China is increasingly angry at Koreans in general for not showing sufficient respect. The biggest (and growing) problem is North Korea. China wants a stable communist dictatorship in North Korea, not a failed government that would send several million starving refugees fleeing across the border. China also does not want North Korea to collapse and get absorbed by South Korea. That would put a democracy on China's border and give many Chinese a view of how things might be much better with a different political system in China. Koreans are seen as "younger brothers" to China, and it's embarrassing if the younger brother outdoes his older sibling. South Korean democracy is played down in China, but that would be difficult if a democratic, united, Korea were right on the border.
The Chinese have made it more obvious to the North Korean leadership that China will support pro-China elements in the North Korean government if the current North Korean leadership fails to turn things around. China has recently sent 150,000 additional troops to the North Korean border to emphasize Chinese concern. While many of these troops are there for training (which the Chinese Army is doing a lot more of), other are to reinforce border security and most of those additional troops are showing up at the border so North Koreans can see them and draw their own conclusions. The latest escalation is accompanied by blunt suggestions in Chinese state controlled media that perhaps some Chinese military action inside North Korea might be more persuasive.
At the moment the Chinese are concentrating on persuading North Korea to drop its nuclear weapons program, which is seen as aimed at China as well as South Korea, Japan and the United States. The Chinese don't mind if the North Koreans extract a high price from South Korea, Japan and America for this, as long as the nukes are gone, and stay gone. Again, failure to comply may lead to more energetic action against Kim dynasty rule.
These threats resonate with Koreans. For thousands of years China has been the “big brother” in East Asia and all neighboring states are “little brothers” who must behave accordingly and not do anything to make big brother look bad. While North Korea likes to brag that it became blood brothers with China during the Korean War (1950-53) the truth of the matter is that the North Koreans have always resented the overbearing Chinese. This has been going on for over a thousand years and now the North Koreans have found ways to manipulate, humiliate and frustrate their unpopular big brother. You really have to be Korean to appreciate this and the Chinese would really like to find some way out of this mess. Threatening North Korea with attack is now on the table because economic punishment does not seem to have worked.
For China the main threat from North Korea is also economic. China wants to avoid chaos in North Korea because that would be bad for the Chinese economy and increase the threat of conflict with even more dangerous opponents like Japan, South Korea and the United States. The most extreme (but acceptable) measures China could try include literally taking control of North Korea, something which China has done in the distant past. Staging a coup in North Korea has always been a possibility but the paranoid (for good reason in this case) North Korean leadership has made it difficult for China to recruit enough North Korean officials to make this feasible. That said, the potential is still there and China could still go this route. Many North Koreans believe that the Chinese will just move in and take over if it appears that the North Korean government is about to fall apart or otherwise becoming too dangerous to China. The Chinese takeover plan apparently includes installing pro-Chinese North Koreans as head of a new "North Korean" government, and instituting the kind of economic reforms they have been urging the North Korean to undertake for over a decade. Fear of this sort of thing is apparently a major reason why Kim Jong Un had his older brother assassinated in February. The brother had frequently let it be known that he had no interest in running North Korea. China just wants a less self-destructive ruler in North Korea but there doesn’t appear to be any viable candidates.
The Chinese do not want North Korea to merge with South Korea either. All the neighbors (especially China and South Korea) want North Korea to stay independent, and harmless. Thus China is willing to unofficially annex North Korea, knowing that the South Koreans would go along with this as long as the fiction of North Korean independence was maintained. South Korea won't admit this, but most South Koreans know that absorbing North Korea would put a big dent in South Korean living standards. That is more unpopular than any other outcome. While all Koreans would like a united Korea, far fewer are willing to pay the price.
The Surly South
South Korea has also been a troublesome younger brother. Since early 2017 China has increased its economic pressure on South Korea to cancel deployment of THAAD anti-missile missiles. Throughout 2016 the economic pressure was not working out so but that is changing as China ordered (“suggested”) in early March that Chinese tourists avoid South Korea. That had an immediate impact because most Chinese (who account for about half the tourist traffic in South Korea) obeyed and stayed away. Normally a quarter of South Korean exports go to China and as the losses pile up more South Koreans feel the impact personally. China has also suggested to its political allies in South Korea (leftist parties that have been losing influence as North Korea became more of a problem) to back candidates for the special presidential election (to replace the conservative president recently impeached for corruption) who will be more attentive to Chinese needs. That will be a hard sell and is costing China a lot of cash and goodwill internally (a lot of Chinese are fans of South Korean culture and products) and externally (all the other neighbors note the bullying and see themselves as a potential victim).
