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Rebuilding The Empire
by James Dunnigan
December 21, 2013

The Philippines and Japan announced further military cooperation to deal with growing Chinese claims on offshore areas that have long been considered the property of South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Vietnam. These five nations have formed a loose coalition, along with the United States and Australia, to oppose the Chinese aggression. India, also faced with extensive Chinese land claims, is something of an associated member of this group. The coalition gets stronger every time China makes another aggressive move, as happened on November 23 rd, when China claimed control over large areas of international air space via an expanded ADIZ (air defense identification zone). China wants all military and commercial aircraft in these new ADIZs to ask permission from China before entering.  Coalition members responded by sending in military aircraft without telling China but warning their commercial aircraft operators to cooperate because it is considered impractical to provide military air cover for all the commercial traffic. China sees this as a victory, despite the obvious coalition intention to continue sending military aircraft through the ADIZ unannounced and despite whatever threats China makes. In response to that China has begun running combat air patrols through the ADIZ and apparently intends to try to intimidate some of the smaller coalition members.

South Korea has been very defiant against China regarding the ADIZs, including declaring its own ADIZ that overlaps the Chinese one. Japan has the most powerful military force, next to China and the U.S., in the region and is taking the lead in opposing China. This bothers China a great deal but plays into Chinese paranoia about foreign enemies plotting to block Chinese attempts to regain what has been lost during the last two centuries of rebellion, civil war, and Western aggression. This plays well inside China, where the communist government uses this empire building and reviving lost Chinese glory to distract people from the corruption and poor governance the Communist Party provided.

The government is trying to reduce the corruption and make the government more effective, but that has been the goal of Chinese leaders for thousands of years and has never been easy to achieve. To thoughtful Chinese their current government is simply another “dynasty” that is pretending it’s something new and different. But it’s the same old bunch of wealthy, corrupt, and inept aristocrats doing whatever it takes to hang onto their wealth and power. Democracy might change that. Chinese have seen democracy work its magic in Taiwan and Singapore. So the old “democracy won’t work for Chinese” attitude is no longer very convincing. The old imperial forms of government are not working in the 21st century and few Chinese are willing to go through another revolution to get a democracy. But there is the memory of what happened to the Russian communist empire in 1989-91. This haunts the communist bureaucrats who run China who, mindful of Chinese history, know that spontaneous mass uprisings are not unknown and can overthrow imperial rule. The people may not want a revolution but the people may, like the communist subjects of Eastern Europe and Russia did starting in 1989, just start saying “enough” and doing the impossible.

That scenario is also threatening to play out in neighboring North Korea. There an even harsher socialist dictatorship has threatened a key portion of China’s defensive strategy by coming closer to collapse. China wants buffer states on its borders to keep potential foes as far as possible from the heartland (the vast river valleys on the east coast of Asia that contain most of China’s agriculture, population, and industrial wealth). If North Korea collapses, China has a problem and North Korea gets more unstable with every passing year. The most recent problem was the very public, dismissal of the uncle of 30 year old North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The uncle (Jang Sung Taek, who is married to the sister of Kim Jong Uns father) was purged for corruption but also because the Jang was seen as too cozy with China. Jang was a key Chinese asset in its attempt to get the North Koreans to reform their economy. But Jang overplayed his hand and is now under arrest. China is not happy and may push back. That may halt cooperation in reducing the number of people escaping from North Korea via China. North Korean secret police and intelligence agencies have been ordered to do more to prevent people from fleeing the country. This time around more attention is being paid to families that have a member who is missing and believed to be in China. There are over half a million of these “missing” North Koreans, and the intelligence services have done the math and realized that once a family losses one member to the lures of China or elsewhere (especially South Korea) more tend to follow. The government is particularly keen to halt people from going to South Korea. This is the main goal of the new program. North Korea asked China to crack down on such defections and the Chinese have been cooperating, at least a little bit. That may stop and China may cancel permission for North Korean secret police to operate on the Chinese side of the border. But then North Korea might go after the large network of Chinese sympathizers in North Korea. There are no good options in North Korea, just less bad ones.

