Here’s another attempt at what a blog post probably should be: a short comment on some things i’ve read online. It’s about the New York Times’ report this week on China’s island reclamation work in the Spratlys, which i think missed some important background context to China’s activities.
The subject, in summary:
China has been moving sand onto reefs and shoals to add several new islands to the Spratly archipelago, in what foreign officials say is a new effort to expand the Chinese footprint in the South China Sea. The officials say the islands will be able to support large buildings, human habitation and surveillance equipment, including radar.
This island reclamation is the latest in a long line of measures China has taken since the early 1980s to strengthen its presence in the Spratly Islands, which it views as crucial due to their proximity to China’s sea approaches, as well as present (fisheries) and future (energy) resource bounties.
Last week the New York Times ran a story on how Ling Jihua’s attempt to cover up his son’s death in that Ferrari crash may have severely weakened Hu Jintao’s position during this year’s CCP leadership transition.
It might just be me and my island-centricness, but this story certainly didn’t seem to be following the inverted-pyramid rule, for only those readers who persisted to the very last paragraph (or read the Sinocism China Newsletter) would have learned that:
By September, party insiders said, Mr. Hu was so strained by the Ling affair and the leadership negotiations that he seemed resigned to yielding power. As Mr. Hu’s influence faded, Mr. Xi began taking charge of military affairs, including a group coordinating China’s response to the escalating row with Japan over disputed islands.
Given both the vital role Ling had played in managing the logistics of the General Secretary’s day-to-day activities, and the likely emotional toll of the death of a close associate’s son, this idea of a Human Jintao feeling the pinch is logical enough.
Although the Times‘ sources say Ling’s replacement as CCP General Office Director, Li Zhanshu, arrived in July, the public announcement of Ling’s reassignment from the post was only made on September 1. Then Noda reached his agreement with the Kurihara family to make the purchase on September 4. Could all this explain Xi Jinping’s lack of a public appearance between September 2 and September 12? If i were gearing up to take over as CCP General Secretary in a few months’ time and then found myself taking charge of the country’s response to a rapidly-escalating crisis, i’d have trouble finding time for photo ops.
“The headline speaks to the Chinese people’s heart!”: Zhong Sheng on Diaoyu patrols, gets a Phoenix twistPosted: October 10, 2012
Monday’s “Zhong Sheng” article in the Renmin Ribao set out to tell the world that the People’s Republic’s fisheries and surveillance ships are going to continue their patrols around the Diaoyu Islands.
The basic point was simple (official English translation):
Not only will the ship fleet of the Chinese Fishery Administration continue to stand its ground, but the Chinese Marine Surveillance ships will also stand their ground.
Beginning October 1, Chinese government boats have entered the 12nm territorial zone twice (on October 2 and 3) and patrolled in the 12nm “contiguous zone” every day since then. Zhong Sheng offered an explanation of sorts for the timing:
China needs to stand its ground in this manner. Otherwise, China’s territorial sovereignty and legitimate right and interest could never be truly maintained, and Chinese people wouldn’t be able to celebrate the festive season securely and happily.
So the patrols recorded each day from October 1 to 7 were probably aimed in part at giving China’s holidaying families a sense that their government taking the requisite action to protect the homeland during National Day Golden Week. The Japanese media were of course crucial to the effectiveness of this.(†)
“Zhong Sheng” repeatedly claimed that the patrols were regularized and would not go away, but in so doing, effectively admitted that China had changed the status quo on the waters out there: “Japan is not accustomed to this . . . Japan must learn to adapt to these regular actions of China.” In fact, the writer(s) even went one step further in this direction, nominating the specific date for one significant change in PRC policy:
The Chinese Fishery Administration has normalized the fishery-protection patrol in the waters near the Diaoyu Islands and its subsidiary islands since as early as 2010.
After a three-week tour of the Paracels, Spratlys and Scarborough Shoal, the Huanqiu Shibao‘s special South Sea correspondent Cheng Gang 程刚, an experienced war journalist, filed a lengthy feature story that ran in the paper’s June 1 edition. It was titled, ‘Fisherfolk’s grief: we don’t fire the first shot, countries occupying the islands have fired countless shots‘.
It was really good reading, with loads of interesting detail, so i’ve done a summary translation. The photos are inserted to illustrate the places Cheng is talking about — i’ve attempted to link to the source wherever i have it on file, but they are taken from all over the internet, including Google images, Google maps, Panoramio and Vietnamese social networking sites, so if one belongs to you please don’t hesitate to demand a credit.
Cheng’s piece starts by describing how May is the best time to be sailing on the South Sea, because the northeast wind has blown out but the southwest monsoon and associated typhoons haven’t yet arrived. Seabirds abound and dolphins follow the boat through the glassy blue waters. “The beauty of each day is far beyond picture scrolls,” Cheng writes, “but as a Chinese person who pays attention to the South China Sea issue, travelling with Chinese law enforcement boats on patrols through the Paracels, Spratlys and Zhongsha [ie. Scarborough Shoal and the Macclesfield Bank], this Huanqiu Shibao reporter could hardly think about the intoxicating views; on the contrary, it was more regret and unease.”