The economic pressure began in 2016 when China banned all legal (licensed) use of South Korean movies, TV shows and popular music inside China. Months later that was expanded to include popular consumer items like air purifiers and heated toilet seats. The bans began with the aspects of South Korean culture were most popular in China and very lucrative for the South Korean firms that produce them. It’s also a point of pride for South Koreans in general that Chinese admire, and pay for, a very public aspect of Korean culture. The Chinese intimidation campaign went into high gear after China suspended discussions on joint defense matters in early November 2016 because South Korea made it clear it would not, under any circumstances, abandon plans to install American THAAD anti-missile systems.
Because of continued North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile development South Korea sped up deployment and now plans to have THAAD operational in 2017, several years earlier than originally planned. China, Russia and North Korea have long opposed THAAD. China will not come right out and say it but they object mainly because THAAD would also make South Korea less vulnerable to intimidation by Chinese ballistic missiles. South Korean voters understand that so all the threats are having less impact than China expected but China keeps adding to the economic pain and South Koreans are unhappy with the economic cost, as well as a reminder that China is the historical threat to Korean independence.
China wants Korea to behave more like the other neighbors. Cambodia, Burma, Thailand and the Philippines take the Chinese money and behave. Why can’t the Koreans? Chinese expect the Japanese (who are believed to be part Korean) to be stubborn and troublesome but the Koreans should know better. Apparently not.
April 11, 2017: A Chinese daily newspaper (Global Times) known for being a state-controlled media outlet used to test new ideas published an item today pointing out that if North Korea does not abandon its nuclear weapons program (which is seen as a threat to China) then China will bomb the nuclear facilities and North Korea will have to live with that or suffer further military and economic consequences they cannot respond to (by attacking China). This article also warned the United States not to contemplate doing this, as North Korea was for neighbor China to deal with, not some distant superpower. Within hours the article was removed from the Global Times website, but many people had seen it and it still existed in Google cache. In other words, China was telling North Korea that stronger measures from China were now a possibility. At the same time the U.S. was making it clear that the kind of attack on Syria the U.S. recently carried out could be tried on North Korea. China agrees that it might come to that but they insist that the bombs or missiles be Chinese.
April 10, 2017: The government is offering cash rewards of up to $72,000 to Chinese who supply useful information about foreign spies operating in the Chinese capital. This sort of thing is meant to intimidate foreign visitors and by giving out some big rewards from time it will cheer people up. Chinese cities, especially the capital, have some of the most unhealthy air in the world.
April 9, 2017: South Korea and the United States made official announcements that the U.S. was not considering an attack on Kim Jong Un in an effort to replaced his government. Kim Jong Un is alarmed that on April 6th the U.S. bombed a Syrian airbase because Syria used nerve gas against its own people. Today an American naval task force (containing a large aircraft carrier and three destroyers armed with cruise missiles) was ordered to move immediately from Singapore to the Korean coast. What’s a paranoid dictator to think? The U.S. has also recently said that from now on it is ignoring all the “media theater” North Korea loves to broadcast and concentrating on concrete measures to remove nuclear weapons and long range missiles from North Korea. Kim Jong Un keeps issuing statements that war is imminent. But he and his predecessors have been doing that for a long time and there has been no war. These declarations no longer have any meaning and the Americans are calling out Kim Jong Un on that point. Everyone knows that if Kim Jong Un ordered a military attack on South Korea, Japan and any U.S. forces they can reach it would be the end of Kim rule in North Korea and probably the end of Kim Jong Un as well.
April 7, 2017: China ordered companies that buy North Korean coal to refuse shipments from now on. This is a response to the North Korean missile tests two days ago. In February China ordered a halt to all coal imports from North Korea but corruption got around this. This was essential for North Korea because coal exports to China account for at more than half the foreign currency North Korea earns each year from China (which accounts for 90 percent of all North Korean legal foreign trade). This is a major problem for North Korea because there is no one else they can sell their coal to while China will have no problem finding other suppliers (like the United States). Today North Korean ships carrying coal were turned away from the Chinese ports where the still deliver the coal illegally. How long this enforcement of the sanctions will last is unknown but North Korea understands that the corruption in China means anything is possible if you can pay. And the cost of getting sanctioned coal into China just went way up.
