China: Inexorable


December 29, 2013: The Chinese campaign of conquering real, or imagined, nearby “lost territories” by winning many little victories in battles none of the victims is willing to go to war over continues. This campaign is quite active in the South China Sea, North Korea and along the Indian border. China has, in the last few years, taken control of sizable chunks of India and large swaths of the South China Sea one tiny piece at a time. The victims are organizing, but have yet to come up with a workable defense against the Chinese tactics. Despite growing resistance by the victims, and their ally the United States, China keeps pushing and keeps making progress. Nothing any of the victims has done so far has stopped the Chinese, who apparently believe that ultimate victory is theirs because their opponents are too disorganized or intimidated to put up any effective resistance. Nevertheless, it is a risky game and there are constant minor crises that could go awry and become major problems.

Case in point is North Korea which recently became a potential disaster. The recent executions or dismissals of pro-Chinese North Korea officials has halted many Chinese economic projects in North Korea. A growing number of wealthy North Korean officials (mostly corrupt officials) are seeking refuge in China. The most recent crises in North Korea began with the very public dismissal of the uncle of 30 year old North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The uncle (Jang Sung Taek, who is married to the sister of Kim Jong Uns father) was purged for corruption in November. One unmentioned reason for Jang’s ouster was that Jang was seen as too cozy with China. Jang was a key Chinese asset in the Chinese effort to get the North Koreans to reform their economy. But Jang overplayed his hand and was purged, arrested and executed in November, an event that was kept secret until December. At least two of Jang’s aides were also executed and the government warned the population against any unrest or misbehavior of any sort. China expressed displeasure with this crackdown, especially its anti-Chinese spin and is meetings with South Korean officials on December 30th to discuss how to handle a collapse in North Korea. This is another example of Chinese flexibility and pragmatism. China and South Korea may be at each other’s throats over who owns some uninhabited islands in offshore waters, but that does not interfere with growing trade and mutual concern over a North Korea collapse. North Korea is another territorial dispute between the two countries. South Korea wants to unite Korea and if North Korea collapses the opportunity will be there. China does not want a united, democratic Korea on its border. Neither country wants to start World War III over the dispute so they will try to negotiate some sort of compromise. The U.S. has agreed to accept whatever decision South Korea makes, although America advises avoiding any actions that could lead to a major war. Meanwhile China is equally pragmatic with North Korea and continues to round up North Korean refugees and send them back. Those who are wealthy enough or useful enough (as in senior North Korean officials fleeing possible execution) are allowed to stay, if they can pay (in cash or information).

Then there is the “conflict” in the South China Sea. The U.S. recently offered the Philippines $40 million to enhance their maritime security as well as the presence of more U.S. troops to assist in tracking and blocking Chinese aggression in Filipino coastal waters. The Philippines wants this kind of “trip wire” so that if the Chinese get violent American troops will be involved, and that will ensure further American help. Despite the tensions with China, the Philippines and China still maintain economic ties. After all China is the largest economy in the region. Inexpensive Chinese goods are found throughout the Philippines and Chinese tourists are a growing source of foreign exchange. Chinese have been living and prospering in the Philippines for over a thousand years and Filipinos with some Chinese ancestry constitute about 22 percent of the population. The Filipino-Chinese (even the 1.2 percent who are pure Chinese) consider themselves Filipino and have resisted Chinese appeals to assist the “motherland”. Despite this loyalty to their adopted country, the Filipino-Chinese are cultivated by China and this serves to soften the Filipino image of Chinese as ruthless aggressors. Every little bit counts and the Chinese know how to make that work.

China continues to aggressively confront American ships and aircraft that come close to Chinese ships in international waters. The latest incident was on December 5th when a Chinese destroyer cut in front of an American cruiser (the USS Cowpens) which was observing the new Chinese aircraft carrier. The Chinese ship risked a collision as it moved to within a hundred meters of the 10,000 ton U.S. cruiser. This sort of aggressiveness has not been experienced by American warships since the Cold War when Russian warships would risk collision in what American sailors came to call "Chicken Of The Sea."  The Chinese are also harassing American intelligence operations off the Chinese coast. For over a decade now the Chinese have been aggressively interfering with American intelligence gathering aircraft and ships. U.S. Navy survey ship operating in international waters often find themselves approached, especially at night, by Chinese fishing boats that deliberately get in the way. In some cases the harassment includes Chinese warships and naval patrol aircraft as well. All this is reminiscent of Cold War incidents, usually involving Russian ships harassing American ships by moving very close, or even on a collision course. This was all for the purpose of interfering with U.S. intelligence operations, especially those off the Russian coast. Earlier in the Cold War Russian warplanes would fire on American intelligence gathering aircraft, shooting some of them down. This sort of thing declined when the U.S. quietly informed the Russians that American warships and combat aircraft would aggressively return fire. By the end of the 1960s, this aggressive activity diminished to the point where it was considered a minor nuisance and even that was eliminated by a 1972 treaty. The same pattern is playing out with the Chinese but for the last few years the Chinese have continued to protest this intelligence gathering activity so close (up to 22 kilometers from Chinese territory, an area that is considered “territorial waters”).

