Chinese leader Xi Jinping persuaded the senior members of the government to add to his titles one (translated as “core”) that makes him equal to communist China founder Mao Zedong. No other Chinese leader since Mao Zedong (who died 40 years ago) has had that kind of power. While Mao has become popular with many Chinese, those who lived through the 1960s see Mao as a major failure. That is what led to the economic reforms that have transformed China.
Xi Jinping apparently will use this Mao-grade power to deal with the corruption that still persists in the senior ranks of the government and military. To demonstrate that the recent four day meeting (“plenary session”) of the Communist Party Central Committee announced punishments for many senior party officials for corruption. The plenary session is held annually to discuss major problems and announce decisions.
The Communist Party Central Committee is group of 400 senior party members that selects the most senior government officials. Increasingly the elected (actually selected) members of the party and the Central Committee seekers of new ideas rather believers in communist doctrine. Businessmen were first allowed join the Communist Party in 2002 and the party was soon aggressively recruiting them. While still dominated by professional politicians, the Central Committee is on its way to becoming a tool for an oligarchy. This is how power shifted in Europe, as hereditary feudal rulers were replaced by wealthy entrepreneurs who often revived the ancient republic (voting was limited to the wealthy) form of government and eventually (in the 19th century) modern democracy. All this is political change is unprecedented in China and there is a lot of popular resistance to adopting such foreign practices as democracy. That attitude was formed after the elimination of the monarchy in 1910. This was followed by decades of civil war between democrats and communists. Most Chinese consider the communist rulers as flawed as the ancient monarchy and note that democracy seems to have worked for other East Asians (South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore). But the communists, like the old imperial aristocracy, are reluctant to admit defeat and many Chinese are reluctant to back radical changes. Yet even the senior leaders know that the democracies have proved most effective at dealing with corruption. In China the corruption is a major problem in the economy and the military.
Meanwhile the communist traditionalists in the government have been trying, without much success, to attract more “true believers” to the ruling Communist Party. Current membership is 88 million but the majority are there only for the political connections. Most Chinese communists are contemptuous (often openly) of communist doctrine. The government sees this as one of the main reasons communists in East Europe and Russia lost power in 1989-91. The government fears that is happening in China and a growing number of Chinese not only agree with that assessment but welcome it. Thus the apparent sincerity of the most recent anti-corruption drives. For most Chinese, the rampant corruption among Communist Party members is the main reason they want the communists gone, especially if the communist cannot deal with the crippling and oppressive culture of corruption.
Showing Off Stealth
The new J-20 stealth fighter was publically shown for the first time today at a Chinese air show. China is developing two stealth warplanes. The 25 ton J-31 first flew in 2012 and was publically shown in 2014. The more advanced 32 ton J-20 first flew in 2011. There are eight prototypes of the J-20 and several pre-production models. Both the J-31 and J-20 are expected to enter service by 2018. Japan is also developing a stealth fighter which, if it is completed, won’t enter service until the late 2020s. Russia is developing one as well and hopes to have it in service during the early 2020s. Meanwhile the United States has had stealth warplanes since the 1980s and is the only nation with operational stealth aircraft as well as combat experience with this tech.
South China Sea Charm Offensive
President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines persuaded China to allow Filipino fishermen to freely operate around Scarborough Shoal. Since late August China has had an unusual number (at least ten) of coast guard and navy ships there but since late October most of these ships have moved elsewhere and the few still around leave Filipino fishing ships alone. While still claimed by China this shoal is 220 kilometers from one of the main Filipino islands (Palawan) and 650 kilometers from Chinese territory (Hainan Island) and according to international law it is Filipino. China is trying to persuade (with offers of cash, trade and whatever) the Philippines to cooperate and that may be working but no agreements have been signed. All that is obvious is that China is willing to reciprocate when the Filipino leaders says nice things about China and bad things about the United States. Meanwhile the Philippines is technically an American ally and part of an anti-China coalition of nations threatened by Chinese territorial claims.
