China: Powerful But Dangerous Friends

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November 26, 2015: In the South China Sea American and Chinese warships are literally facing off as the United States challenges Chinese claims on the South China Sea. China believes it can handle American warship visits to the South China Sea without triggering a disastrous (especially for China) war. This is being done by quietly mobilizing a growing fleet of civilian cargo and fishing vessels. These unarmed ships are used, usually in groups, to block the moment of unwelcome foreign commercial or military ships. This Chinese “naval militia” has a numerical advantage because the U.S. Navy only has 55 warships assigned to the West Pacific while the China has 116 warships assigned to its southern (mainly the South China Sea) fleet plus 200 large (over 500 tons) seagoing coast guard vessels in the area. Increasingly China is calling in the naval militia. The government apparently quietly pays participating ships for their services. This is what intelligence analysts concluded after examining the use of this militia over the last few years. Most of these Chinese civilian ships had no legitimate reason to be where they were when they “encountered” foreign military or commercial ships “trespassing” in the areas of the South China Sea that China claims as sovereign territory. There appear to be over a hundred civilian ships associated with this militia program. China uses navy, coast guard and commercial ships to aggressively confront American (or any other) ships that come close to Chinese ships or claimed territory in the South China Sea. This sort of aggressiveness has not been encountered by American warships on such a scale since the Cold War when Russian warships would risk collision in what American sailors came to call "Chicken Of The Sea" incidents. These Cold War incidents, usually involved Russian ships harassing American ships by moving very close, or even on a collision course. This has been improved on by the Chinese who also use coast guard and civilian vessels.

Another source of aggravation is in the northwest where North Korea refuses to follow instructions (“suggestions”) from its mighty neighbor. North Korea is frequently discussed on the Chinese Internet and there does not appear to be much interference from the censors. The consensus is that North Korea is a mess and if the Kim government does not make some basic (as in economic) changes the society and government there will collapse. More worrisome to Chinese is the prospect of North Korea having more nuclear weapons. This could be disastrous for northeast China if North Korean nukes were used against the United States or any other country and there was nuclear retaliation. Apparently the Chinese government is thinking along the same lines as the average Chinese and applying more pressure to North Korea to shape up. Meanwhile trade between North Korea and China declined nearly 14 percent during the first six months of 2015 (compared to 2014). Part of this was due to the stalled Chinese economy but mostly it was all about Chinese anger at North Korean refusal to eliminate their nuclear weapons program. That’s one reason why Chinese investment in North Korea has declined over 80 percent since 2013 (the last time the north conducted a nuclear test). The Chinese also have problems with the Americans over this as the U.S. insists that China is not doing enough to get North Korea to get rid of its nukes. China won’t admit it officially but it is understood (by many Chinese and American diplomats and intel analysts) that the only option the Chinese have left is to take over North Korea via a coup or outright invasion. Both options are expensive, embarrassing and risky. China and North Korea are both socialist police states and they go way back as allies. It would be embarrassing to the Chinese government to take over its “socialist brother” and that will be avoided until the North Korean nukes become a more immediate threat to China.  The Chinese also advise Americans, and Westerners in general, to take into account that with China now unfriendly, North Korea has no real foreign allies. There are countries like Iran and Cuba but there are not very useful. North Korea is still obsessed with the United States and China believes that when the North Korean leadership gets desperate enough they will be willing to do a real (enforceable) nuclear disarmament deal with America. Unfortunately the U.S. is not as patient as China in these matters and this bit of advice is not valued much by the West. There has also been a reduction in trade between China and South Korea. That trade is more than a hundred times larger than the North Korea-China trade and the drop is all economic (the stalled Chinese economy). This is much less of a problem in the south than in the north where the reduction in Chinese trade is a matter of life or death for some North Koreans.

North Korean nukes are not the only problem for China. North Korea cell phone jammers have become more powerful and turned on more frequently along the Chinese border. As a result the jamming has disrupted cell phone use in China and that has become enough of a problem that China has complained to North Korea. In response North Korea said it would cut back on the jamming if China paid North Korea a large fee. China was not pleased with this response and is devising a suitable response. One specific local complaint that got the government involved was the fact that people on the Chinese side of the border are increasingly victims of North Korean criminals (often soldiers) crossing to rob and steal. That jammers make it difficult or impossible for victims to call for help. This is particularly embarrassing as the Chinese government helped people on the border organize local security groups which depend on cell phones.