The anti-Chinese coalition (the U.S., India, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam) is not terribly united and China has plenty of opportunities to exploit tensions between coalition members. For many Japan’s continuing refusal to feel any guilt or repentance for its World War II atrocities interferes with unified action against China (which suffered most of all from Japanese World War II depredations). After decades of being anti-American during the Cold War, India has a hard time maintaining good relations with the United States. Then there is China’s growing economic power, which China vigorously employs to further its diplomatic and military goals.  

An example of this can be seen in Burma. Three decades of unprecedented economic growth in China has caused even more Chinese and their new wealth to find its way into northern Burma looking for profitable opportunities. In the last decade that has led to some major (multi-billion dollar), government backed investments in hydroelectric dams and mines. Those sorts of projects need legal protections, especially ownership of or legal access to lots of land. Each major project creates the need for hundreds of smaller enterprises and lots of economic growth in general. All these businesses want legal ownership or leases on land. Burmese entrepreneurs from down south are glad to oblige and bribe (or partner with) government officials and military commanders up north to “legally” steal tribal land. Eventually this leads to another tribal rebellion, but that’s simply a cost of doing business up north.

In Taiwan China is aided by the fact that the military there has lost a lot of popular support over the last decade. Despite the continued threat from China, many Taiwanese have opposed efforts to upgrade military equipment and buy new weapons. Part of this is a reluctance to spend all that money, partly it’s the realization that no amount of arms buying will stop China if they are determined to take Taiwan. Then there’s the shift in power, as the majority native Taiwanese finally took power from the ethnic Chinese minority that ran the country via a military dictatorship since 1948. This shift finally happened in 2000 and that changed a lot more than the political landscape. For decades there have been calls for wide-ranging reforms within the military, something the military resisted. The leadership of the Taiwanese military trace their origins back to the remnants of the defeated Nationalist forces that fled to Taiwan in 1949. This brought two million Nationalist soldiers and supporters to an island already occupied by six million Taiwanese who had been there for centuries and developed a unique culture. The Nationalist military used force when necessary to get cooperation from the Taiwanese majority and there remains an “above the law” attitude among the army leadership because the military is all that is keeping the communist barbarians from taking over Taiwan. Although many of the senior officers are now ethnic Taiwanese, these attitudes persist in the military and are resented by the majority of Taiwanese. Unless there is some serious attitude adjustment about the military in Taiwan the armed forces are going to shrink and lose a lot of their combat capabilities.

Details of the recently announced Chinese farm reforms are coming out. The new rules will allow farmers to own their land and have easier access to credit and technical assistance. The government also wants to improve the educational opportunities for farm families and provide more professional training for farmers. This sort of thing revolutionized farm productivity (and farmer income) in the West over the past few centuries. It began with the medieval monasteries doing research on better farming techniques and spreading this knowledge. In the U.S. this evolved into government supported agricultural research and farmer education. This has made Western farmers the wealthiest in history, and the most productive. China wants that.

Chinese are noting that the government is getting more energetic in its anti-corruption efforts. From the beginning the Chinese communists were anti-corruption, but early on the corruption returned and kept getting worse. This has, as it has done for thousands of years, caused a lot of popular unrest. So in 2013 the government tried to show that it was “getting serious” about corruption and not just pumping out more propaganda. This year several hundred senior officials were investigated and many were removed from office and dozens were sent to prison. More than 90 percent of corrupt officials are still getting away with it but if the prosecutions continue at their current level the risks of getting punished are going to discourage a lot of officials from misbehaving in the first place. Chinese are also watching to see if this anti-corruption campaign will, like previous one, fade away or keep going until it makes a permanent dent in misbehavior. The government is encouraging people to be optimistic by also changing the legal code to make it easier for citizens to sue government officials for misdeeds. The government can interfere with these lawsuits, and people will be watching for that. But the act of making it easier to sue is good for morale, which is always a good thing with Chinese News Years only two months away.

A December 7th American satellite photo of the extensive (and deadly) smog covering northeast China has caused even more popular anger in China. Although the Chinese Internet censors try to keep this sort of thing out of the news, the satellite picture gets around anyway and puts more pressure on the government to do something about the bad air. In response the government recently did something really stupid, but so very typical. A state owned newspaper published an article playing up the positive side of all the smog. This included a list of positive aspects of smog as in; it unifies the Chinese people to deal with the problem. It makes China more equal because smog is common in the strong economies around the world. It raises citizen awareness of the cost of China’s economic development, and this it has done too well. It makes people funnier because of all the jokes made about smog to ease the pain and discomfort of bad air. Finally, the news story made much of how people are now more knowledgeable about air pollution and (this was not mentioned in the story) the extent the government will go to censor smog stories and counter the unpopularity of the nasty air quality.  

In response to this sort of bad publicity the government is putting more pressure on foreign journalists and more energetically going after Chinese who talk to these foreign reporters. The government has long punished Chinese for “security crimes” that really involved just telling foreign journalists the truth about yet another public outrage in China.