Duterte wants to do more business with China and has invited a Chinese trade delegation to come visit. China has also expressed willingness to help with the Filipino anti-drug campaign. China has always been hostile to illegal drugs and was the first country to pass laws (in the 18th century) against illegal use of opium. Then, as now, it was affluence (China had the largest economy on the planet back then) and willing suppliers (tribes across the border in Burma that cultivated poppies and exported the opium) that caused that first “drug epidemic” and China has never lost its enthusiasm for making life difficult for drug producers and distributors. Chinese cooperation can be useful because China is the largest market for regional producers of traditional (opium, heroin, hashish) and artificial (meth, Ecstasy and other new synthetics) drugs. What China knows about producers and distributors can be useful to the Philippines, which is a much smaller market but also a waypoint for drug smugglers moving product south and east. China also has a lot of experience with drug rehabilitation and has offered to build a large rehab center and help train the staff in Chinese methods.
Despite recently easing up on sanctions China promptly condemned the September 9th North Korean nuclear test and closed the border crossings with North Korea for three days. China is North Korea’s largest trading partner, buying over half of legal North Korean exports. In turn North Korea imports over $3 billion worth of food, medicine and other unsanctioned items from China. Nevertheless there were some severe economic reprisals by China. This had more to do with recent discoveries that North Korea had bribed a lot of Chinese officials and gone into partnership with a number of Chinese companies to illegally obtain key components for its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. The Chinese tried to keep the details of its crackdown secret but, as is often the case in the age of the Internet, this proved impossible. All this was complicated by the fact that the Chinese government has made a major public commitment to fighting domestic corruption and protecting China from foreign military threats. For decades Japan and the United States were identified as the principal foreign threats. But in the last few years the government has allowed growing public anger at North Korea to be openly discussed in Chinese media. These threats; to use nukes and ballistic missiles against China for not supplying North Korea with enough free fuel, food and other aid, had turned Chinese public opinion against North Korea, which had long been seen as an ally against the evil West and their South Korean and Japanese puppets. Until the latest North Korean nuclear test China was directing more anger at South Korean refusals to halt the expansion of their anti-missile defenses. China is still angry about that but is now more concerned with the North Korean threat. North Korea has remained defiant, continuing to test ballistic missiles that can reach all of China.
China has been less aggressive on the Indian border because of growing problems with taking control of the South China Sea. Yet in Tibet Chinese troops continue to dispute the border of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. These incidents are not supposed to happen at all because of border agreements China and India negotiated in 2013 and 2014. China claims that recent incursions were accidents and point out that their troops leave as soon as India contacts China (per the border agreements) and China is able to contact the border troops involved. But sometimes the Chinese will refuse to move and that requires a high-level meeting to resolve. There had been fewer of these incursions since 2014. There were 500 incursion in 2015, 350 in the last 12 months and about 200 so far this year. China still claims to own Arunachal Pradesh. China has always maintained that the 3,500 kilometer long border between India and Chinese Tibet (1,126 of with Arunachal Pradesh) was only temporary and since 2010 China has been more aggressive about changing it. In 2011 there were 213 of these Chinese border violations, followed by 426 in 2012 and 413 in 2013. In 2014 China protested India building roads near the Chinese border in northeastern India. The roads were in an area that new (2014) Chinese maps showing Indian territory claimed by China as actually being part of China and within China’s borders. This is just another escalation in a long-running border dispute over who owns areas like Arunachal Pradesh. In this part of northeast India there are few, if any, ethnic Chinese. The locals know that a Chinese takeover would mean drastic changes because the first thing China does in places like this is move in a lot of ethnic (Han) Chinese and marginalize the natives. This rarely ends well for the locals. While these Chinese claims have been on the books for decades, since 2000 China has become more vocal about it. That's one reason India has been rapidly increasing its defense spending. But since both nations have nuclear weapons, a major war over these border disputes is unlikely. Constant Chinese pressure is another matter. China is applying the same tactic in all its recently activated territorial claims. Constant pressure while avoiding anything that might trigger a war is seen by China as a slow but certain way to secure its claims.
