China: Fortune Favors The Bold, Even In Slow Motion

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September 17, 2013: Corruption, and growing popular unrest because of it, continues to be the major internal threat to continued Communist Party control of China. In response the senior leadership (which most Chinese see as not corrupt) is becoming more aggressive in trying to convince the vast bureaucracy (nearly all of them Communist Party members) to become less corrupt. Prosecuting all corrupt officials would be impossible and would shut down the government. So the senior leaders are using a terror campaign, with a growing number of well publicized corruption trials and real punishment of the most notorious offenders. More senior members of the bureaucracy are also being prosecuted, which is a tacit admission that even the senior leaders are tainted. This is no surprise to most Chinese, but it is traditional to believe that the people at the very top are virtuous and able to guide the nation past a crises like this. Without that faith, the government loses legitimacy and falls. So far the corruption continues, although practitioners are now more discreet and more enthusiastic about increased Internet censorship. It is those damn Internet leaks that are getting corrupt officials on the government hit list and literally getting some corrupt officials killed. This freelance Internet based journalism is illegal and the government is prosecuting those who are too successful at it. The corruption effort is also being used to silence all sorts of government critics, although the senior leadership is under a lot of pressure to prevent the anti-corruption efforts from becoming too corrupt. Meanwhile, corrupt officials are definitely cleaning up their images. Sales of luxury brands of alcoholic beverages are down, as are the number of public banquets that corrupt officials have long enjoyed throwing. Part of this is because the government has ordered less of this public spectacle but also because corrupt officials do not want to become conspicuous. Better to steal quietly and out of view and live to enjoy your loot.

Another annoying aspect of the Internet is the growing amount of commercial satellite photos available that show things China would prefer to keep secret. Despite strenuous efforts to hide things, there are far fewer military secrets in China than in pre-Internet days.

The Philippines has accused China of starting construction of an illegal base on Scarborough Shoal. Filipino sailors have found 75 concrete blocks dumped on the shoal, apparently the first stage of constructing a Chinese base on stilts. China has done this before and usually does it secretly and then declares the new structure a Chinese “base” that is protecting Chinese territory. The Philippines threatened to remove the blocks, which China insists it has nothing to do with. Meanwhile, Chinese coast guard and commercial ships have been increasingly active in the area. For most of this year Filipino fishermen have complained that Chinese ships are trying to force them away from their traditional fishing areas near Scarborough Shoal. This is in violation of a 2012 deal made with the Chinese, who were quick to violate the agreement. Not only did Chinese patrol boats soon return to Scarborough Shoal but Chinese fishing boats again began operating there and even erected a flimsy barrier (with rowboats, rope, and fishing nets) across the entrance to the lagoon and forcibly preventing Filipino fishing boats from entering. Scarborough Shoal is in waters the Philippines claim in accordance with international law. The shoal is only 250 kilometers from one of the large inhabited Philippine islands (Palawan) and 1,200 kilometers from China. Despite this, China claims ownership of Scarborough Shoal but has not yet used deadly force to assert that claim. For the moment China is content to just send coast guard ships to the shoal to “protect Chinese fishermen” and clear the area long enough for a base to be built. According to China, they are in compliance with the 2012 deal, as they never agreed that Chinese fishing boats could not operate around Scarborough Shoal. The Philippines does not agree but has refrained from sending warships to the shoal and trying to chase the Chinese fishing boats away. To Filipinos this is another example of China saying one thing and doing another. China denies building a tiny base here but they always do until the construction is completed.

For example, in 1995, China built one of these mini-bases 114 kilometers from the Filipino island of Palawan on Mischief Reef. Earlier Chinese buoys and a temporary structure had been removed by Filipino sailors. But in 1995, while the Philippines had suspended air and naval patrols of the area because of a nearby typhoon (Pacific hurricane), the Chinese rushed in and built a permanent base, on stilts, on the reef. China told the Philippines they would defend this one, and the Philippines found that their American ally was reluctant to go to war over a small structure on stilts on Mischief Reef. Four years later the Chinese expanded the Mischief Reef stilt structure and now it was obviously a military base. The Philippines protested and China ignored that. Now the Philippines is drilling for oil off Palawan and China is using this "base" as the basis for declaring the drilling operations illegal. China has threatened to use force against oil companies that dare drill in their territorial waters without permission. This has stalled the Philippines from exploiting natural resources in coastal waters that are much closer to the Philippines than China and have, for centuries, been generally recognized as Filipino. The Chinese strategy, which is working so far, is to slowly expand their military presence in contested areas and to fight only if the other side attempts to resist militarily. They won several of these naval and air skirmishes with Vietnam since the 1980s, so the Filipinos know what they are up against and that they do not have the military capability to resist it by themselves.