December 28, 2013: Starting today the government is releasing thousands of people sent to labor camps because of their political beliefs (which usually involved openly criticizing the corruption and incompetence of officials). For over 60 years anyone designated “enemies of the state” were sent to labor camps for “reeducation”. The alternative was execution so people put up with it. The government used the camps for slave labor and since the 1990s have sent a lot more petty criminals to the camps as well. It was the use of the camps to threaten pro-reform (and anti-corruption) Chinese that made the elimination of the camps inevitable. The camps have become a symbol of government corruption and repression and eliminating them has boosted government popularity. The government officially eliminated the camps over the last month but had stopped sending people to them in early 2013.

State controlled media revealed that in rural (and poor) Hunan nearly 600 provincial and country legislators resigned because of revelations that 56 provincial legislators had bribed 512 county legislators to approve questionable business deals. There is “democracy” in China but the only political party allowed to run candidates for office is the Communist Party. Different factions within the Communist Party are put forward for these posts and there is competition because there is money (mostly bribes) to be made. There are legislators at the country and provincial levels that approve things like zoning and economic regulations (that don’t interfere with national ones). Businesses compete with each other to bribe legislators to get favorable regulations approved. In this case the provincial legislators paid the country legislators over $18 million in bribes.

December 27, 2013: In another sign that the government is serious about curbing police abuse a court convicted and sentenced four policemen for beating a street vendor to death. The government still refuses to prosecute more senior non-police officials for the widespread practice of taking bribes to allow construction of substandard buildings and bridges. Thousands of people have died because of this and the government continues to look the other way. The government is making a show of increasing food and drug safety inspections. Recently those responsible for situations where people died from bad food or drugs have been prosecuted and in the worst cases executed. But a lot of these crimes are still allowed to happen, especially if a bribe is paid and no one dies.

December 21, 2013: Chinese and Indian officials met on the Indian border near Ladakh (northwest India). India accused China of sending a platoon (about 20) of troops into Indian territory to set up a camp.

December 20, 2013: China protested Japan’s new defense budget (nearly $50 billion for 2014) and that budget openly allocating a lot of money to deal with the threat from China (and, to a lesser extent, North Korea.)

Russia and China signed a deal that obliges Russia to sell China up to 217 million barrels of oil a year through 2038. This will increase the portion (20 percent) of Russian oil currently sold to East Asia. Currently most Russian oil goes to European customers. In 2009 Russia completed a 2,700 kilometer long oil pipeline to northern China. This pipeline was built to move about 300 million barrels of oil a year. Russia currently produces over three billion barrels of oil a year.

December 16, 2013: In the northern Burma police arrested 16 Chinese (and five Burmese guides) who were in restricted areas looking for mineral deposits. The Chinese will help establish an illegal mining operation if they find anything and smuggle the precious ores into China. What was surprising about this incident is that the Chinese were not able to bribe the police to go away and keep it all quiet. Some government officials in the north are trying to keep the Chinese out so that Burmese entrepreneurs can (legally or otherwise) exploit the metals. This is typical of the north, especially the areas close to the Chinese and Thai borders. The illegal opportunities have brought in a lot of money, guns and violence because there is little law enforcement up there and disputes are often settled with violence not court proceedings.

December 15, 2013: A Chinese spacecraft safely landed on the moon and the rover vehicle left the lander and began exploring. This sort of thing is a first for China and the source of much popular pride.

In the northwest a police raid to arrest two Uighur Islamic terrorists turned into a battle. Two policemen and at least twelve Uighurs were killed. The police managed to arrest the two men they came after. In northwestern China the local Uighurs are under increasing pressure from Han Chinese soldiers, and intrusive government officials. Because of that many Uighurs continue to support anti-Han activity and this makes it possible for Islamic terrorists to survive and operate. Chinese officials have been publicly urging soldiers and police to be more aggressive against uncooperative Uighurs. The government tries hard to suppress the news of Uighur unrest and the incidents receive little coverage in the state-controlled media. The government has been at this for a long time, constantly shutting down web sites that promote Uighur autonomy, and other Uighur matters. The government accuses Uighur activists of endangering state security. This is part of an ongoing effort to suppress Uighur unhappiness in the face of the growing number of Han Chinese moving to traditionally Uighur areas, and taking over the economy, and most of the good jobs. The same thing is happening in Tibet, where the government is using the same tools to keep everyone under control. In the days after each incident police and soldiers are out in force to intimidate the Uighur population and see if any more Islamic terrorists can be found.

December 11, 2013: Chinese and Indian military officials were able to deal with another Chinese intrusion into India. This is despite an October agreement that was supposed to prevent such incidents. The Chinese agreed to release several Indian civilians a Chinese patrol had captured on December 4th while several kilometers inside India. It was hoped that the October BDCA (Border Defense Cooperation Agreement) would put a halt to Chinese patrols across the LAC (Line of Actual Control). It appears that China is interpreting the October agreement differently. The BDCA was in reaction to growing Chinese aggression on the LAC this year.

India and China have also agreed to consult with each other on plans to build hydroelectric dams along the Brahmaputra River. This river begins in India (Arunachal Pradesh, which is claimed by China) where it gets 85 percent of its water. The Chinese are building hydroelectric dams downstream and want to ensure that India does not reduce the water flow. 




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