October 27, 2016: The government publically complained to Japan about Japanese warplanes turning on their targeting radars when Chinese military aircraft approached Japanese air space. These aerial incursions (mainly by Chinese and Russian aircraft) have increased 76 percent this year and most of the increased activity comes from Chinese combat or patrol aircraft.
China admitted that its first domestically designed and built aircraft carrier was nearing completion. This was becoming difficult to deny because the completed hull of the carrier is clearly visible to those in, or passing near, the shipyard where is resides.
October 25, 2016: In the South China Sea Chinese coast guard ships unexpectedly depart Scarborough Shoal.
October 21, 2016: The U.S. Navy conducted another freedom of navigation exercise off the Paracels and other islands in the South China Sea in order to assure freedom of navigation in international waters. China protested but did not oppose the American destroyers. These exercises are meant to affirm that many of the Chinese claims to the entire South China Sea are invalid and that the right to free passage through China’s EEZ is assured. 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 asserts that it can control who enters its EEZ and harasses American warships and aircraft that do so. 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. The U.S. has also said it is not taking sides in the claims over disputed islands and rocks but that freedom of navigation is a primary mission of the American fleet and such missions are carried out all over the world every year. The U.S. is not giving China any exceptional treatment but is simply pointing out that China is attempting to violate international law. China is protesting that as well. This particular freedom of navigation was unique in one way; it was the first time the U.S. Third Fleet had sent warships into the Western Pacific since late 1945. In effect the U.S. is adjusting its military commands in the Pacific to reflect the fact that for nearly a decade the United States has been shifting forces from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
October 20, 2016: North Korea test fired two more of its longer range (up to 4,000 kilometers) ballistic missiles in the last week. Both tests failed and China and South Korea agreed these continued tests were not a good thing. China has quietly increased sanctions against North Korea. For example China cooperated with enforcing the international ban on North Korean commercial aircraft to the extent that the North Korea state owned airline can only operate a few routes into Russia and China. Meanwhile China is increasingly critical (especially in its state controlled media) of South Korean efforts to increase its anti-missile capabilities.
October 19, 2016: Japan will expand its military base in Djibouti. Currently that air base occupies 12 hectares (30 acres) of leased land next to the much larger Franco-American Camp Lemonnier. The Japanese expansion will increase land rent by about a million dollars a year and expand their base by over a third. Several million dollars more will be spent on upgrading and expanding facilities. The base is used mainly for maritime patrol aircraft and transports. The expansion is in response to the 2015 decision by the Chinese Navy to establish China’s first foreign naval base in Djibouti, which lies astride the narrow waterway that is the entrance to the Red Sea and at the north end is the Suez Canal. Chinese trade is a heavy user of the Suez Canal. China does not want access to the canal interrupted by pirates or anything else. One thing that helped get the Chinese government to agree to the Djibouti naval base was the air base that Japan opened there in 2011. This was the first overseas Japanese military base since World War II. This was part of the Japanese contribution to the international anti-piracy effort off Somalia. About 200 Japanese troops were stationed at the base but that will increase as that base expands.
Japan is also giving Malaysia two large (90 meters/292 foot) patrol ships. These are former Japanese ships being replaced by new models. The retired ships are in good shape and Japanese will provide training for the Malaysian crew. Japan has also provided 19 used patrol vessels to the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia. In addition Japan has donated or sold some new patrol vessels to these nations.
October 17, 2016: In the south, across the border in Burma (Shan State) four Chinese citizens were arrested or illegal silica mining. The four men were found with two trucks of silica ore. China gets upset when its citizens are arrested in northern Burma for doing what they have been doing for decades. The new elected government of Burma is under pressure to crack down on the illegal Chinese activities in the north and silica mining is one of the minor ones (compared the lumbering and jade mining).
