Internet photos (of ship mockups for training) and chatter indicate that China is preparing to begin construction of a new (Type 055) 12,000 ton cruiser class ship with over a hundred VLS tubes and much else besides. This would be the largest surface combat ship China has ever built. Carriers, which are much larger, are also planned.
Chinese economic growth continues to slow down and there is growing concern that the government is hiding many details of the problems involved. Chinese and foreign investors are increasingly concerned about the veracity of government economic data use to mask the real dangers. Because of the Internet, and despite Chinese efforts to “control” (censor and influence) information, it is possible to gather enough economic data to seriously challenge official government numbers. This is forcing the Chinese to reveal ugly truths they would prefer to keep hidden. China is trying to clean up the corruption in the banking sector and state owned enterprises but does not want the public watching. That’s partly because a lot of senior officials (present and past) were criminally responsible for this mess and partly because if these credit and government budget problems are not fixed there could be a major financial crises and years of economic depression. Most Chinese also know that if a crises is imminent government officials want to get the information first so they can save as much as possible of their personal wealth before the Chinese currency and stock markets lose most of their value. This is one reason why the government wants to control anti-corruption efforts, lest the public find out too many details of how badly behaved their leaders still are. Most Chinese already know their government is full of corrupt and inefficient officials but too many details of this mess could trigger another major uprising. It’s happened before, many times, in Chinese history. In the mid-19th century the Taiping uprising killed over 20 million. This little known (outside China) conflict was one of the four mega-wars (the Napoleonic Wars, the Taiping Rebellion, World Wars I and II) which together accounted for over 70 percent of the 250 million war dead since 1800.
The increased border security imposed since Kim Jong Un became the hereditary dictator in North Korea in 2011 has seen the number of North Korean defectors reaching South Korea decline 52 percent (to 1,396) from the peak year (2,914 in 2009). This was accomplished with the cooperation of China. The total number of people escaping from North Korea has only declined about a third because far fewer are seeking to make it all the way to South Korea, which requires getting to a country, like Thailand, that has a South Korean embassy and local police who tolerate North Korean refugees arriving to visit the embassy for sanctuary and transportation to South Korea. For many escapees it is easier and cheaper to stay in China or go to some other country. China tolerates this as long as the North Korean illegals behave and, if caught, provide useful information about what is going on inside North Korea. While the cost of hiring a people smuggler to get you into China has doubled since 2011 there are a growing number of relatively wealthy people in North Korea (because of the legalized markets) and many of them are getting out. There are about 28,000 North Korea refugees in South Korea and about ten times as many in China and a growing number showing up, often illegally, in other countries.
The Philippines, Japan and Vietnam are encouraging the United States to follow through with plans to have American aircraft and warships regularly challenge parts of the South China Sea that China claims to control. None of China’s neighbors believe legal action will make China halt its continuing moves down there. China is now attempting to regulate how other countries can use it (for fishing, oil exploration, or even transit via sea or air). Only American military power can provide an obstacle the Chinese cannot just brush aside, at least not without risk of escalation and violent encounters. It has long been American policy to actively oppose the sort of claims China is making. As recently as 2014 the U.S. sent aircraft and warships to challenge 19 such claims by six countries (China, Iran, Philippines, Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela). China gets most of the media coverage in this area but China is not the only one doing it. But then China has been the most aggressively, militarily, in expanding those claims. In addition to building small islands (from sand dredged from reefs and sand bars) China now plans to build light houses and other “navigation and control” facilities which will be run by Chinese government staff. The Philippines is surrounded by shallow waters that are full of reefs and shoals that are just below the surface. This includes over a third of the South China Sea. Larger ships must move carefully through these waters and groundings are common. A Chinese warship recently went aground in 2013. So far American opposition to China has been very restrained and not persuaded the Chinese to slow down.
But there is hope because this sort of aggression has become a widespread and persistent problem, so much so that once the Cold War ended in 1991 there was finally an opportunity to get this all sorted out. This resulted in an international treaty that was signed by most nations involved with these disputes. The 1994 Law of the Sea treaty recognizes the waters 22 kilometers from land as under the jurisdiction of the nation controlling the nearest land. That means ships cannot enter these "territorial waters" without permission. More importantly 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. While the new agreements eliminated or reduced many of the existing or potential disputes it did not completely eliminate them. Thus some nations keep violating the agreements, usually because they feel their claims supersede the international agreements. China is the most frequent abuser of the 1994 treaty, which it signed. For example China claims that American electronic monitoring ships are conducting illegal espionage while in the Chinese EEZ. But the 1994 treaty says nothing about such matters. China is simply doing what China has been doing for centuries, trying to impose its will on neighbors, or anyone venturing into what China considers areas under its control. China is not alone, but because China is pushing the limits of how the 1994 law can be interpreted (or misinterpreted) other nations with similar opportunities to lay claim to crucial chunks of the seascape are ready to emulate China if some of the more aggressive Chinese ploys actually work.