Meanwhile Japan extended its 2006 economic sanctions against North Korea for two more years. Until 2006 one of the best sources of cash for North Korea was the 600,000 ethnic Koreans living in Japan. The Japanese Koreans long viewed North Korea as some kind of fictional paradise, especially because of North Koreas hostility to Japan. While the Koreans in Japan prospered (at least compared to Koreans in North Korea), they also continued to suffer discrimination from Japanese. But as word of the great North Korean famine of the 1990s leaked out, many Koreans in Japan lost faith in their dreams. North Korea was no paradise, no promised land. Some moved to South Korea, others got more comfortable with Japanese culture, and everyone was less willing to contribute cash to the cause up north. But even in 2006 there were still many Japanese Koreans willing to do business with North Korea but the sanctions put a large dent in that.
April 6, 2017: In the United States the Chinese leader and the new American president met for the first time. They were polite to each other but while the two leaders were having dinner the United States launched a cruise missile attack on Syria. The Chinese leader was personally (and quietly) informed of this by his host before the meal ended. As soon as the Chinese leader was back in China the Chinese media became more critical of these American moves and basically told the Americans that if North Korea has to be bombed, we will do it.
South Korea revealed that it had recently conducted a successful test of a locally made solid fuel ballistic missile with a range of 800 kilometers. This enables South Korea to hit targets anywhere in North Korea with weapons (ballistic missiles) that North Korea is not equipped to stop. This comes 18 months after the announcement that a ballistic missile with a range of 500 kilometers was successfully tested. That test ended decades of restrictions on South Korean ballistic missile development. In 2012 the United States halted its efforts to restrict South Korean missile development. The South Koreans tried for over a decade to develop warmer relations with North Korea and all efforts failed. The 2010 North Korea attacks (using artillery and a torpedo than sank a warship) on South Korea changed a lot of attitudes in South Korea, and the United States. North Korea is still a big problem but since 2010 South Korea has been free to try whatever it thinks will work.
April 5, 2017: For the second time since February North Korea conducted a test of its “Polaris 2” (or KN-15) ballistic missile, which was successfully fired from canister on a tracked vehicle acting as a TEL (Transporter Erector Launcher). This launch was carried out while the Chinese president was in the United States to meet his American counterpart. That makes this particular launch appear as North Korea trying to embarrass China. Not a good idea, nor was the implications of the missiles tested. A mobile TEL carrying a ballistic missile that can reach all of South Korea and parts of Japan (and China), especially one armed with a chemical or nuclear warhead, makes North Korea a much more dangerous threat.
April 4, 2017: China is prosecuting two South Korean clergymen for assisting North Koreans to escape into China. This is part of a crackdown that began in February when China expelled 32 South Korean Christian missionaries who were working along the North Korean border. The missionaries have long worked among the many ethnic Koreans living in the area. Most of these ethnic Koreans are Chinese citizens but a growing number are illegal migrants from North Korea. The two South Korean missionaries currently being prosecuted were apparently selected for this treatment as a warning to South Koreans in general.
March 29, 2017: In the northwest Xinjiang province announced new laws that prohibited the use of Islamic veils (that conceal the face) in public as well as “excessive” beards and other items worn or carried by conservative Moslems. There was no definition of what excessive was. It was also illegal to refuse to watch state run TV or listen to radio. Many conservative Moslems have TVs and radios but only use them for religious material. Individual towns and cities in Xinjiang have already enacted bans like this but now it is province-wide. The new provincial law basically bans practices seen as purely Islamic. In early April police began searching the homes of some Moslems, looking for the now forbidden items.
March 28, 2017: Commercial photo satellites spotted Chinese J-11 fighters at the new airbase built on Woody Island in the Paracels chain. China claims airstrips like this are for supporting civilian activities.