Meanwhile, China is trying to reduce tensions with India, at least temporarily. This is aided by the fact that Indian military analysts, especially those working for the media, are openly admitting that India is at a disadvantage versus China when it comes to military power. Indians admit that the Chinese forces are better equipped and that the situation is getting worse for India. This is a bitter new reality for Indians to deal with. For decades, when Pakistan was the main foe, India always had the technological edge, in addition to spending more than five times as much on defense and having nearly twice as many troops as Pakistan. But in the last decade the Pakistani threat has declined and China has become the main antagonist. China has about as many troops but spends more than three times as much as India on defense. Increasingly, Chinese forces are equipped with more modern gear and more of it than their Indian counterparts. Now India knows how Pakistan has felt for so many years and it is not pleasant.

Western irritation with China goes beyond Chinese expansionism. Earlier this year it was revealed by Western Internet security researchers that a specific Chinese military organization, Unit 61398, has been responsible for over a thousand attacks on foreign government organizations and commercial firms since 2006. China denied this and some Unit 61398 attacks ceased and others became more discreet for a month or so. But since then Unit 61398 has apparently returned to business as usual. The Chinese found that, as usual, even when one of their Cyber War organizations was identified by name and described in detail there was little anyone would or could do about it. There was obviously a Chinese reaction when the initial news became headlines, but after a month or so it was realized that it didn’t make any difference and the Chinese hackers went back to making war on the rest of the world with their usual reckless abandon. Unit 61398 is believed to consist of several thousand full time military and civilian personnel as well as part-time civilians (often contractors brought in for a specific project).

China's Cyber War hackers have become easier to identify because they have been getting cocky and careless. Internet security researchers have found identical bits of code (the human readable text that programmers create and then turn into smaller binary code for computers to use) and techniques for using it in some of the hacking software used and commercial software sold by some firms in China and known to work for the Chinese military. Similar patterns have been found in hacker code left behind during attacks on American military and corporate networks. The best hackers hide their tracks better than this. The Chinese hackers have found that it doesn’t matter. Their government will protect them. Chinese Information War operations are increasingly being tracked down and examined in detail in the West, but apparently Chinese leaders decided to keep going with these operations and not make a major effort to conceal them.

In another first, China has found its first customer for its locally made submarines. Bangladesh has ordered two submarines from China. The specific type of sub was not mentioned but it was probably the Type 39 class, which is relatively modern and very similar to the Russian Kilo class that is a popular export item for Russia. The Type 39 is the first successful Chinese designed and built submarine. China currently has 13 Song class, 12 Kilo class, 7 Yuan class, and 18 Ming (improved Russian Romeo) class diesel-electric boats. The Song/Yuan class subs are meant to replace the elderly Mings. China is in the process of buying some even more advanced diesel-electric submarine technology from Russia for a new class of boats. This may change if Russia gets upset about China exporting cloned Kilos (which the Song boats could be considered, although China denies it). There are only 4 Shang class and 3 Han class SSNs, as the Chinese are still having a lot of problems with nuclear power in subs.

India is alarmed that neighboring Bangladesh is planning to buy Chinese submarines, especially since Bangladesh has never had subs before. Bangladesh is the largest customer for Chinese arms exports. India also suspects that Chinese subs have been operating in the Bay of Bengal. While China and India have been talking for months about reducing tension on their common border, China continues to claim Indian territory and establish bases in the Indian Ocean and Bay Of Bengal.

All this Chinese activity with its neighbors also includes Central Asia. To that end China has been enthusiastically pushing the activities of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). This is a regional security forum founded in Shanghai in 2001 by Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Russia, and China. The main purpose of the SCO was originally fighting Islamic terrorism. Russia, however, hoped to build the SCO into a counterbalance against NATO. SCO members conduct joint military exercises, mostly for show. They also share intel on terrorists, which is often useful. Iran, India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mongolia, and Turkey also want to join the SCO. These nations are allowed to send observers to meetings. China has put more emphasis on economic cooperation because greater Chinese economic power means that China is replacing Russia as the principal investor and trading partner throughout the region. Russia does not like to dwell on this, because it means China is expanding its economic and political power at Russian expense. On paper China is now the dominant military power in Eurasia, a fact that Russia likes to downplay. Many Russians fear that the aggression China is demonstrating with India and everyone bordering the South China Sea will eventually be turned towards Russia.

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