China’s neighbors urge the United States to be more forceful against China in part because these countries understand better than most Westerners that growing Chinese military power is more myth (mainly because of corruption) than reality. Even Chinese military and political officials speak openly (if not in the mass media) about the problems. While many of these discussions never get translated many people in neighboring nations speak and read Chinese and can get access (often via the Internet) to these discussions. So far the Americans seem to be heeding the official Chinese government pronouncements (the ones broadcast in English) that the modern Chinese military is a force to be feared, especially by the United States. The neighbors, and many Chinese (including senior military leaders) fear an actual armed confrontation with American forces, or even U.S. allies (Taiwan, South Korea, Japan) trained and equipped like Americans. It is feared that Chinese forces would not do well. Meanwhile the Americans do continue to send warships and aircraft through the South China Sea while very obviously ignoring Chinese efforts to control access.
China is also putting its aggressive territorial claims against India on hold, apparently the better to concentrate on the South China Sea. This has led to Japan and the Philippines entering into discussions over the terms for the establishment of Japanese navy and air force use of Filipino military bases.
June 4, 2015: In Hong Kong over 100,000 people gathered to commemorate the 26th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in the Chinese capital. This spontaneous uprising scared Chinese officials a great dead as they saw it as potentially a Chinese version of the 1989 collapse of communist rule in East Europe. Every year at this time Chinese Internet censors are noticeably more active in a continuing effort to keep any news of the 1989 uprising from the Chinese public. Any discussion of the savage crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in 1989 has been banned since 1989 and has been successful at keeping most Chinese from knowing the details, or caring much about it. However many Chinese are aware that something happened. There are so many nasty aspects of Chinese history that Chinese are dimly aware of but not particularly curious about. In China there is a lot to forget and good reasons for doing so.
China and South Korea signed a free-trade deal that will remove tariffs on 90 percent of goods traded between the two nations over the next 20 years.
June 3, 2015: The U.S. revealed that hackers, believed to be from China, had in April gotten into a government database and made off with personal information on four million government employees (active and retired.) It will take several weeks or months before the Chinese connection can be confirmed. Hackers can use this information for various types of online larceny, or espionage or both.
June 2, 2015: Russia delivered two Tarantul class corvettes to Vietnam. Armed with anti-ship missiles, these corvettes give Vietnam more to threaten Chinese aggression in the South China Sea with. Russia has also supplied Vietnam with six Kilo class subs as well as anti-ship missiles launched from torpedo tubes. The United States, Japan and South Korea have similar submarine capabilities.
June 1, 2015: : China announced that it will hold military exercises tomorrow along the Burmese border, including firing artillery shells into jungle areas next to Burma. These exercises are a response to fighting between Burmese troops and ethnic Chinese (Kokang) rebels within a few hundred meters of the Chinese border. This has frequently led to bullets and shells landing in China. Since this fighting began in February this stray fire has killed five Chinese civilians and wounded many more. Nearly 100,000 Burmese tribal civilians fled (most into China) the fighting.
May 31, 2015: China again issued public threats against South Korea in an effort to halt the installation of an anti-missile system. South Korea wants this American THAAD anti-ballistic missile defense system for protection from North Korean missile attack. The Chinese would 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 Korea openly refused to comply with the Chinese threats and South Korean public opinion became even more enthusiastic about the high tech and very expensive (over $100 million per launcher and associated equipment) THAAD system. China sees South Korea more of an ally of the United States and a potential wartime foe than as an ally in attempts to keep North Korea from doing anything that would cause major economic and diplomatic problems (like starting a war). South Korea ignores the Chinese threat noting that China has done nothing to interfere with the profitable, and growing, trade between the two countries.
May 29, 2015: The government ordered that there must be Communist Party members (for oversight purposes) in all Chinese and NGOs (non-governmental organizations). Foreign NGOs (including large ones like the Red Cross) are already monitored by the secret police. But China is having the growing problems with local NGOs and has noted Russia has taken the lead in this area. This includes more surveillance and regulation of NGOs. China is particularly wary of local pro-democracy and anti-corruption NGOs. These are increasingly popular and abundant as the Chinese middle class grows. The government is angry at the NGOs and pro-reform groups for publicizing corruption among businessmen and government officials. Like Russia the government has long accused Western nations of working with pro-democracy NGOs to spy on China. Western states deny it. The government has been campaigning against NGOs and foreign influences in general since the 1989 pro-democracy unrest made it clear how troublesome these foreign ideas could be. Russia has been actively forcing foreign NGOs out of the country since 2006. Western countries see this as part of an effort to turn Russia back into a paranoid police state, as it was during the Soviet and Czarist periods (as in the last thousand years). China is fine with this and would prefer Russia be more like the Soviet Union than a Western democracy. After all, China is still, by law and in practice a communist police state.
May 26, 2015: The U.S. reported that China recently moved self-propelled artillery vehicles to one of the new artificial islands it has built. In this case the two artillery vehicles were within range of areas claimed by Vietnam. The two vehicles were later removed and this was apparently part of a training exercise. China is increasingly sending its amphibious ships (including the ones that can transport and land heavy vehicles) into the South China Sea for training.
In Japan diplomats from the United States, South Korea, Russia, Japan and China met for a low key and informal meeting to discuss what to do about the North Korean nuclear program and the instability of North Korea in general. Currently North Korea is refusing to discuss its nukes.