China continues to send regular military patrols of coast guard and navy ships into waters around the Senkaku Islands that both China and Japan claim to own. These are actually islets, which are 167 kilometers northeast of Taiwan, 360 kilometers from China, and 360 kilometers southeast of Japan's Okinawa Islands and have a total area of 6.3 square kilometers. Taiwan also claims the Senkakus, which were discovered by Chinese fishermen in the 16th century and taken over by Japan in 1879. They are valuable now because of the 380 kilometer exclusive economic zone (EEZ) nations can claim (via an international treaty) in their coastal waters. This includes fishing and possible underwater oil and gas fields. Technically parts of the Senkakus fall within the EEZs of China, Taiwan, and Japan. But Japan has controlled the Senkakus for over a century and says it will use force to retain possession. 

China’s ambitious efforts to expand its maritime boundaries has mobilized nearly all its neighbors against them. China now has territorial claims against South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and India. As powerful as China’s military has become in the last decade, it would not be able to handle such a huge coalition, especially if the United States becomes a more active part of it. Backing down is not an option, as the government has tied much of the popular support it has to these nationalistic territorial claims, often on areas past Chinese empires never possessed. The most grandiose move came in July 2012, when China declared most of the 3.5 million square kilometer South China Sea as Chinese territory. This new Chinese municipality was centered on an island base called Sansha. The area China claims as part of Sansha comprises over two million square kilometers of largely open ocean and a few hundred tiny islands and reefs, many of which are only above water during low tide. Sansha is administered from one of the Paracel islands (Woody Island). The U.S. government responded by asking that China obey international law regarding territorial waters and the EEZ. China responded by calling the U.S. a troublemaker. China has not backed down and has continued to increase its military presence in Sansha but has not completely exercised the power it claims (to exclude foreign ships from their EEZ), at least not yet.

China refuses to increase its pressure on North Korea to drop its nuclear weapons program. Instead China wants the United States, South Korea, and Japan to negotiate a bribe (economic aid in return for dropping the nuclear program) in the hopes that it might work. This is highly unlikely as none of these countries trusts North Korea anymore and its unlikely North Korea would agree to the intrusive inspections required to make a deal that could be trusted by the donor countries. China apparently believes the North Korean nukes are not much of a threat. They probably are not because all indications are that North Korea has not yet developed a robust enough weapon to be useful under combat conditions. China also prefers to wait, as there is an extensive Chinese intelligence network inside North Korea, including a constant flow of legal and illegal North Korea visitors to China who also provide quality information on a timely basis. The Chinese strategy appears to be one of preparing for the collapse of the North Korean government and responding with a friendly invasion by Chinese troops and secret police to “help” establish a new North Korean government. Most North Koreans see China as a more likely “better future” than South Korea (which is seen as fantasy land, an impossible improvement over the grim conditions in the north). Moreover, decades of anti-South Korean propaganda, and constant praise for China, has had an impact. Thus China is able to monitor North Korea carefully while preparing to install a new more pro-China (in terms of subservience and economic policy) government. South Korea and the United States will be handled with the threatening potential of China’s new armed forces to halt any South Korean attempt to unite the two Koreas, even if the U.S. agrees to help out.

Chinese violations of the LAC (Line of Actual Control) border with India continues. Most of the recent Chinese intrusions are in the northwest and have, in effect, taken control of 640 square kilometers of territory on the Indian side of the border. In response India announced it is expanding its network of border bases along the 3,488 kilometer Tibet frontier. Currently there are 150 of these small, fortified bases. Most (98) of these outposts will be enlarged and improved while 35 new ones will be built over the next four years. Negotiations to settle the dispute are stalled.

The LAC is also known as the MacCartney-MacDonald Line and is the unofficial border between India and China. The LAC is 4,057 kilometers long and is mostly Tibet on the Chinese side. China claims a lot of territory that is now considered part of India because when Tibet was independent in the early 20th century Tibet agreed to the MacCartney-MacDonald Line. When China reconquered Tibet in the 1950s, that border agreement was renounced as “unfair.” China has never backed away from its claims on Indian territory and its violation of the LAC is a major crises for India (which has a defense budget one third that of China’s). The Chinese believe that the Indians are militarily weaker and not willing to confront a gradual and persistent Chinese effort to take control of contested area.

Meanwhile, China continues to make progress in matching Western military high-tech. For over a year now China has been testing a second stealth fighter design. This one is called the J-31 “Falcon Eagle” (from an inscription on the tail), and while it looks like the American F-22, it’s also smaller than China’s other stealth fighter (the J-20, which has been around longer). The J-31 was built by the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation (which makes the J-11, the illegal Chinese copy of the Russian Su-27). The J-31 has some characteristics of the F-35 as well and appears to be something of an “F-35” to the earlier J-20s effort to match the American F-22. It’s also possible that the F-31 is a competing (with the J-20) design that is hustling to grab sales the J-20 thought it had all locked up. The J-31 flew for the first time last October and there are at least two prototypes and the designer has talked of the J-31 being able to operate off an aircraft carrier (like the U.S. F-35 and the Chinese J-15, a J-11 variant). One advantage the J-31 is that it has two engines, compared to one for the F-35. This means the J-31 could carry more weapons, but this is less crucial with all the guided weapons available. The J-31 is further evidence that China is determined to develop its own high tech military gear. While China is eager to develop advanced military technology locally, it recognizes that this takes time and more effort than nations new to this expect. Thus, China is trying to avoid the mistakes Russia made in this area. That means having competing designs and developing necessary supporting industries as part of that. All this takes a lot of time and involves lots of little (and some major) failures. The Chinese are doing it right and are willing to wait until they get military tech that is truly world class.

