China announces the US’s Spratly patrols to the masses

“If any countries have delusions of using small actions to interfere with or even obstruct the Chinese side’s reasonable, fair and legal activities on its own territory, then I must urge those countries to abandon those fantasies as soon as possible.” – MFA spokesman Lu Kang, October 27, 2015 (click to view video on CCTV).

Have been trying to avoid the temptation of blogging, but the US and China conspired to break my resistance…

The US early this morning (Beijing time) finally followed through with its plan to patrol within 12nm of at least one of the PRC’s artificial islands, and China has just announced the developments to the whole country via CCTV’s 7pm news broadcast.

The 7pm news program Xinwen Lianbo 新闻联播 is both the most-watched and most tightly-controlled news broadcast in the country. Whatever appears there can reliably be understood to be there for primarily political reasons, rather than due to professional media “news values” or sensationalism. What makes Xinwen Lianbo a unique source of insight compared with other media carrying authoritative content, such as the People’s Daily or Liberation Army Daily, is that while the official press’s readership is mostly limited to elites and the attentive public, Xinwen Lianbo is watched by perhaps 50 to 100 million or more ordinary people. In short, it carries the Party Line to the masses.

Although Xinwen Lianbo’s presentation style has evolved slightly in the 2000s, content-wise the bulletins are still dominated by detailed narrations of the top leaders’ meetings with international dignitaries and each other, updates on the ever-successful rollout of party policies and campaigns, paeans to model citizens and, last of all, a few general news reports, usually very brief. Foreign affairs controversies like the South China Sea dispute are rarely mentioned — when they are, it is usually in the context of leaders’ anodyne remarks about appropriately handling differences and jointly upholding stability in meetings with their counterparts from rival claimant states, most commonly Vietnam.

Mentions of specific developments in disputed areas are rarer still — even when they cast the party in a positive light from a hardline nationalist perspective. To take one topical example, China’s massive island-building activities began in early 2014 and were widely reported in foreign media from around June last year, but they only received their first mention on Xinwen Lianbo on June 16 this year. Evidently, the leadership normally prefers to handle these issues without encouraging scrutiny from the broad masses. This is why it is meaningful when contentious developments and confrontational rhetoric, such as that surrounding the US patrols, rate a mention.

At 1 minute 40 seconds, this Xinwen Lianbo report was quite lengthy compared with other South China Sea stories. Here it is in translation:

CCTV host: Today, the US warship Lassen, without permission from the Chinese government, illegally entered waters adjacent to China’s relevant islands and reefs in the Spratly archipelago. Regarding this, China expressed strong dissatisfaction and resolute opposition, and urged the American side to immediately rectify its mistakes.

CCTV voiceover: Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, when asked during the China-Japan-Korea symposium today, advised the US side to think thrice before acting, and not be rash or make trouble. In this afternoon’s daily press briefing, MFA spokesperson Lu Kang reiterated, China has indisputable sovereignty over the Spratly Islands and their nearby waters.

Lu Kang: If any countries have delusions of using small actions to interfere with or even obstruct the Chinese side’s reasonable, fair and legal activities on its own territory, then I must urge those countries to abandon those fantasies as soon as possible.

CCTV voiceover: Lu Kang said the Chinese side has always respected and defended the freedom of navigation and overflight enjoyed by every country in the South China Sea under international law, but firmly opposes any country harming China’s sovereignty and security interests in the name of [Freedom of Navigation].

Lu Kang: The Chinese side resolutely defends its own territorial sovereignty, security and its legitimate and reasonable maritime rights and interests. China will firmly respond to any country’s deliberate provocation. We will continue to closely monitor the situation in the air and on the water, and adopt all necessary measures as needed.

CCTV voiceover: Lu Kang said the Chinese side strongly urges the American side to earnestly take heed of the Chinese side’s solemn representations, immediately correct its mistakes, not engage in any dangerous and provocative behaviour that threatens China’s sovereignty and security interests, and strictly abide by its commitments not to take a position on sovereignty disputes, in order to avoid further damaging Sino-American relations and regional peace and stability.

A Xinwen Lianbo report like this not only directly announces the party line to a massive audience, it also legitimizes other media to focus on the issue. As far as i can tell, this must reflect the propaganda authorities’ understanding that the party leadership wants the issue near the top of the broad public’s agenda, at least in the short term. If this assumption is sound (and please let me know if you disagree), the next question is why.

I’ve been watching the Chinese media treatment of the issue over the past 2-3 weeks, and will try to put together something more comprehensive together when we see how this plays out, but for now i’ll just try to point out a few features of the CCTV report’s content.

