “cannot be ruled out” (see Twitter for details and sources).
China and Japan are now engaged in their second nasty diplomatic confrontation in the past 2 years, over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. There were anti-Japanese demonstrations in Beijing on Wednesday and Thursday, and the issue is dominating China’s entire newsmediascape. But it’s the Chinese government that is copping most of the wrath of online opinion.
On Sunday (August 12) a group of mostly middle-aged-and-older activists set out from Hong Kong on a rusty old tub called the Qifeng-2, to proclaim China’s sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands by landing on one of them and raising the Chinese flag, or flags as it turned out.
Even at that early stage domestic Chinese internet opinion was focusing on the PRC government. The Huanqiu Shibao got the activists a great deal of online media attention by picking up their public request for a PLA Naval escort for the Qifeng-2 in the (inevitable) event that they were intercepted by Japanese Coastguard patrols.
Top comments on the portals were divided between expressions of support for the Hong Kong activists, and criticism of the government. Five out of the top ten comments on the 184,000-strong Tencent thread, ‘Activists from two sides [of the Straits] and three regions plan to proclaim Diaoyu sovereignty, Japan orders interception‘ directly challenged the government to match the activists’ patriotism:
“Strongly demand the Central Committee of the CCP send at one of the Politburo Standing Committee or a ministerial-level official to Diaoyu to declare sovereignty! If you agree please ‘ding’!” [28212 dings]
Following his visit to Tokyo late last month, Philippines President Aquino appears to have passed the baton of responsibility for keeping the cauldron of Chinese resentment bubbling to Japan.
Late last month, Japanese Vice Minister of Defence Kimito Nakae made the provocative comment that the relationship between Japan and ASEAN had “matured from dialogues to one where Japan plays a more specific cooperative role” regarding regional security issues.
Last week the Japanese Foreign Minister attempted to demonstrate that this was no mere empty talk. As the official China News Service reported on October 9 under the headline, “Japanese media say Japan is planning to comprehensively intervene in the SCS sovereignty issue”:
From Japanese media reports: The Japanese government is currently preparing, together with Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam and the Philippines, to establish a coordination mechanism for sovereignty issues in the South China Sea and guaranteeing maritime security and freedom of navigation.
From October 11, Japan Foreign Minister Genba Koichiro will visit Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. The Japanese Foreign Ministry revealed that Genba would consult several Southeast Asian countries regarding the above-mentioned problems. Japanese media have taken this to imply that the country is preparing to comprehensively intervene in the South China Sea sovereignty issue.
The Kyodo news agency reported that Japan would do all it could to build a multilateral framework for negotiating the international disputes to deepen maritime security cooperation ahead of November’s East Asia Forum.
Discussion of this story was bound to be inflammatory, and Phoenix and NetEase appear to have hidden the story away and/or limited the discussion threads associated with it. Among the major websites the most populous discussion seems to have been on Sina, with 20,579 participants and 916 comments:
China should propose to the UN Security Council that the vanquished Japanese be investigated under suspicion of violating international law, wantonly expanding military armaments and reviving militarism from the ashes. China should demand that Japan-the-vanquished be made to respect the protocol of the defeated, truly and properly reform and start anew, and have international observers permanently dispatched to Japan to supervise. [516 supports]
Clearly state that if Japan dares to intervene in the South China Sea, we will decisively cut off all access for Japanese ships from the Taiwan Straits. If Japan dares to retaliate, decisively sink them. If Japan declares war, we should call in the debt of the 35 million lives sacrificed in WWII, have the debt of blood repaid in blood, and take revenge. 
Have you seen! Japan’s ambitions have once again started to be laid bare. The “mere narrow strip of water” [separating us – yi yi dai shui 一衣带水], the “enduring friendship” [shidai youhao], it’s all just wishful thinking by China. 
Repulsive Little Japan, so arrogant. But even more lamentable is that many Chinese people buy loads of Japanese goods, and jump at the chance to go there and spend up, helping the Japanese economy and allowing Little Japan to support ASEAN countries opposing China, even as Little Japan discriminates against Chinese (making special demands that Chinese people have however-much money in the bank before they can go to Japan). It’s really tragic, alas! 