October 15, 2016: On Yemen’s Red Sea coast Iran backed Shia rebels fired more missiles at American warships (two destroyers and an amphibious ship). None of the missiles hit the warships. The rebels are believed to be using Chinese C-802 (“Silkworm”) anti-ship missiles or even older and smaller models. Yemen bought some of these older missiles in the 1990s and the rebels are known to have captured some of them.
October 14, 2016: China recently confirmed that final details have been agreed to on the sale of eight Chinese S20 diesel-electric submarines to Pakistan. Four of these will be built in China while at the same time Chinese personnel will assist Pakistan in building another four in Pakistan. Final cost is expected to average somewhere between $500 million and $600 million each. Since early 2014 China and Pakistan have been negotiating prices and terms for the sale of more advanced Chinese Type 41 subs. At first it was believed that Pakistan wanted six subs, but the final deal specified eight. Currently the Pakistani Navy has five submarines and plans to use all of them against India (which is also considered a Chinese foe).
October 11, 2016: In the capital several thousand former officers, wearing combat uniforms, quietly stood near the Ministry of Defense headquarters for most of the day. There were no threatening moves or angry speeches. Occasionally the groups would sing a patriotic song and a few of them admitted (anonymously) to reporters that they were there to protest the shabby treatment career officers had received during the massive troop reductions of the 1980s and 90s, when the military went from 4.5 million to about half that. China retired a lot of military officers, especially in the 1990s. It provided lots of retraining for these officers, in an attempt to encourage them to become businessmen. Most of these officers expected a government job, but there are not enough of those to go around these days and not much interest in older former officers by the firms that are hiring. The government said they would have a solution by early 2017 that would address the unemployment and poverty among many of the former officers. There were about 115 public demonstrations a month by unemployed workers in 2015 but so far in 2016 that has nearly doubled (to 227 a month).
The government cannot accuse these former officers of being enemies of China because the loyalty of the military has always been the key to continued Chinese Communist Party rule. But the former officers often speak up once they are no longer on duty. In 2015 many retired officers told the media that corruption was still rampant in the military. These retired officers would not be allowed to make such public statements without government permission (otherwise they could be prosecuted for treason by revealing “state secrets”). For a long time details on corruption in the military was considered a state secret. In 2014 Retired Chinese military officers have been ordered to return government real estate they have been using without permission. This involves the corrupt practice of retired officers receiving the use of additional residential property as an informal retirement benefit. This is another form of corruption in the military and was discovered when the government conducted a thorough audit of government owned residential property in areas where informants had indicated retired officers were up to no good. This is part of an effort, begun in 2012, to put a major dent into the corrupt practices found in the military.
In late 2004 the government halted its long term program of reducing military manpower to under two million. Current strength of 2.3 million has been maintained since 2004. Partly, this is to help with the unemployment problem. About 44 percent of the troops are conscripted for two years, the rest are volunteers for longer periods. However, there are problems recruiting capable officers. So in 2005 officer salaries were increased, eventually more than doubling. The lowest ranking officers (2nd lieutenants) saw their monthly pay go from $240 to $360 in the next few years. However, a colonel only makes $720 a month. Special allowances and bonuses double the pay for most officers in the navy, air force and ballistic missile units. The booming economy offers better paying, and more comfortable, jobs to young men with education and leadership ability. At the same time the government refused to increase the benefits paid to officers forced out of the military before 2004. The reason given was shortage of funds, which is probably true. But the former officers who are in the worst financial shape because of that want some relief.
