Chinese aggressiveness over territorial claims is increasing on land and sea. The newly reorganized (and now much larger) coast guard is more frequently patrolling disputed waters (the entire South China Sea and in the northeast near Japan). The aggressiveness includes a lot of media support. This even means things like a new online video game (Mission Of Honor), which enables players to join battles against Japanese forces over the Diaoyu (in Chinese) Islands (Senkaku in Japanese and Tiaoyutai in Taiwan). The islands are actually islets, which are 167 kilometers northeast of Taiwan and 426 kilometers southeast of Japan's Okinawa and have a total area of 6.3 square kilometers. Taiwan also claims the islands, which were discovered by Chinese fishermen in the 16th century and taken over by Japan in 1879. They are valuable now because of the 380 kilometer economic zone nations can claim in their coastal waters. This includes fishing and possible underwater oil and gas fields. The Chinese government continues to back expanding the navy, especially building aircraft carriers and nuclear subs and using the new ships to recover disputed territory.
On land Chinese infantry patrols along the LAC (Line of Actual Control) with India are more frequently crossing the border and confronting Indian troops. 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 mostly in Tibet. China claims much territory that is now considered part of India because when Tibet was independent in the early 20th century they agreed to the MacCartney-MacDonald Line. When China reconquered Tibet in the 1950s, that border agreement was renounced as “unfair.” China has become less vocal in the media about its claims on Indian territory recently but has not abandoned these assertions and its violation on the LAC is a major crises for India (which has a defense budget one third that of China’s). China says all these border crossing incidents along the LAC are misunderstandings, but in the GPS age this is not as convincing as it used to be.
Meanwhile, China’s 4,300 kilometer border with Russia is very peaceful. Despite many historical claims on Russian territory (and some bloody border battles back in the 1970s) China officially downplays those claims for the moment and plays up the cozy relationship with Russia. But for the millions of Russians living along that border the Chinese claims are not forgotten and the belief is that Chinese aggression is not a matter of if but when.
That aggression is kept in by Chinese leaders who are not all that confident in the combat capabilities of its forces. This assessment is based on history (which Chinese leaders have traditionally paid close attention to) and the realization that not all is well within the military. Corruption continues to be a major shortcoming within the Chinese military, a situation that has been around for thousands of years. But the devil is in the details, and the government has revealed that it is hitting some of the worst corruption at its source by changing financial and management rules for the military to eliminate some of the most common scams. Audits and unexpected personnel transfers are becoming more common. Despite all this, too many military personnel still feel that corrupt behavior is an opportunity not a character flaw. In part this is because the military budget continues to grow faster than the economy. This year the defense budget increases 10.7 percent, which is about 50 percent higher than GDP growth. The military budget went up 11.2 percent last year, compared to a 12.7 and 7.5 percent in 2011 and 2010. This means that the official defense budget is now north of $115 billion. Like other communist nations, the Chinese keep a lot of military stuff outside the defense budget, so their actual defense spending is closing in on $200 billion. Chinese defense spending has more than doubled in the last decade. This has triggered an arms race with its neighbors. Even Russia has a new military upgrade program that increases defense spending by a third and devotes over 700 billion dollars in the next decade to buying new equipment. Japan, already possessing the most modern armed forces in the region, is increasing spending to maintain their qualitative edge. A decade ago China and Japan spent about the same on defense, but now China spends more than three times as much. Even India is alarmed. Spending only a third of what China does, the Indian generals and admirals are demanding more money to cope. India and China are actually devoting a lot of their additional spending to just bringing their troops up to date. Both nations have a lot of gear that was new in the 1960s and 1970s. They don't expect to be as up-to-date as the U.S., which spends over $600 billion a year, but there's plenty of newer, much better, and often quite inexpensive equipment to be had.
Chinese and Russian ground and air forces continue (until the 15th) three weeks of joint training at Chelyabinsk (south central Russia just north of Kazakhstan). Both countries had armored units and warplanes training together. What was most interesting about this was that nearly all the weapons were Russian designs (and Chinese copies). This was especially true of the tanks and warplanes. Some Chinese stuff (infantry combat vehicles and small arms) incorporated Western design ideas, but that sort of thing was the exception.
North Korea remains a major problem for China. This is apparently why the Chinese recently revealed that it has cut oil shipments to North Korea this year. The data on trade with North Korea showed that exports to North Korea dropped 13.6 percent in the first six months of this year compared to 2012. Most of the drop was accounted for by cuts in oil shipments. This was done deliberately to force North Korea to halt its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles programs, which a growing number of Chinese officials fear could be a threat to China as well as North Korea’s other neighbors (and the United States). China is the largest supplier of oil (over 500,000/3.5 million barrels last year) and the cuts have hurt the North Korea economy and military capabilities. Less obviously, China has sharply cut North Korean access to Chinese banks and transportation systems. In other words, China has sharply limited the ability of North Korea to move illegal exports (weapons) and imports (critical components for their nuclear and missile projects) via China. All this pressure began after North Korea’s third nuclear test last February. China had strongly urged North Korea not to carry out the February test and made it clear that if North Korea went ahead there would be consequences. China had never had to deal with this degree of North Korean intransigence before and there was apparently a lot of disagreement within the Chinese leadership over what to do or even what could be done. That debate is still going on. On one extreme you have the “let’s back a coup” (or even invade) crowd, while on the other you have the “persistent persuasion” advocates who believe slow, steady, and persistent will get the job done before North Korea does something incredibly stupid (like starting another war or collapsing). This has apparently caused some unease in the North Korean leadership because North Korea has been acting saner in the last two months. But a lot of madness at the top persists.
August 6, 2013: Chinese media responded angrily to Japan launching a new destroyer today. That’s because the 27,000 ton ship looks like an aircraft carrier. More worrisome is the name of the ship, the Izumo, which was the name of a Japanese cruiser that was a third the size of the new “destroyer” and led a 1937 amphibious operation against Shanghai that left over 200,000 Chinese dead. The Chinese remember all this, especially the war with Japan that began unofficially in 1931 and officially in 1937 (with the attack commanded from the Izumo). A recent opinion poll found that 90 percent of Chinese are hostile to Japan, and 90 percent of Japanese are hostile to China.
August 3, 2013: The state controlled mass media in China ran a bunch of stories praising the recent (late July) circumnavigation of Japan by five Chinese Navy ships (two destroyers, two frigates, and a supply ship). These ships arrived back from joint naval exercises off the Russian coast north of Japan on July 25th. Those exercises ended on the 14th and instead of returning directly to their bases, the Chinese task force completed a route that took them completely around Japan, the first time Chinese warships had done that. The Japanese were not amused, most Chinese were. Today the mass media rubbed it in.