The economy remains a major problem. The government predicts GDP growth for 2016 to be 6.5 percent which, while down from the 6.9 percent in 2015 is considered progress considering all the past problems (pollution, corruption, and unprofitable state owned industries) that are now crippling economic growth. These problems are also interfering with the military buildup but the troops also have serious problems with corruption and there is a major effort underway to find and punish the many corrupt officers who have appeared as the economy boomed, the military budget grew and there was more to steal. That sort of thing is an ancient Chinese tradition (or curse if you are a victim of it) and eliminating corruption is not.
While corruption investigations were way up in 2015 (54,000, 37 percent more than 2014), the number actually punished was far less than for those accused of endangering state security. While 54,000 people were investigated for corruption only 90 percent made it court and only about five percent were punished. Worse, only about 12 percent of those punished were “tigers” (senior officials) while the rest were “flies” (those with no power or clout to avoid prosecution). The government says (quietly, to foreign observers who know what is really going on) that it is really trying to discourage corruption, not create a lot of enemies in its own senior bureaucracy. Some tigers accused of corruption use bribes and intimidation to avoid punishment, although few are able to keep their jobs. The government prefers to make deals that avoid a trial or prison if the accused can provide evidence of other senior people who are guilty and not known to prosecutors. Those punished most severely are the ones responsible for something that got a lot of people killed. This often results in execution, especially if the offender is a civilian (usually a senior business executive).
Despite the internal problems China continues with the foreign adventures that are supposed to make the government look good. The biggest of these efforts is off the southeast coast where China appears to be making preparations to build an artificial island at
Jackson Atoll, install a small military garrison and declare the area part of China. Nearby Pagasa is the second-largest (37.2 hectares/93 acres) of the Spratly Islands and is inhabited by 200 Filipinos civilians and a few military personnel. China has been increasingly belligerent in its claims to Pagasa and threatens to “take it back” by force. Chinese military and civilian ships are showing up near Pagasa with increasing frequency and sometimes the Chinese vessels try (by getting in the way) to prevent non-Chinese vessels from getting too close to the island. The Philippines often has a coast guard patrol boat off the island (which is 480 kilometers from the nearest Filipino territory China does not claim) and that provides the possibility of a violent military encounter. China is also concerned with the increasingly frequent visits of American warships to the Philippines (for leave and maintenance) and the South China Seas (to challenge Chinese claims.) So far China has not been violent but with more and more Chinese warships, warplanes and troops showing up in the South China Sea there appears to be increased risk of someone opening fire. There are a growing number of “offenders” for the Chinese to shoot at. In addition to ships from the nearest countries (mainly Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan) there are the more powerful allies of these countries (mainly Japan and the United States).
Japan has revealed that, for the first time in 15 years it is sending its submarines through the South China Sea on their way to visit the Philippines and Vietnam. The U.S. has sent a carrier task force to ignore Chinese claims and move right past (or through) and obstacles China might try to place in the way. At the same time China is trying to repair damage done to their relations with Japan by years of government encouraged popular hostility towards Japan. This was part of a policy to use nationalism to distract Chinese from local problems (mainly corruption and pollution). That did not work out so well and now China wants to make nice before a fearful Japan expands its military and becomes a real, rather than imaginary, military threat. Already opinion polls in Japan show most (over 80 percent) of the population is hostile to China while about the same number look favorably on the United States. Fear of China has even caused Japan and South Korea to become close allies for the first time in forever.
Japan is also waiting to see what happens if a Japanese firm wins a $43 contract to build twelve large submarines for Australia. German and French firms are also putting in bids but Japan is a new entrant into the international submarine market because Japan recently changed its laws that long prohibited Japanese firms from exporting weapons. Put in place after World War II these laws have become unpopular because of the growing military and economic threat from China. Exporting weapons addresses both of these problems. But in a revealing move the German manufacturer publicly warned Australia that buying Japanese could trigger economic retaliation from China. Most Western nations just ignore these Chinese threats and China has learned to not try and follow through against major economic powers like Germany or the United States. Japan might be treated differently. Then again, maybe not.
Amidst all this senior American defense officials are pointing out that China is becoming so powerful that current U.S. forces might not be able a Chinese military move if it happened at the same time U.S. forces were tied down in the Middle East and Russia.
China has some military victories to brag about. Thus senior officials are talking about how ethnic violence is way down in Xinjiang over the last year. The government has always described the Xinjiang problems as due to Islamic terrorism but in fact it is all about the native ethnic Turk population resisting being overwhelmed by Han Chinese migration to the areas. 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 made it possible for some Islamic terrorists to survive and operate there for a while. 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 and in 2015 the security forces were told to do whatever they thought necessary to keep the peace. 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.