At Fiery Cross Reef 永暑礁, site of the PRC’s biggest Spratly installation [and a UN-sponsored meteorological station] reporter Cheng witnesses “a certain country’s” fishermen blatantly refusing to obey instructions to desist in their fishing activities, until finally a duty vessel was sent out and they resentfully left. “Fiery Cross Reef is Mainland China’s biggest reef fort 礁堡 in the Spratlys, and the place where its garrisons are the strongest. If it’s like this at Fiery Cross Reef, one can imagine how the situation in other areas is even more turbulent.”
The Philippines’ largest warship was engaged in a tense standoff with Chinese surveillance vessels Wednesday at a disputed South China Sea shoal, after the ship attempted to arrest Chinese fishermen but was blocked by the surveillance craft.
The “warship” in question is the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, the former US coastguard cutter transferred to the Philippines Navy last year and commissioned in December. That the Philippines is already making “good” use of it does not bode well for the future. But back to the incident:
The current standoff began Sunday when a Philippine navy surveillance plane sighted eight Chinese fishing vessels anchored in a lagoon at Scarborough, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs said [. . .]
On Tuesday, Filipino sailors from the warship boarded the Chinese vessels for an inspection, discovering large amounts of illegally collected coral, giant clams and live sharks inside the first boat, the department said in a statement.
Two Chinese maritime surveillance ships, identified as Zhonggou Haijian 75 and Zhonggou Haijian 84, later approached and positioned themselves between the Philippine warship and the Chinese fishing vessels “thus preventing the arrests of the erring Chinese fishermen,” the statement said.
Philippine Foreign Affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez said Wednesday that the situation at the shoal “has not changed as of this morning. There’s a standoff.”
The big 5 Chinese news portals all have the story on their front page, though there is some variation in prominence. NetEase has it in the prime “cover photo” position (the photo above), accompanied by the caption: “Philippines Navy arrests Chinese fishermen at gunpoint at Scarborough Island”, which links to a gallery of photos related to the incident. Phoenix is keeping it among the big headlines at the top, and the other three have let it slip down into the top layer of small headlines.
As far as i can see from my cursory readings, the news that the Philippines has ruled out the use of force and agreed to resolve the situation diplomatically has not been widely reported yet in China.
The top few comments from the 35,000-strong thread attached to NetEase’s photo gallery:
We don’t need surveillance vessels, we need navy vessels (administrator, won’t you please have just enough conscience to display my comment?) [8,495 recommends]
Using maritime surveillance vessels for coastal defence, China really is unique. 
Who does Scarborough Shoal really belong to? Since it’s ours, why are we being so restrained? 
[. . .]
After I read this I was angry at first, but then I thought: if it’s this hard for me to find a place to rest my body, if I’ll work for a lifetime and still not afford a snail’s home to keep the wind and rain out, every day suffering high prices yet not being able to eat anything safely, stress levels that make me think about suicide every day, can’t afford to see a doctor, can’t afford a house, don’t dare consume,,,,,,,,,,,,,,fearing that what money I can save won’t feed a family…. What do I care who owns the South China Sea, whether Little Japan gets given the Diaoyu Islands? 
In the world outside China, the use of China Maritime Surveillance, rather than the PLA Navy, is seen as a key part of China’s strategy in the South Sea: making sure they’re civilian law enforcement agencies rather than the Navy demonstrates that China already exercises jurisdiction, where it actually doesn’t. The top comments reflect a lack of appreciation for, or more likely a lack of awareness of, that strategy.
Also interesting to see a strong expression of apathy getting a gig among the top comments. It is my hypothesis that when I do my offline polling later this year, I will find this to be the mainstream majority Chinese view of the South China Sea disputes.
Censorship appears to be minimal on this topic, too, and it’s probably not as a result of the military’s much-vaunted “rising” engagement with public debate, judging by this top comment over on Phoenix‘s discussion thread:
Why isn’t the PLA Navy protecting our territory? 
…or this, sitting in 5th position on this separate 73,000-strong (and rapidly growing, even at 2.45am) NetEase thread:
Our warships are all fake, all that [military] expenditure’s gone to Moutai. 
It should be noted that this has been an utterly extraordinary day in Chinese domestic politics, with Bo Xilai, until recently the high-profile Party Secretary of Chongqing, officially suspended from the Politburo and placed in the hands of judicial authorities pending an investigation for “serious breaches of discipline”, and his wife, Gu Kailai officially named as the prime suspect in a murder case. In fact, a Chinese friend has suggested that it might be a very bad time for the Philippines to try to play hardball, since the Party might want to divert attention from the domestic scandal by making a move in the South China Sea. However, the Party appears to be mobilising all its media resources towards publicising the Bo Xilai scandal, which would suggest just the opposite – the domestic pressure on the CCP government to use force against the Philippines will be lessened due to people’s attention being primarily focused on Bo Xilai’s disgrace.
One could even imagine a rather hilarious inversion of the all-too-often-invoked (in relation to China at least) theory of diversionary military adventurism, in which ordering the news to be dominated by the Bo Xilai scandal was a tactical decision by the government aimed at diverting people’s attention away from the South Sea standoff. That is not the case of course, because the CCP is not suppressing coverage of the standoff, but i think it illustrates the point that there’s no evidence to my knowledge of the CCP state ever having used that tactic.