As China’s economy has grown so has Chinese skill at using its economic power to pressure nations to cooperate. All the nations opposing China in the South China Sea have significant economic ties with China. China is always offering to invest more or allow trade concessions (let the country export to China) in return for “cooperation.” At the very least this gives “pro-China” forces in the target country some clout. China is not reckless in the use of this economic weapon. China rarely makes deals that harm Chinese economic interests. But there are many economic decisions that can go several ways, and China makes it clear it will trade with nations that do what China wants. This even works with the United States. Take the movie industry. Just like Nazi Germany did in the 1930s, American movie makers are pressured to keep things out of movies that make China look bad. For years this worked for the Nazis and it has worked for China as well. A recent example is the movie “Gravity.” Key plot points include a Russian satellite blowing up (and creating a lethal swarm of debris in orbit) and a Chinese space station. In reality it was China that blew up a satellite several years ago (to test, as the movie makes clear, an anti-satellite weapon) and the Chinese space station shown in the movie is much larger and impressive than anything the Chinese expect to have up there for many years. No mention of the fact that China is barred from the International Space Station because of fears that China would steal technology. During the Cold War the Soviets were never able to apply this kind of pressure because, unlike the Chinese and German Nazis, the Soviets had little economic clout. Because China can apply economic pressure, it does. Several other major movies have been modified to please the Chinese. Without these changes a movie will not be allowed to screen in China, which has become a major movie market, just as Germany was in the 1930s, when the recently introduced use of sound made movies a huge part of the entertainment industry. With this kind of pressure China rarely asks for major concessions but lots of minor victories add up. Now China is turning this pressure against the impudent neighbors who rashly oppose Chinese domination of the South China Sea. A recent example of this is China suggesting that South Korea not sell its new T-50 armed jet trainers to the Philippines. This effort may fail but it might succeed, and even if it does not, the threats leave an impression, one that makes it very clear that China must not be defied.
Taiwan has been the major target of all this Chinese economic and international pressure for decades and remains independent and defiant. China considers its efforts to regain control of Taiwan as successful. Slow but steady brings eventual victory and resistance is futile. The Taiwanese are also Chinese (at least culturally, ethnically it’s a different story) and believe the long game favors them. That’s because the Taiwanese believe democracy will outlast the communist police state that rules China. Recent history would seem to favor the Taiwanese, but the Chinese communists have much to lose if democracy gains a foothold in China and are determined to hang on to their power and wealth. That is growing increasingly difficult as the corruption and mismanagement so typical of communist police states continues to anger Chinese.
Violent resistance by Tibetans and Turkic Uighurs continues. Chinese police respond by using violence to shut down Tibetan and Uighur anti-Chinese demonstrations. The long-term Chinese policy of moving Han Chinese into Tibet and the northwest (where most Uighurs live) is what prompts the growing violence because the Chinese have long used migration and the development of the economy (by the more entrepreneurial and productive Han) to conquer hostile populations.
One reason sparsely populated Tibet is so important to China is because it is where five of the largest rivers in India and East Asia begin. These rivers supply water to forty percent of the world population. India, Vietnam, and Burma fear that Chinese dam building on these rivers will eventually divert water and leave less for non-Chinese. China has to treat these complaints seriously, especially since one of the complainants (India) has nuclear weapons. Water, it is feared, might be the cause of the second (since 1945) use of nuclear weapons. Then there is Pakistan, a Chinese ally that has nukes and is also nervous (and so far discreet) about how China is handling its control over so much of the planet’s water.
Within China the government demands that everyone support Chinese foreign policy. A recent example of this was an order for the 250,000 Chinese journalists to avoid any positive stories about Japan. This is all about the dispute with Japan over the Senkaku Islands. Japan is being stubborn, so the ban on positive media coverage of Japan hits Japan in the wallet because Japan is a major economic player in China. In effect, all Chinese journalists have been told that they can say bad things about Japanese products, just nothing good. That can hurt economically. Journalists were also reminded that positive stories about democracy or Western concepts of citizen rights were also forbidden. Chinese journalists are given an examination each year, to ensure they know and understand all the current guidelines, before they get their official journalist status renewed.
India and China are still talking about their border disputes but progress is slow. While Chinese government leaders say they are all for a settlement, India has come to believe that Chinese military leaders are acting independently along the border. So India is trying to open discussions with senior generals in hopes of making a deal with whoever is really in charge. All this diplomacy has halted Chinese aggressive use of troops to move across the border into remote areas that China claims. Chinese troops are still more numerous on the border than their Indian counterparts, and China has renewed its tactics of not recognizing the passports of Indians living in the areas China claims (since these people are, in Chinese eyes, Chinese citizens who are trying to use Indian IDs and passports). Indian diplomats fear that the current situation is just a truce and that the Chinese will not give up their efforts to take the Indian territory they claim.