Japan’s strategy of comprehensively opposing China’s “peaceful rise” has been completely exposed. The country’s decision-makers should lose their delusions, abandon Mr Dongguo-type thinking.* It’s time take some active steps to deal with this. 
Japan, this country, history shows that if you don’t strike it you’re finished. 
Japan is the evil wolf by our side, from the Japanese pirates [wokou 倭寇] along China’s coast in ancient times, to the early-modern invasion of China, this evil wolf has constantly been disturbing our Chinese nation’s peaceful life, we can never treat this evil wolf lightly. 
Until Japan is exterminated, China will never have a peaceful day. 
The comments in this discussion, especially the first three, are a timely reminder that China’s strong antipathy towards Japan is often not simply the result of aggressive and bellicose “Chinese nationalist” longings for international recognition, but rather of visceral and historically-grounded fear of what Japan might do if it regained significant military power.
The visit to Beijing last Tuesday (October 11) by Vietnam’s paramount Nguyen Phu Trong, and the signing of an “agreement on the basic principles” on the South China Sea dispute, including a commitment to a bilateral rather than multilateral solution as per China’s preference, was probably a timely piece of good news from the CCP’s perspective. Certainly this caught the attention of readers at NetEase, with more than 82,000 participating in the comments-thread discussion there, though the top comments of course were hardly to the Party’s liking:
[We] sign it, [they] violate it, sit and wait for the next one. [14,256 recommends]
On territorial issues there is no negotiation, only war. 
The South Sea can be renamed the Sea of Cooperation. 
[Deng] Xiaoping said, we don’t negotiate on territorial issues. 
“What do we do if the negotiations fail?” – Carry on negotiating. Successful negotiations aren’t the aim, playing for time is the aim. 
That last comment is perhaps the most encouraging, both for the immediate prospects for peace and for the Chinese government itself. It is notable for actually showing some understanding of the Chinese government’s overall strategy in the South China Sea. But of course, public opinion (online or otherwise) is much more likely to become a factor in a time of crisis in the wake of some incident, not during happy little interludes like this one.
And sure enough, the happy interlude was quickly cut short. According to the Beijing News, Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs Genba Koichiro specifically raised the issue of the South China Sea when he met with his Indonesian counterpart Marty Natalegawa in Jakarta last Friday, October 14. The report relayed the Japanese Kyodo story that said both sides had agreed on the need to develop a multilateral framework.
In an ominous sign for the recently-inked Sino-Vietnamese bilateral agreement, the article concluded:
Besides “tightening relations” with Indonesia, ASEAN’s great power, Japan is also strengthening exchanges with Vietnam. Japanese Defence Minister Ichikawa Yasuo announced on October 14 that Vietnamese Defence Minister Phung Quang Thanh would visit Japan from the 23rd to the 28th of October and that the two sides would discuss how to respond to “China’s expansion in the South China Sea”.
On Sina the story about Genba’s visit to Indonesia “Japan’s forced entry into the South China Sea issue, claims to be constructing multilateral framework solution”, and another recent South Sea story, “Philippine President protests China and Vietnam’s agreement on the South China Sea” both provoked well below–average levels of discussion – partially due to the timing, being reported on a Sunday, partially due to the horrific Foshan toddler case, but also quite possibly because of some instruction that it be downplayed. Equally likely to have been a factor is readers simply being tired of hearing about other countries intervening in the South China Sea. The last word must go to a couple of commenters who stood out for their ironical dreams of Chinese intervention in other countries disputes:
Resolutely intervene in the Russia-Japan dispute over the Kuril Islands, and construct a framework for resolving it!
We shouldn’t negotiate with the Philippines over the South China Sea. The Philippines should be negotiating with Japan and the US over the Hawaiian Islands issue, and the Chinese government should pay close attention to the trilateral discussion, insisting that Chinese interests be upheld, while not ruling out the possibility of intervention, including military intervention.
* Mr Dongguo was a Ming-era character who invited calamity with his do-goody-goody kindness to a wolf.