China has problems with its friends as well, especially the two suffering from economic sanctions. Russia and Iran have become allies in part because of the economic opportunities. Both nations are hobbled by economic sanctions. Iran believes that the end of economic sanctions on Iran in 2016 will enable trade with Russia to more than double by 2018. Russia needs the business because the Russian economic sanctions are still in place. These economic links creates a coalition of three nations (Iran, Russia and China) that are all accused of armed aggression against their neighbors and increasingly isolated from the rest of the world because of it.  Each of these three aggressors blames others for their situation. Russia insists that NATO is engaged in a scheme to surround and strangle Russia. China insists that long dormant territorial (except, for now, the ones with Russia) claims be resolved now and in China’s favor. The claims on India and the South China Sea are seen as illegal by the victims and international law. China ignores these issues as irrelevant. Iran has claims on Saudi Arabia, all in the name of religion because the Shia Iranians believe they would be more effective guardians of Islam’s most holy places in Mecca and Medina. Less loudly Iran believes it would make better use of Saudi oil as well. Iran believes the Arabs are resisting these propositions mainly because of pressure from the West and the United States. China finds itself allied with some powerful but dangerous friends.

November 24, 2015: An anti-corruption official revealed that some of the unrest in the northwest (Xinjiang) was caused by corruption among local officials there. This admission comes days after the government revealed that counter-terrorist operations in response to the September Uighur attack on a coal mine that left 16 dead have so far resulted in 28 suspects killed and one captured. Yet the government corruption announcement was admitting the Uighur complaints of bad treatment by ethnic (Han) Chinese were true and a cause of much of the unrest in Xinjiang. The anti-corruption campaign gets a lot of publicity and is going after corruption in all parts of the country and at all levels. While the headlines are impressive, and more of the guilty are being punished, most Chinese do not yet see much less corruption in their daily lives. Then again China is showing progress in the Transparency International ranking of corruption in nations. In 2014 China moved up four places (to 100) in the rankings of 177 countries. In 2013 China moved up 20 places. Number one (Denmark) is the least corrupt and 175 (Somalia and North Korea in a tie) is the most. So no matter what the government says about its efforts against corruption, international surveys like this are more trusted by most Chinese and are at least moving in the fight direction, if slowly. More worrisome is the fact that the least corrupt countries share characteristics (free speech, free media, fair courts) that are lacking in China mainly because most government officials do not want these things but many Chinese do. One positive aspect of all this is that more senior officials are openly asking for the kinds or reforms most Chinese want. Meanwhile there are more public protests by the many victims of the corruption.

In Xinjiang the September terror attack was the worst since one in November 2014 that left fifteen dead. Yet Uighur violence is down in 2015. In September 2014 there was an against on a market place, two police stations and a store left over 40 dead, most of them attackers or civilians, along with four policemen. Most of the dead were Uighur but over a dozen appear to have been ethnic (Han) Chinese. Before that there was an attack on July 28th 2014 which left over a hundred dead. After that one the government prosecuted and punished 17 local politicians and police commanders for not preventing the attack and not handling it well when it did occur. That has encouraged local officials to do better and the prompt response to the most recent attacks is the result. Locals say the police now shoot first after attacks and are apparently under orders to act that way without fear of punishment. The most embarrassing aspect of the late 2014 attacks was that earlier officials had announced that in the previous six months anti-terrorist efforts in the northwest had destroyed terrorist cells or organizations and arrested 334 people. It wasn’t enough and many locals believe all this made more Uighurs willing to commit terrorist acts.

Most of this terrorist violence is taking place in Xinjiang. China accuses Islamic terror groups among the ethnic Turks (Uighurs) of Xinjiang for all these problems. Unhappy Uighurs are increasingly aggressive in protesting, if not attacking, the growing Chinese presence among them. In Xinjiang province the local Uighurs are not responding well to growing pressure from Han Chinese soldiers and intrusive Han 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. Most Uighurs are found in Xinjiang province. There the nine million Uighurs are now less than half the population and most of the rest are Han Chinese. The government has been publicly urging soldiers and police to be more aggressive against uncooperative Uighurs. The government accuses Uighur activists of endangering state security and tries to keep the unrest out of the news. The same thing is happening in Tibet, where the government is using the same tools to keep everyone under control. Since 2011 several hundred have died in Xinjiang because of Uighur violence against Han rule. Thousands of Uighurs have been arrested and hundreds sentenced to prison, or death. While Islamic terrorism is seen as a major threat in the West the Chinese regard that threat in China as largely confined to Xinjiang. Despite the occasional attack, the Chinese now believe they have it under control.

November 22, 2015: Japanese and Australian foreign and defense ministers met to discuss the Chinese threat in the South China Sea. Japan and Australia then announced that both nations were united in opposing an aggressive Chinese moves in the South China Sea.