China recently increased payments (pensions and death benefits) for former soldiers and their families. These payments are going up about 15 percent to about a million recipients. Currently China spends $4.9 billion a year on these payments, which vary from under a thousand dollars a year to over$7,000 a year per recipient. That’s a significant amount of cash for many Chinese and it gives a lot of people one less grudge against their communist police state government. These are not pensions for career military personnel who retire but payments to soldiers who have been downsized in the last decade, or have been crippled during military service or families of those who were killed during wartime. Some military personnel killed on duty are declared “war dead” in order to take care of families and reward and honor the sacrifice. This, as well as payments to disabled soldiers, is a combination of good public relations, a boost for morale of all troops and another inducement for young people to join. There are sometimes conditions attached to these payments, the main one being that if a downsized soldier came from a rural village you can only get paid if you return to live in the countryside (and not move to the booming and overcrowded cities).
The government is having a hard time halting the formation of an alliance against expansion into the South China Sea. The Philippines, which is resisting Chinese attempts to take over offshore oil deposits, has upgraded its military ties with South Korea, Vietnam, Japan, and the United States. Worse, the Philippines is taking the South China Sea dispute to the UN, which China definitely does not want. China knows that the rest of the world will not look kindly on how China is trying to bully its way into gaining control over all the islands and reefs in the South China Sea and all the oil and gas wealth on the sea bottom (as well as the fish in between). In the 1990s the world sought to resolve situations like this (which are not unique to the South China Sea) with an international treaty. China signed on but now is ignoring the agreement and that is universally unpopular.
The anti-China alliance of South China Sea nations is mostly at the stage where countries have exchanges of military personnel for familiarization and training. They also exchange information about how each nations’ troops handle disaster relief and peacekeeping operations. Less publicized are the parts of the new agreements dealing with planning for cooperation against growing Chinese aggression in the sea areas between China and all its neighbors (particularly the Philippines, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam). All of these Chinese neighbors are strengthening military alliances with each other and the United States to better deal with the Chinese tactics of gradual but persistent pressure.
Chinese warships are visiting Chile and Argentina and have, for the first time in history, passed through the Strait of Magellan. At the same time a Chinese amphibious ship (a 19,000 ton LPD) with marines on board visited Syria. This was the first time a Chinese amphibious ship had visited the Mediterranean. China has 3 of these LPDs and they have also been serving as part of the international anti-piracy task force off Somalia.
October 16, 2013: In the east (Zhejiang province) thousands of locals rioted to protest corruption and government mismanagement of relief efforts to deal with recent floods (the worst in a century). Some major towns were 70 percent flooded and over 800,000 people had homes damaged or destroyed, and property damage was estimated to be in excess of a billion dollars in Zhejiang. Roads and rail lines were cut. The government tries to censor reports of inadequate or incompetent relief efforts. Despite having 2 million full and part time Internet censors on duty, bad news does get around and that puts unwelcome pressure on the national government to set things right. In Zhejiang the national government initially sent in more riot police, and news of that made it past the censors. That forced the government to come down hard on inept local officials and send more resources to Zhejiang province. This just encourages the Internet based reporters and commentators, who risk jail or loss of job by posting information about government misbehavior.
In the northeast China is entering the smog season. Thanks to air pollution sensors on the roof of foreign embassies, and posting of those readings to an embassy web site, the government has been forced to do something about the pollution. These embassy efforts was one of many to call attention to the obvious; the air in the capital had become a health hazard. Earlier this year China allowed the mass media (state controlled and independent) to publish data on air and other types of pollution. Up until this year it was illegal to publish this data. But despite all the censorship, such pollution was being measured and the data getting to the public. Last year, without naming names, China warned foreign embassies that using pollution monitors on embassy property (which the Chinese government cannot touch) and releasing that information to the public was illegal. Embassies post this information on their websites for the benefit of their citizens visiting Beijing (the Chinese capital). China does not want to publicize how bad the pollution is in Beijing (or anywhere else in China). Beijing and much of northeast China is currently suffering from record air pollution levels and the population is very unhappy about the government response (or lack of same). Chinese efforts to get the embassies to cease their pollution monitoring led to easing of restrictions for local media as well. This sort of thing keeps happening, leaving the once-mighty Chinese censors increasingly demoralized. But something had to be done. While senior officials in the capital could afford expensive air filters in their workplaces and homes, the pollution levels had become so bad that just going outside to get into your car was unhealthy. Children could not play outside and outdoor markets were losing lots of business. So now the government is sharply reducing auto traffic and curbing production at factories that produce a lot of pollution. There is no quick fix for the pollution, but it is obvious to all that something must be done.
October 10, 2013: The United States has come out and backed the Philippines in its call for UN sponsored binding arbitration with China over Chinese claims on parts of the South China Sea that have long been controlled by the Philippines. China has turned down Filipino calls for arbitration, but with American support pressure in the UN will be greater and more embarrassing for China.