1. The CCP has chosen to make this an issue of sovereignty. Graham Webster noted recently in the US-China Week newsletter, China has carefully maintained ambiguity regarding its claims around the Spratly Islands and reefs. In particular, it has not explicitly stated which reefs it considers to be surrounded by 12nm territorial seas 领海. That deliberate ambiguity is continuing, as reflected in the term “adjacent waters 邻近海域” in the PRC statements today (see above). Subi Reef, where the US Navy patrolled today, is almost certainly not entitled to a (sovereign) territorial sea under international law, and as i argued in East Asia Forum last month, this actually makes the patrols less provocative than they might otherwise be. But five mentions of “sovereignty” in CCTV’s 100-second report makes clear that the PRC wants domestic discussion of the issue to be on these terms. The MFA spokesman mentioned “security interests,” “maritime rights and interests,” “provocation” and “dangerous behaviour” — the CCTV report could have focused on any of these complaints, but instead repeatedly emphasized “sovereignty,” a choice that is likely to capture everyday people’s attention and potentially inspire nationalist mobilization.

2. The lines about some countries’ “delusions” about obstructing China’s Spratly construction projects will allow the CCP to depict itself as bravely defying foreign pressure as it moves forward. The line appears to be primarily domestically oriented, given that it is missing from the MFA’s account of Lu Kang’s remarks on the topic. It sets up a kind of straw-man idea that the patrols are aimed at forcing China to stop its construction work on the artificial islands. Pushing this line to domestic audiences makes good sense, because it will frame any future updates about new Chinese facilities in the Spratlys as shows of unwavering determination in the face of US pressure.

3. The high-handed demand that the American side “correct its mistakes” leaves the CCP well positioned to claim that its stern response forced an aggressive hegemon to back down. At least one US official has described the patrols as “routine“, suggesting there will be more to come. Even if the US patrols happen, say, once a month from now on, it will be up to the CCP to decide how often Chinese mass audiences hear about this. Having established a high level of domestic publicity on this occasion, the CCP might well be able to (implicitly or explicitly) encourage the perception that it forced the US to back down, simply by not affording the same level of publicity to future FoN patrols.

So there are three speculative domestic rationales for the CCP’s decision to publicize the issue. A more internationally-oriented answer with plenty of explanatory purchase is the “strategic logic” of nationalist protest Jessica Chen Weiss outlined in her book Powerful Patriots and elsewhere. The theory focuses on the state’s decisions to allow or disallow anti-foreign street demonstrations, and who knows, those might be just around the corner…

I’d love to hear readers’ thoughts on what China going public like this means, so please leave a comment or get in touch.

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“Silent Contest”: Liu Yazhou’s warmed-over McCarthyism

The latest “leaked” video from the PLA, and its subsequent deletion from the Mainland Chinese internet, has the western China watching community grasping for explanations. Leftist battle-cry ahead of a rightist Third Plenum? Harbinger of an assertive turn in China’s US policy? A glimpse of what the PLA really thinks? My humble addition to this motley list is: powerful statement of self-importance by the CCP-PLA propaganda apparatus?

The video itself is really quite a masterpiece in my view, produced by a master of political warfare, PLA National Defense University Political Commissar Liu Yazhou. It details how America is waging a smokeless war of “political genetic modification” against China, utilizing the permeation (渗透) and “peaceful evolution” strategy that brought down the Soviet Union.

Read the rest of this entry »


Would China and Vietnam want a fight?

Bill Bishop (@niubi) raised an important point in yesterday’s Sinocism:

economic problems in china, economic problems in vietnam. a skirmish in the south china sea might be a distraction and an economic fillip for both?

This is worth thinking through carefully, and i would be most obliged if readers could pick out the holes in my logic and knowledge.

My propositions are

  1. that China could benefit from such a fight, though it might be too afraid of US opportunism to grasp them; and
  2. even if China was indeed up for a fight, it would take both of them to tango, and Vietnam wouldn’t be keen.

China would be the likely beneficiary of a live-fire skirmish involving the PLAN, for under that pretext China could evict Vietnam from one or more islands of its choosing. That would be the first time the People’s Republic had ever controlled an island in the Spratly Archipelago.

Possession of a single island in the Spratlys would hugely enhance the position of the People’s Republic strategically, logistically, and legally. What is more, i dare say it might be viewed as a glorious success by some people in China.

“Retrieving” 收复 a Spratly island by evicting an opponent is perhaps the one action that could actually impress the Chinese public and bolster the party’s “nationalist legitimacy” at home.

Despite possessing a much better navy and air force than the Philippines, i think Vietnam would be a more appealing target for an island “retrieval” simply because there would be no issue of the US becoming involved via treaty obligation. This is also reflected in the fact that Vietnam is the only country the PRC has attacked in the South China Sea.

The best opportunity for the PRC to make a move like this would be a clear-cut instance of Vietnamese aggression. A flagrant attack a PLA Navy boat by Vietnamese fishermen might constitute a justfiable rationale for an island battle. If multiple attacks happened (or could somehow be made to happen) then China could instruct its military to go looking for the attackers on one or more of the Vietnamese-controlled Spratly Islands.

Would America step in to prevent China from gaining such prime a foothold as a Spratly Island? I think not, as long as China could convince the world that Vietnam had started the incident.

On the other hand, even if Vietnam were to oblige by recklessly attacking the PLA Navy, the risk for China would be that the US could use the ensuing PLA retaliation as an opportunity to assert itself in the region, and perhaps even to bring the PLA’s development “under control”. From my hypothetical Chinese military perspective, the US could conceivably unleash its considerable (though much-degraded by Saddam’s WMDs) narrative-building powers to convince the world that China was to blame for any clash — even, or perhaps especially, a clash brought about by Vietnam, under US encouragement.

