“A certain neighbouring country” returns to the South China Sea dispute

14 Vietnamese fishermen detained by China from May 16 to 21 have their first meal following their release

It was as though they were playing tag-team† in a WWF wrestling show. Just as the China-Philippines tensions started to diminish, who should pop up to disturb China’s peaceful claims? Why, “a certain neighbouring country”, of course.

When Philippines President Benigno Aquino III welcomed, and indeed matched, the PRC’s yearly South China Sea fishing ban, Vietnam’s Foreign Ministr labelled it “invalid”.

On May 24 the Vietnamese held another press conference at which spokesman Luong Thanh Nghi said that China had detained two Vietnamese fishing boats in the Paracel Islands on May 16 (for some reason this VietnamNet report says the incident occurred in the Spratlys), and held the 14 crew until May 21. As soon as China officially advised Vietnam about the incident on May 21, according to spokesman Luong, the Vietnamese side lodged a strong diplomatic protest against the “severe violation of the sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdictions of Viet Nam”.

There are plenty of details in this English-language Vietnamese media report

Vo Minh Quan, 42, the captain of QNg 50003TS boat, said the fishermen went to sea on May 2. Fourteen days later, at 9 am on May 16, a Chinese ship coded 306 suddenly appeared and seized the boat and the crew.

The foreign ship later captured the QNg 55003TS boat piloted by captain Tran The Anh and then escorted the two boats with all their crewmembers to Phu Lam [永兴, Woody] island for detention.

The Chinese authorities confiscated all fishing tools, maritime equipment, 2,000 liters of oil, five diving cylinders, and a large amount of sea products.

Total value of the seized items of both fishing boats is estimated at VND900 million (US$43,200). Quan said.

At 12 am on May 21, the Chinese captors released all fishermen and the QNg 50003TS but kept the other boat in detention.

….but i have failed to find anything at all in the Chinese media about the incident.

Just two days later, precisely the opposite was the case. The May 19 edition of the Huanqiu Shibao ran an exclusive story headlined ‘Three foreign gunboats pursue and harass Chinese fishing boats, rescued by Yuzheng 310‘, which doesn’t appear to have been reported in the international media. It’s dramatic enough (and strange enough) to translate in full:

From Huanqiu Shibao‘s specially-dispatched journalist in the South China Sea: On May 18, China’s Yuzheng 310 vessel successfully deterred three gunboats from a certain country from pursuing and harassing 追袭 five Chinese fishing boats, protecting more than 100 Chinese fisherfolk from financial loss and personal harm.

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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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