This strategy can also be seen in the navy. A Chinese admiral recently confirmed that the new Chinese aircraft carrier (the former Russian Kuznetsov class carriers rebuilt as the Chinese Liaoning) would spend two or three years just as a training ship. The Chinese are finding, as they had been warned, that there is a lot to learn before you become competent at operating an aircraft carrier. China has the Russian experience to learn from. Russia began building the Kuznetsovs in the 1980s. Originally they were to be 90,000 ton nuclear powered ships, similar to American carriers (complete with steam catapults). Instead, because of the high cost and the complexity of modern (American style) carriers, the Russians were forced to scale back their plans and ended up with 65,000 ton (full load) ships that lacked steam catapults and used a ski jump type flight deck instead. Nuclear power was dropped but the Kuznetsovs were still a formidable design, and Russia still operates the original Kuznetsov. China has had dozens of naval officers going around the world to see how other nations handle aircraft carrier operations, and all the reports send the same message: it isn’t easy and takes a lot of time and effort to learn.

September 15, 2013: India successfully tested an Agni V ballistic missile for the second time. The first test was in April 2012. Agni V is a solid fuel missile that has been in development for nearly a decade and is to begin production in 2014. Agni V has a maximum range of 5,000 kilometers and a payload of one ton. This missile can hit targets in Russia, China, Europe (Italy and points east), Japan, and Africa. Most Agni Vs will apparently be aimed at China. Because it is a solid fuel missile, Agni V can be fired on short notice and is compact enough to be moved around on a truck to avoid surprise attack. Regular service for Agni V means sitting in a silo for decades, tended by a small crew of technicians. Agni V, equipped with a nuclear warhead, would be the major deterrent to Chinese aggression, especially since China has no anti-missile capability yet. But that stuff flies both ways, and China is betting on being able to get away with gradually gaining control over more than 100,000 square kilometers of Indian territory it claims a few kilometers at a time without triggering a nuclear exchange. Fortune favors the bold, even in slow motion.

September 12, 2013: Chinese state controlled media is running lots of stories criticizing the Japanese military buildup. Japan already has the most powerful military in the region, after China, and Japanese popular opinion is in favor of increasing Japanese military strength. Japan and the United States are the most worrisome parts of the growing anti-China military coalition and China is running a classic media campaign to try and portray Japan and the United States as the aggressors against a peaceful China that is trying to regain territory lost to Western imperialism over the last two centuries. That plays well in China but nowhere else.

September 10, 2013: China warned Japan that Japanese plans to station government workers on some of the disputed Senkaku Islands would be considered a provocation. This is a problem because Japanese public opinion is increasingly against backing down after Chinese threats like this.

September 3, 2013: The first of the Chinese Type 052D destroyers has been recently seen on sea trials in the East China Sea. This new destroyer design appears very similar to the American Aegis equipped destroyers (especially the 8,300 ton Burke Class).

September 1, 2013: China has joined with Russia to oppose any use of foreign military force against Syria, especially in the UN. This was prompted by the recent Syrian use of chemical weapons against pro-rebel civilians. The U.S. and other NATO countries had earlier told Syria that such use of chemical weapons would bring military intervention. China and Russia have long been supporters of the Assad dictatorship and similar tyrants around the world. China and Russia are also bitter about what happened to their old friend Kaddafi, who lost his life clinging to power in Libya two years ago. Kaddafi was largely done in by NATO providing air support. NATO is reluctant to do that for Syria because the post-Kaddafi government (and post Arab Spring governments in general) tend to be tolerant of Islamic terror groups. But the Syrian civil war is dragging on and that is becoming embarrassing for the West. Assad losing power would be an even bigger embarrassment for China and Russia.

August 31, 2013: Bowing to Chinese pressure, Pakistan has agreed to share intelligence on terrorists with China and take more effective action against Pakistani terrorists who attack Chinese citizens in Pakistan. China was able to force the issue with threats to halt economic investments in Pakistan if something was not done about the terrorism. One of the more important projects for China is an $18 billion effort to build a road from Pakistan’s Indian Ocean port of Gwadar into northwest China. This will require drilling long tunnels through the Himalayan Mountains on the border (in Pakistani controlled Kashmir). China does not want to make this kind of commitment without some Pakistani assurances that the terrorism problem is dealt with.

Pakistan agreed to join China in opposing any military intervention in Syria. This has become more likely after Syria made a large scale use of nerve gas against Syrian civilians in Damascus on the 21st. While this support pleases Iran, it angers the Sunni Arab Gulf oil states (led by Saudi Arabia) that are locked in an increasingly violent confrontation with Iran. Pakistan is over 75 percent Sunni but most of the rest are Shia.

 

 

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