October 10, 2016: Japan announced it would reinforce coast guard patrols off the Senkaku Islands in order to deal with the increased poaching by Chinese fishing boats. Not all of this poaching takes place off the Senkaku Islands but most of the new incidents have. These incursions were up 36 percent (so far) in 2016. By 2018 Japan will have nine more patrol ships on duty off the Senkakus and four times as many personnel assigned to monitoring (from patrol boats or land stations) what is going on off those islands. All this was largely prompted by what happened in August, when Japan protested but did not respond militarily as China sent 230 fishing boats and seven armed coast guard ships into Japanese territorial waters (within 22 kilometers of land) around the Senkaku islands on August 5th. Japan issued an official protest which China dismissed because China does not recognize Japanese claims to Senkaku. It was up to Japan to act, or not act, to stop the Chinese from physically taking possession of the Senkakus and the surrounding waters. This was a major escalation and if Japan does not get China to withdraw this will be a signal to the growing anti-China coalition that resistance is futile. Earlier in 2016 Japan announced the creation of a new naval task force to patrol and defend the Senkaku Islands. This force consists of ten new 1,500 patrol ships and two older vessels carrying helicopters. Japan has controlled the Senkakus for over a century and says it will use force to retain possession. China has challenged Japan and its allies to do just that.
October 7, 2016: Off the west coast of South Korea a Chinese fishing boat rammed a South Korean Coast Guard boat and sank it. There were no injuries and China insisted that the incident occurred in an area that South Korea agreed (in a fishing agreement with China) they would not use their coast guard. South Korea disagreed and has changed its rules to allow coast guard crews to use weapons against foreign fishing boats that act in a threatening manner. All this followed a September 29th incident where a Chinese fishing trawler had three (of 17) crew killed by a fire started while they were trying to flee South Korean coast guard ships. The other 14 Chinese sailors were jailed until the situation could be resolved (usually by China paying a large fine).
The Filipino Defense Ministry informed the United States that planned joint naval patrols of the South China Sea were temporarily on hold.
October 6, 2016: Taiwan has asked Google to hide new construction on Itu Aba Island. That activity was not much of a news item even though it was clearly visible on Google Earth. Taiwan was soon reminded that making that request has quite an opposite effect. Countries can request that Google not show classified military facilities but in making that request they point out where the classified operation is. So far, a lot of this stuff is just there for anyone to find. And Internet users find it. This is called "crowdsourcing" (where large numbers of people accomplish impressive feats of research or analysis because they can quickly mobilize and get to the task via the Internet). The U.S. military will not say that they appreciate the work done via crowdsourcing, but individual analysts and intelligence officials have made it known, unofficially, that crowdsourcing is another useful tool that unexpectedly came their way via the Internet. For Taiwan requesting that Google blur out or “erase” there new concrete structures (apparently for mounting air defense systems) simply provided more publicity for the construction effort that was apparently completed by late 2015.
October 5, 2016: South Korea media reported that three more North Korean government officials had defected (since September) in the Chinese capital. China shows its displeasure with North Korea by not trying to interfere with these defections.
October 4, 2016: People smugglers in northeast China report an increase in business (or at least inquiries) from high ranking North Korean officials. The cause is the declining standard of living, the growing corruption (and demands for bribes) and, most importantly, growing use of foreign media as a source of news. Chinese who regularly work with North Koreans (legally or otherwise) report that more than half of their North Korean contacts appear (or openly admit) to be regular users of foreign media. As a result people at all levels of North Korean society have done the math and realized that all these nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles are expensive (a favorite topic in South Korean media, complete with financial and economic data to explain it) and that is now seen as the main reason the North Korean economy is in bad shape and getting worse. North Korean police reports confirm this because a growing number of people are caught using state approved radios (that only can access a few frequencies) that have been illegally modified to receive foreign (especially South Korean) broadcasts. Modifying North Korean radios has become another illegal but booming business in the north. Also growing in popularity are tiny radios and digital music (and recorded radio shows) smuggled in from China. These allow northerners to more easily avoid detection while they indulge in forbidden media access. All this was foreseen in the north.