November 20, 2015: An al Qaeda attack on a Mali hotel popular with foreigners left 19 dead, three of them Chinese businessmen. This comes at the same time ISIL (al Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant) announced that it had murdered a Chinese businessman they had captured. The Chinese government said there would be reprisals against Islamic terrorist groups who kill Chinese but. No details were provided about action against ISI. There were pledges of more military aid to deal with Islamic terrorist violence in Africa.

November 14, 2015: Chinese troops again crossed the border into northwest India (Kashmir). This was puzzling because the Indian prime minister is to meet his Chinese counterpart in China tomorrow. India has been accusing China of continuing to violate a 2013 agreement that was supposed to halt the Chinese troop incursions across the LAC (Line of Actual Control) into Indian territory. India accuses Chinese troops of doing this about 400 times a year. While Indian and Chinese officers continued to meet regularly to discuss the matter the Chinese violations continued. 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 found in the Indian States of Ladakh, Kashmir, Uttarakhand, Himachal, and Arunachal. On the Chinese side it is mostly Tibet. China claims much territory that is now considered part of India. There have been hundreds of armed confrontations over the last few years as one side or the other accuses “foreign troops” of crossing the LAC. China has long been willing to talk with India over the claims on Indian territory but refused to reduce the aggressive tactics. The Chinese aggression made India, which has a defense budget one third that of China’s, nervous.

November 12, 2015: A Japanese patrol aircraft spotted a Chinese intelligence gathering ship moving back and forth all day near the Japanese-held Senkaku Islands. The Chinese ship did not enter Japanese territorial waters (within 22 kilometers from shore) but appeared to be monitoring a nearby Japanese naval exercise. China claims ownership of the Senkanus even through Japan has occupied them for over a century.

November 10, 2015: The Chinese Navy visited Cuba for the first time as a Chinese destroyer, frigate and supply ship arrived. This is part of a larger navy program that has several three ship flotillas making world cruises and making official visits to countries along the way for the first time. For example Chinese ships are currently visiting numerous European countries for the first time. The flotilla that visited Cuba had earlier visited an American port and after visiting more Latin American countries will go through the Panama Canal and head for Hawaii.

November 8, 2015: American B-52 bombers flew through air space in the South China Sea that China now considers Chinese territory. China protested, the United States ignored the protest and the Philippines felt a little better. 

November 7, 2015: Chinese border security officials met with their Indian counterparts in northwest India (Kashmir) as a goodwill gesture.

November 5, 2015: In northern Burma the leader of the Wa rebels (UWSA or United Wa State Army) called for China to be used to help mediate the disputes between the Wa and the Burmese government. The Wa live in Shan state near the Chinese border. In Shan state the UWSA is a major factor and the Burmese army tends to respect UWSA military capabilities. Half the tribal militiamen in the far north belong to the UWSA, which has over 20,000 armed men operating along the Chinese border. The Wa are ethnic (Han) Chinese, and many other Wa live across the border in China. The Chinese have made it clear to the Burmese government that any attack on the Wa would not be appreciated and have pressured the Burmese on behalf of the Wa in the past. To underscore that support in early 2015 China supplied the UWSA with some 122mm towed howitzers (firing 21 kg shells up to 15 kilometers) and HJ-8 ATGMs (Anti-Tank Guided Missiles). The HJ-8 is nearly identical to the American TOW 2 in size, weight, range. That means a 19 kg (42 pounds) missile with a 3.9 kg (8.6 pound) warhead and a range of 4,000 meters. This is the first time any of the tribal rebels have had such weapons. The Wa are also the leader of a loose coalition of tribal rebels in the north who have, like the Wa, refused to sign any of the peace deals the Burmese army has offered. Without the cooperation of this powerful coalition there can never be peace in the north. Thus there has been nearly continuous fighting in Shan state all year.

November 4, 2015: China and South Korea both approved an agreement for a communications hotline. This enables either side to quickly contact the others military headquarters to sort out any incident involving the armed forces of one or both countries. A hotline like this is quicker and more accurate than waiting for the usual diplomatic channels to be used (and having to depend on the mass media in the meantime.) China and North Korea have long had the equivalent of a hotline in that senior Chinese military leaders could always pick up a phone and call their North Korean counterparts. This is something that dates back to the Korean War, when Chinese forces saved the North Korean military from certain destruction and kept the Korean War going for another 30 months until the ceasefire. This cost China over half a million dead, something China has not forgotten. Meanwhile South Korea already has a hotline with the United States. China and South Korea have been haggling over hotline details since last July.

 

 

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