So while China would stand to gain a great deal from a skirmish, it could still be deterred by its own belief in the US’s evil intentions and opportunism.

Vietnam, meanwhile, has its good friend Russia increasingly tangled up with its own fortunes through a range of energy development partnerships (“such as Vietsovpetro, Rusvietpetro, Gazpromviet and Vietgazprom”), and Russia may soon be present in Cam Ranh Bay, which Vietnam has offered as a the site of a Russian supply and maintenance base.

Xinhua’s Moscow-datelined report from August 27, ‘Vietnam declines to give Russia exclusive rights to naval base‘ (my emphasis) appears to be clutching at straws trying to find a positive angle for China; President Truong Tan Sang’s 5-day visit to Russia last month appears to have been a riproaring success. The reason Russia will not have exclusive rights, is of course that Vietnam has invited the US military to use Cam Ranh Bay too.

The Chinese media have frequently accused the US of trying to embolden China’s co-claimants into making provocations. From Hillary’s famous declaration of national interest, to (non-combat) military exercises in July 2011, to Leon Panetta’s visit to Cam Ranh Bay in June this year, the US has definitely been pushing things forward with Vietnam too.

In the event of a skirmish with China, however, Vietnam still couldn’t count on support from either the US or Russia, both of which continue to have enormous national interests in maintaining peace with the People’s Republic.

When it comes to the South China Sea, Vietnam is the only country that has ever actually tried to fight with the PRC there — and that did not end well (see video at top). Yet Vietnam’s position in the Spratlys remains very favourable compared to the People’s Republic’s, occupying at least six islands and more than twenty reefs and atolls, and an estimated 2,000 troops posted as of 2002. Why would they risk this, with possession is (probably) nine-tenths of the law?

To me, this all points to Vietnam being determined to avoid serious escalations, even as the US bolsters its position in the region.


Chen Bingde: China and its neighbours will resolve the South China Sea issues appropriately, America need not worry

China News Service/22-7-2011 (by Tao Shelan): After their meeting in Beijing, PLA Chief of Staff Gen. Chen Bingde and the visiting Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen held a joint press conference. Chen Bingde noted that China and its neighbours had the capability and wisdom to appropriately resolve their South China Sea issues, and the U.S. should not be concerned, let alone anxious.

The article goes on to say that General Chen was pleased at the improving relations between the two militaries, though he “bluntly said that some on the American side were deliberately making trouble”, for example those congresspersons who recently met with the Dalai Lama. And, quoting the General directly:

“America has indicated many times that it has no intention of interfering in the South Sea disputes. Yet the formal and actual signals it has been putting out are just the opposite. Even though they had done it before, to conduct military exercises in the South Sea with the Philippines and Vietnam at this sensitive time is extremely inappropriate.”

The Phoenix online discussion of the story, which involved 242 comments and participation by 19,649 people, was notable for the number of readers who seem to have been impressed by the “hardness” of Chen’s comments. But the link between corrupt officialdom and foreign policy was once again on prominent display, and there was still plenty of support for Maoist anti-‘reform-and-opening’ sentiment.

Wan Ye (Henan): I support General Chen. Military leaders have to toughen up. [4522 recommends]

Hu Fei (Changzhou, Jiangsu): What boss Chen said is cool. If America really likes to worry, I would ask them to send back all the corrupt officials who have fled there. But I always wonder, whether we’re selling out the country’s interest – the old wolf America never does something for nothing. Unless it’s getting a bite of meat or a sip of blood it won’t even respond. [2715 recommends]

Mainland Hawk 6 (Daqing, Heilongjiang): Chen Bingde is a real military elite. When this kind of person takes the stage, his intention and role are clear, greatly increasing our national prestige. [1706 recommends]

Xiao Cun (Shanxi): General Chen spoke extremely confidently, he is worth listening to. [1412 recommends]

Eagle Talon 12 (Beijing): History has shown time and again that peaceful methods cannot solve territorial and sovereignty disputes, and only pass on more troubles for future generations. Military means are the only way out of this situation, and military means are also the only way to great power status. The Chinese people do not fear war, and all ideas of protecting the so-called fruits of ‘reform and opening’ are just selling out the country’s territory and sovereignty. It’s the behaviour of certain interested classes, and can never represent the wishes of the broad masses of China. [1207 recommends]

Mobile Phone User (Shandong): Tactful yet still domineering, Chen is definitely a worthy Chief of Staff. [822 recommends]

Yang Tianhao (Shenzhen, Guangdong): Strongly support minister Chen. [790 recommends]

The discussion over at CNS, the original source of the story, was much smaller, with only 37 comments. One of those expressed an idea that has sometime come up in South Sea conversations with Chinese friends – that of America provoking the “little countries” like Vietnam to infringe on China’s interests. I wonder how widespread this notion really is of “little” Vietnam (pop. 90,000,000) being a mere puppet for America’s grand anti-China scheme?