Early last month, President Aquino returned from his state visit to China with a swag of new Chinese investment deals and promptly set about consolidating the Philippines’ presence in the South China Sea with a new radar station and patrol boats. (Regarding the reaction in China’s media and internet, see here.)
Late last month the Philippines followed up by staging a couple of serious diplomatic moves. The first of these was arranging a meeting in Manila of legal experts from ASEAN countries to discuss a proposal to clearly demarcate what areas are in dispute and what aren’t. From China’s perspective, this meant a proposal to clearly divide the South China Sea among ASEAN countries, in addition to forming a united front against China.*
The AFP called it the Philippines’ “plan to blunt China’s claims” (“to blunt China” in the headline).
MANILA — The Philippines on Thursday sought backing from its Southeast Asian neighbours for its plan to blunt China’s claims over disputed areas of the South China Sea and ease tensions.
Vice President Jejomar Binay made the appeal at a meeting of maritime law experts from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), where he alleged foreign intrusions continued in Philippine seawaters.
The meeting did rate a mention on the ASEAN calendar so it was to some extent officially endorsed, but it was buried among dozens of other events and there was no ASEAN news announcement. The VOA loved it (though fairly of course). But no-one seems to have considered it a big deal besides the Philippines and the Western media. Oh, yes, and the Chinese media. . .
The Global Times reported the AFP story the following day, probably as quickly as a translation of a foreign news story could pass the censors, and it quickly became the lead international story on the radio news updates from CNR’s huanqiu zixun and was reprinted on websites and in newspapers around the country.
The 56,000-strong comments thread in response to the GT story on Phoenix was, as might be expected, entertainingly sardonic:
Summon the President and give him some more money. [12,083]
Where are our forceful evict-and-demolish teams [qiang chai bu, gangs of thugs hired by property developers]? This is their chance to repay the country!!!!!!! 
Where have China’s “urban management” officers [the widely-feared chengguan], police†, officials, law enforcement agencies gone? 
Why don’t we study Russia? Use airplanes and big artillery to drive away the occupiers 
Tell him off. Tell him off fiercely. 
When it comes to issues of national territory, you want to use warnings, not protests. And clearly explain that there will only be one warning. 
Top comments on Sina, meanwhile, referenced the “need” for a Mao Zedong, and the UK’s example in the 1982 Falklands War.
Next, Aquino travelled to Tokyo and put out a joint communique with Japan’s PM Yoshihiko Noda, announcing that relations had moved from friendship to “strategic partnership”, with extra defence collaboration on “regional and global issues of mutual concern and interest”. It was then that Long Tao busted out with his latest hit Global Times article calling for war in the South China Sea.
Immediately afterwards, a meeting was held between Japanese defence officials and representatives from ASEAN. Once again, it may have been overplayed by the media and the host nation, but it was notable for Japanese Vice Minister of Defense Kimito Nakae’s comment that the Japan-ASEAN relationship had “matured from dialogues to one where Japan plays a more specific cooperative role” regarding regional security issues. The People’s Daily’s Tokyo Bureau picked up on this very quickly, and on September 28 major Chinese media ran the story that Vice Minister Kimito Nakae had claimed the meeting of Japanese and ASEAN defence officials had reached a consensus on increased Japanese participation in the South China Sea and had specifically talked about measures to deal with China’s “increasingly energetic activities”. Somehow, there were only 3 comments on Phoenix and 2 on NetEase – which can only mean two things: either comments were deliberately switched off, or no-one on China’s most popular websites was the slightest bit interested in a story titled “Japan and ASEAN reach agreement to strengthen cooperation in the South China Sea”….
* Presumably no “experts” from China were invited to the “ASEAN Maritime Legal Experts’ Meeting”. China opposes multilateral negotiations and doesn’t want to talk about sovereignty because as far as it is concerned nothing is in dispute because everything belongs to it. But China likes to keep things ambiguous, if not for cultural reasons (as Kissinger would claim), then at least because time is on its side. If that wasn’t the case, it would at the very least clarify the exact course of the 9-dashed line.
† Very surprising to see this escape the censors and become one of the top comments.