China: A Fatal Dose Of Bitter Tea

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May 30, 2012: China is at war with the rest of the world and, so far, China is winning. China traditionally prefers long-term military strategies and weakening foes with constant, but low level, pressure. This can be seen in the increasing number of incidents around disputed islands and atolls in the South China Se, and the hundreds of illegal border crossings by Chinese patrols along the disputed (and thinly populated) border with India. The Chinese Navy is also showing up more frequently in distant waters, often quite close to territory of potential foes (Japanese owned Okinawa and anything in the Indian Ocean). China also uses its growing economic power skillfully. By allowing Taiwanese to invest in China, there were soon billions of dollars of Taiwanese assets China could threaten if Taiwanese businessmen did not pressure their government to do things China wanted. This has worked against the United States and other trading partners as well.

China sees military spending as a potential weakness, noting that the U.S. accounts for 41 percent of world military spending, which is five times that of China and ten times what a resurgent Russia is spending. China believes that all this American military power inclines the Americans to interfere with nations, like China, that are the natural local superpowers in their own neighborhood. China sees that huge American budget as wasteful and a needless threat to China. If the Americans could only be persuaded to back off and let China be China all would be well. The fact that China's neighbors like having the Americans around is understandable. China's neighbors have always been troublesome and occasionally had to be disciplined by big-brother China. The U.S. should not interfere in what China sees as a domestic dispute.  Meanwhile, the U.S. (and much of the West) believes Chinese military spending is a third of Americas and aimed at dominating East Asia and beyond.

China is also at war with its own people and the communist police state government is losing. The military and diplomatic victories make the government more popular with Chinese, but the many reminders of the corruption and attempts to control what people think or say are becoming more of an issue for most Chinese than real estate disputes at sea or on the Indian border. Corruption is proving to be a far more devious and dangerous foe that the Americans or any troublesome neighbors. China's most dangerous foe is its own government.

As China's civilian air fleet grows, so do government plans to mobilize many of these aircraft in wartime. China has long had plans for taking over civilian trucks in wartime and the railroads have always been under constant government supervision. China's commercial aviation fleet is growing rapidly. In the last decade the Chinese civil fleet (of large airliners) surpassed ten percent of the world total and is heading for twenty percent in the next two decades. The Chinese military still controls most of Chinese air space and sees civil aviation as a wartime asset, one that must constantly be ready for military use.  

China is increasing military training visits to Tibet. The high altitude there causes problems for personnel. Altitude sickness afflicts over 90 percent of lowland Chinese but hardly any native born Tibetans. Equipment also has problems, as many mechanical and hydraulic items operate differently at the higher altitudes of Tibet. The pilots and maintenance personnel gain valuable experience each time they spend a week or two in Tibet for training. If the border dispute with nearby India ever got hot, China would have to rapidly fly in additional warplanes and operate them from Tibet.

The dispute with the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal has died down for the moment, with the Philippines agreeing to be less aggressive in defending their claims. The real crunch comes in the next year, if the Philippines proceeds with plans to allow exploratory drilling for oil and natural gas near its coast. By international law (a 1994 treaty), the waters 360 kilometers from land are considered the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the nation controlling the nearest land. The EEZ owner can control who fishes there and extracts natural resources (mostly oil and gas) from the ocean floor. But the EEZ owner cannot prohibit free passage, or the laying of pipelines and communications cables. China has angered its neighbors by claiming all the islands (especially tiny uninhabited ones) in the South China Sea. This is a 3.5 million square kilometer (1.4 million square mile) area south of China and Taiwan, west of the Philippines and north of Indonesia. China claims the entire area, as if it were one big EEZ. This has aroused the ire of the neighbors and caused them to unite against China. Despite the United States mutual-defense treaties with many claimants (Philippines, Taiwan, Japan), China believes it will prevail, simply by applying constant pressure on all fronts (military, economic, media, and diplomatic).

North Korea is becoming more of a problem, as the government there continues to lose control of its own security forces. For example, on May 20th, North Korea freed several Chinese fishing boats that were seized on May 8th by a North Korean patrol boat, for illegal fishing. North Korean officials demanded that fines of $189,000 be paid for the release of the boats and their 28 crewmen. When the Chinese government refused the amount was cut 25 percent. But the Chinese saw this as another North Korean scam and told the North Korean government to release the boats and crews or there would be halts in aid shipments and problems with North Korean officials visiting China. That works. Increasingly, North Koreans are trying to shake down China for additional money or goods. Sometimes the North Koreans get away with it. But if they go too far the Chinese government growls and the bandits back off. If the freelancing officials succeed they must, of course, share with their superiors. China has not got too many options with North Korea. The economy there is a mess and the North Korean communist dictatorship refuses to accept Chinese advice on reforms (similar to those implemented in China three decades ago). Meanwhile, the North Korea communists have evolved into something worse: militarist nationalist xenophobes who see enemies everywhere and are so distracted by this that they unable to feed their own people. China does not want the North Korean dictatorship to collapse, as that risks confrontation with South Korea (which wants a united Korea) and would force China to take over North Korea (again, not good for relations with South Korea). The collapse would also send millions of refugees into northeast China, which would cost China lots of cash and bad publicity. China tries to punish North Korea's leaders but that has proved difficult to do. North Korea is a wound that just won't heal.

Meanwhile, South Korea is developing more economic links with China (which started trading with South Korea in the 1990s, and they both soon became major trading partners with each other) and trying to use that to achieve better military and diplomatic relations with China. South Korea wants to get China to allow a united, democratic, Korea. This is a hard sell, as China does not want a prosperous democracy on its borders. But if the price is right, something can be done.

Earlier in May a British researcher announced that he had found a hidden "backdoor" in a Chinese made microprocessor widely used in military and civilian equipment. At first, the media jumped on this as proof that China was inserting secret components on legitimate (and counterfeit) electronic components so that the Chinese military could gain an advantage in any future war. In this case, it took several weeks before everyone got the real story. Turns out the "secret backdoor" had been built into the chip by the American designer (Actel) for troubleshooting and upgrades and could only be used via a physical connection with the chip (not via the Internet).

China has increased its scrutiny of what is said on the Internet inside China. Billions of dollars has been spent on hardware and software capable of monitoring the microblogs (the local equivalent of Twitter, which is banned in China). Microblog posters have been given a list of punishments for those caught using code words for forbidden subjects. The worst punishments are imprisonment, despite that, more reformers and government critics are showing up to defy the government.

The key to the continued success of a communist police state in China was the 1980s, decision to allow and encourage a market economy. Three decades of economic growth have damped widespread opposition to the government. But with the growing wealth came growing corruption as the communist bureaucrats and their families scrambled for a slice of the rapidly (10 percent a year) growing GDP. All that corruption has had a cumulative effect and now the economic growth is slowing down. Something must be done, especially as unemployment grows. Nothing fuels a rebellion more effectively than lots of young, well-educated, and ambitious people who had a taste of the good life and then found nothing. That's what the Chinese call bitter tea, and there's too much of that being served these days.

May 28, 2012: China and Cambodia signed a new military cooperation agreement. This continues Chinese assistance in military training and as a supplier of military equipment. The Chinese have long cultivated Cambodia as an ally against their mutual foe, Vietnam.

May 27, 2012:  Taiwan has completed the deployment of a hundred locally made cruise missiles that are aimed at Chinese military targets. China has 1,600 ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan.

May 18, 2012: Japan and Australia have signed a military intelligence sharing agreement, part of a process that improves cooperation in dealing with the growing Chinese threat.

 

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