Any government efforts against Islamic terrorism in China is part of a larger program to shut down anyone criticizing the government. Thus in 2015 the number of people convicted of “harming state security” (1,419) was double what it had been in 2014. All this is being publicized because China is a communist police state (and has a long pre-communist history of government intolerance to criticism) and these prosecutions (which almost always end in a conviction) are widely publicized to terrorize potential critics into silence.
March 17, 2016: North Korea launched a ballistic missile that landed 600 kilometers off its east coast. The next day China warned that such violations of UN prohibitions could have serious consequences. This is how China announces to the world, and North Korea, that some serious punishment is about to be delivered. In this case it is usually a crackdown on something that is not officially condoned, like quietly allowing North Korea to move illegal exports via China or for North Korean secret police to quietly (and in civilian clothes) pursue North Koreans in China who are not supposed to be there. This sort of retaliation is a real threat to North Korea. For example in January 2016 rumors began to surface in northeast China of a small team (it turned out to be three people) of North Korean secret police trying to discreetly find and bring back three senior North Korean officials who had fled to China. Actually, one of the three was working in China when he disappeared. Apparently the North Korean government wanted to keep this incident quiet but the three men the agents sought were known to some of the Koreans and Chinese questioned and that was what eventually made the investigation too interesting to keep quiet about. It was also noticed that the three agents seemed increasingly desperate as time went by with no results. That was probably because North Korea, in fear of secret policemen defecting to China, only sends those who have something to lose (like wife, parents, children) back in North Korea. Moreover these agents are often told that failure is not an option. This has led to some agents fabricating evidence to satisfy their bosses back home. If that led to innocents being punished, so what. Getting away with that sort of things is what secret police do. China cooperates with all this as it has done for decades. But that appears to be changing.
March 15, 2016: Indonesian police tried to arrest two Chinese citizens suspected of Islamic terrorist activity but the men refused and were killed in a shootout. The two turned out to be Chinese Uighurs from northwest China. It is believed that most Uighur Islamic terrorists have fled China because of the increasingly harsh campaign against Islamic terrorists in China. These two wanted to go to Syria and join ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) but were lured to Indonesia because it was easier and cheaper to reach and they were told they could gain experience and make some money before moving on to Syria.
March 13, 2016: India reports that its border forces have spotted Chinese troops on the Pakistani side of the LOC (Line of Control) in Kashmir. Chinese troops often cross the border in the nearby Indian state of Ladakh (northwest India). The Chinese are apparently in Pakistani Kashmir to work on the Karakoram Highway which connects Pakistan and China via Pakistani Kashmir and some of the roughest terrain in the world. Trade between Pakistan and China is increasing and the 1,800 kilometer long Karakoram Highway has been undergoing upgrades since 2010 to increase capacity. These improvements also make it possible for China to move military forces into northern Pakistan more quickly, something the Pakistanis like because it scares India. The highway was built largely by China and opened in 1979 after over a decade of effort. Meanwhile in Ladakh Chinese threats have halted construction of a new road on the Indian side of the border in territory claimed by China. In the last few years China has sent in troops and civilians to “protest” Indian activities on the Indian side of the border when anything happens on terrain China claims. The diplomats are trying to sort this out while the troops glare at each other.
March 7, 2016: State controlled media made much of the fact that the navy received three new amphibious ships today. These were 7,000 ton LSTs and it was the first time the navy had received three new major ships in one day. The government also pointed out that Chinese shipyards had delivered over 100 new warships since 2012. All this was meant to make the Chinese feel good and for the neighbors feel scared.
March 2, 2016: The UN approved a number of new sanctions on North Korea. What makes these sanctions different is that China and the United States agreed on them and they include some very harsh new measures. This agreement was the result of meetings and negotiations that began shortly after the January 6th North Korean nuclear test. In the past China has made a show of reluctantly going along with more sanctions on North Korea but this time China made it clear that it is behind the latest round of sanctions and responsible for suggesting some of them. The message to North Korea is that China will not look the other way on any of these new sanctions, or most of the existing ones either.
February 29, 2016: The government
announced China will provide Afghanistan with $70 million in military aid. This is a continuation of increasingly close relations with China. For example in early 2015 Afghanistan admitted that it had an arrangement with China whereby Afghanistan would seize and turn over to China any Chinese Moslems (especially Turkic Uighurs) found in Afghanistan. In return China increased the diplomatic and economic pressure on Pakistan to stop supporting Islamic terrorists attacking Afghanistan. China is the largest foreign investor in Pakistan as well as the main source of modern weapons, so when China talks Pakistan must listen and at least pretend to act. China is also becoming a major source of foreign aid and military assistance for Afghanistan.