The nations bordering the South China Sea, and the new islands built by China, are creating alliances and trying to persuade more distant and powerful nations (like America and India) to lend some military, or at least diplomatic support to opposing an increasingly aggressive China. Much to China’s dismay such an alliance has formed and grown stronger in 2015. Recently Japan and India formed military ties directed at Chinese aggression while Taiwan, Australia, Japan and Indonesia all created new military agreements with each other. The growth of this alliance has encouraged a reluctant United States to become more involved and aggressive in defying Chinese claims. China set out to create an empire in the South China Sea but has also generated a rapidly growing and aggressive anti-Chinese military alliance. As the old warning goes, be careful what you ask for.
Most worrisome for China are the Japanese plans for an expanded defensive system based on some 200 islands stretching some 1,400 kilometers from southern Japan to Taiwan. This includes multiple anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile launchers backed by a powerful navy and air force as well as world class surface and space based sensors and communications. Over 10,000 troops will be stationed on these islands by the end of the decade, an increase of more than 20 percent. China respects Japanese technology, almost as it much as it does American military gear. But this new Japanese military strategy includes closer military ties with the United States. This is scary for China because while Japan does not have nuclear weapons the United States does and would use them to defend Japan from Chinese attack.
China is openly ignoring the deliberations of the Permanent Court of Arbitration regarding accusations that China is acting illegally with its claims in the South China Sea. That may backfire because most other nations are not ignoring the proceedings. The court will not deliver its final ruling until mid-2016 and already China is finding that all its economic bribes and military threats are not diminishing the growing international condemnation of the Chinese claims. The Philippines, America, Australia, Japan and South Korea openly oppose the Chinese. Other nations in the area (Taiwan, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia and India) were more discrete but just as opposed. The aggressive stance on South China Sea’s claims seems to be working. An American B-52 bomber recently flew over one of the artificial islands China recently built (to strengthen their claims) and China protested this violation of sovereign Chinese territory (which international law and other nations bordering the South China Sea does not support) and the U.S. apologized for the error.
This aggression, especially in the South China Sea and the Indian border, are popular inside China, where the government has increasingly been playing the nationalist card. All Chinese know their recent history. In the 19th century the corrupt and inept imperial government lost control of much of China (Hong Kong, Manchuria, and so on) to better armed and aggressive foreigners. Then the communists took control in 1948 and began to win China some respect. Now China (still run by the communists) is asserting its ancient claims on adjacent areas, like the South China Sea. But those ancient claims also include control of Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines and much of the Russian Far East. Asserting ancient claims is how the two World Wars began but China insists it is merely protecting itself. This was frequently heard before both World Wars began.
China is expanding its power using its considerable economic power. A recent example is Thailand where a 2014 military coup brought to power an unpopular new government. China is taking advantage of this, and the pariah status of the Thai military government in the West, to make itself useful and forge stronger ties with Thailand. While the Chinese economy is in trouble, the Chinese government still has lots of cash to invest in other countries and it has been using this to buy allies. The Thai generals are eager customers. China is making the investments and offering military aid and cooperation. At the moment Thailand has had many of its usual military connections with the West suspended because of Western opposition to the military coup. The generals are not surprised at the Chinese offers and is now rushing out to replace its largely Western weapons and equipment with Chinese models. But there are other ways to cooperate with China in a military sense. This includes intelligence sharing and joint training. Thailand has also won praise in China for arresting and sending back to China pro-democracy advocates who fled persecution in China. The Thais are sending back any Chinese citizens China wants. The latest economic deals include China providing the financing and build a 900 kilometer rail line from Laotian border to the capital (Bangkok). The final price and interest rate are still being negotiated. Meanwhile China has ordered a million tons of rice and 200,000 tons of rubber from Thailand. In September China and Thailand announced a major Chinese investment that would build a high-speed (180 kilometers an hour) rail line from southern China (Kunming) to Bangkok. This would cut the cost of travel (currently mainly by air) for Chinese by more than half and increase the number of Chinese tourists to Thailand by at least two million a year. China would supply most of the $23 billion cost and construction is expected to be complete by 2021. This is part of a larger project to build a “Shanghai to Singapore” high speed rail line. China has always preferred to do business with authoritarian governments since China is still a communist police state. The communism angle has atrophied in China but the police state is thriving. Historically China has rarely been a threat and never a serious one and Thai leaders have always been willing to make deals with the Chinese. Thailand offers diplomatic support for its new friend, which is useful as China takes on a largely hostile world because of claims on most of the South China Sea. China, of course, does not criticize the police-state methods increasingly used in Thailand to deal with political opponents.
After five years of trying the Chinese Navy has finally received permission to establish its first base outside of China. This will be 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 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.