In the south several thousand Chinese troops carried out training exercises near the Burma border. These exercises involved live fire (actual artillery and aerial bombs) against ground targets. China has been trying to persuade the Burmese government to do something about reducing the fighting (between soldiers and tribal rebels) on Burmese side of the border. This border disorder has resulted in more Burmese refugees fleeing from the violence. As many as 5,000 a week were crossing into China. This is happening despite the Chinese government ordering soldiers and police to stop Burmese refugees at the border in addition to finding those illegally inside China and forcing them to leave. These new policies (as of January) made entering China more difficult and forced those already in China to hide (or pay bribes). China complains that the latest outbreak of tribal rebel violence in Shan and Kachin States had driven over 50,000 Burmese into China since October and interfered with trade and movement across the border.
March 24, 2017: The United States imposed sanctions on 30 companies and individuals for illegally transferring weapons technology or weapons to Iran, North Korea or Syria. Those sanctioned were from China, North Korea or the UAE (United Arab Emirates). Iran responded by imposing sanctions on fifteen American companies. The United States has been pressuring China to crack down on Chinese banks and trading companies that get away with continuing to do business with North Korea despite sanctions China has agreed to support.
March 21, 2017: The government announced that during 2016 Islamic terrorist violence was down throughout China. No numbers were given. Western China has always been a threat to the government. In the northwest (Xinjiang province) there are many Turks (Uighurs and other Central Asian minorities) while in the southwest (Tibet) there is an area that had been independent from 1912 to 1951 and most ethnic Tibetans prefer independence. But these two western areas comprise over a quarter of Chinese territory but have only two percent of the population. The territory is largely dry and in the case of Tibet extremely high and cold. Thus Xinjiang has about eight times the population of Tibet but only a third more territory. Xinjiang still suffers from violent attacks on security forces and recent migrants from eastern China. There was less violence in 2016 but at the end of the year three Uighurs drove into the government compound, set off a bomb and were shot dead by police. A policeman and a civilian also died. Aside from the bomb the Uighur attackers were only armed with knives. This comes as provincial authorities were about to announce how ethnic violence was way down in Xinjiang over the last year. The government has had a media blackout in Xinjiang for years but Chinese language media outside of China has been able to interview people from Xinjiang, including people who recently served in the security forces there. Those witnesses tell a different story, indicating that during 2016 there were about twenty protests and violent incidents a week in Xinjiang. Those familiar with how Chinese censors work point out that the government can get away with saying nothing is happening as long as no ethnic Han Chinese, with kin elsewhere in China, are killed. This is especially true when the dead are soldiers, police or government officials. These deaths stir up Internet chatter among the Han majority in China. The censors can suppress such forbidden chatter but cannot eliminate it. When the government does have to admit to anti-government violence in Xinjiang they describe the perpetrators as common criminals or Islamic terrorists.
The reality is that the Xinjiang problems are more about the native ethnic Turk population resisting being overwhelmed by Han Chinese migration to the area. 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. The Xinjiang Uighurs never responded 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 where nine million of them 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 but not eliminated.
March 12, 2017: Pakistan put the first Chinese LOMADS (Low to Medium Altitude Air Defense System) HQ-16 mobile anti-aircraft missile battalion into service. Pakistan ordered three HQ-16 batteries and six search radars in 2013 and additional batteries in 2014. The HQ-16 is apparently going to become the standard medium range anti-aircraft system in Pakistan replacing elderly French systems. Ironically the Pakistanis bought the HQ-16 to replace the French Crotale system, a 1970s vintage system that both China and Pakistan used. China reverse-engineered the French Crotale system to produce the HQ-7, which entered Chinese service in 1987. The export version was first offered in 1998.
March 9, 2017: China is building an environmental monitoring station on Scarborough Shoal, which is 220 kilometers from one of the main Filipino islands (Palawan) and 650 kilometers from Chinese territory (Hainan Island) and according to international law (and a recent international court decision) it is Filipino. The Chinese say they have prior claim to most of the South China Sea and basically dares the rest of the world to try and stop them. This makes sense to most Chinese because the Chinese have long called China Zhongguo, which is usually translated into English as “middle kingdom”. But a more literal and accurate translation is “everything under the heavens.” Until the 21st century this mainly meant adjacent land areas. But now China points out that “everything” means the South China Sea as well.
March 8, 2017: China openly asked North Korea to stop its nuclear and ballistic missile tests and implied that if North Korea complied China would persuade the United States and South Korea to halt their military preparations to deal with a North Korean attack. North Korea was apparently not impressed.