Problems with North Korea continue. There seems to an endless supply of North Korean actions that annoy China. A recent one is the ongoing North Korean effort to shut down the use of Chinese cell phones on the Chinese border. This has collided with the growing use of North Korea cell phones (which can only make calls inside North Korea). Many North Korean cell phone users on the border do not want to reach China to do anything illegal (like get forbidden Chinese or South Korean songs or videos). Often it is just to speak with friends, family or, more frequently, business associates. Thus a growing number of these legal callers on the Chinese border are taking advantage of the fact that the growing number of North Korean cell phone towers increasingly makes it possible to use a North Korean cell phone on the Chinese side of the border to legally talk to someone on the North Korean side. Technically this is illegal, but the North Korean secret police are not looking for such users and the intelligence agencies (which monitor many calls in North Korea) will not be alarmed if the calls between China and North Korea do not mention the fact that one party is actually in China. North Korean intelligence agents operating in China confirmed that this was going on and it is unclear if the North Koreans are going to try to do something about it. North Korea is unlikely to restrict the use of North Korea cell phones because the sale of these phones, made it China, is extremely popular. The phones sell in North Korea for about five times what the government buys them for. Most of that profit, in hard currency, goes to the government.
China continues to urge North Korea to do something about the corruption that cripples the economy and much else in North Korea. China points to its own recent success in this area. Since 2013 China has increased investigation (which usually result in prosecution and punishment) of government officials fourfold. China points out that while these prosecutions do hurt morale among senior officials it also encourages others to back away from corruption and operate more efficiently. The Chinese offer amnesty deals for those who come forward, admit their guilt and make restitution. China can offer proof that this approach works. The Transparency International ranking of corruption in nations show that in 2014 China moved up four places (to 100) in the rankings of 177 countries. In 2013 China moved up 20 places. Number one (Denmark) is the least corrupt and 175 (Somalia and North Korea in a tie) is the most. North Korea knows it has a big corruption problems and China is offering a workable solution.
China also points out that corruption takes an enormous toll on the armed forces. North Korea has long ignored this but now, with the United States and South Korea openly discussing how poverty and corruption combined to cripple the North Korean military, attacking corruption is the most affordable way for North Korea to reverse the rot. While China has failed many times to suppress corruption in the military (as had the preceding imperial governments for thousands of years) the current effort is different. Past anti-corruption campaigns in the military were done quietly since the biggest offenders were senior officials. But modern corruption in the military involves a lot more people because there is more money involved and a lot more people because of the greater need for technical experts. So China is exploiting the technical angle by using the mass media to expose the extent, and damage done, by corruption in the military. Chinese military corruption in the past is often well documented but it was never something the government wanted publicized. That has changed and the current media effort is providing lots of historical examples of how Chinese troops were defeated because they had been crippled by corruption. This sends an encouraging signal to most Chinese who understand that this is a rare public admission (if indirect) of how corruption cripples the economy in general and in ways that most Chinese suffer from.
Many corrupt officials are not responding in acceptable ways. Corruption investigators have found evidence of officials increasing using stealth techniques to avoid discovery and punishment. That is they are very careful in how they go about stealing money or accepting bribes and hide the money rather than spending it. In other words, these corrupt officials appear to be honest and are much more difficult to identify and prosecute. The government responds by giving stealthy corrupt officials even more publicity when they are caught and warning others that the police are checking all other officials for signs once new stealth techniques are discovered. One thing the government is already cracking down on is letting officials emigrate without a convincing reason. Even overseas vacations with the family are viewed suspiciously. Stealth only works if you and your family can leave China for some place that welcomes you and your money and will not extradite.
December 18, 2015: The U.S. approved the sale of another $1.84 billion worth of weapons to Taiwan. As it has since the 1980s, China vigorously opposed the illegal sale to what it considers a wayward Chinese province. But the growing Chinese aggressiveness about territorial claims has made Chinese protests and threats over these sales less effective. The latest arms purchased include two used and refurbished frigates, amphibious assault vehicles, several different missile systems and much hi-tech military equipment. This is the first sale since the one worth $6 billion in 2010.
December 16, 2015: China conducted a large military exercise in the South China Sea, the second such exercise in the last month.
December 14, 2015: China and Russia recently signed 30 new military, diplomatic and economic deals. A positive spin was put on this, to hide the fact that both countries are in the midst of economic recessions. Trade between the two countries is down about a third since 2014. China is suffering from a self-inflicted recession, caused by corruption and inept management of the economy. Russia also has problems with corruption and bad economic policy but most of the damage has been done by low oil prices (which help China, a major oil importer) and economic sanctions in response to Russian aggression in East Europe. Russia is looking to China for economic help but because of Chinese economic problems and other shortcoming, the Chinese cannot provide all that Russia has lost due to international sanctions. In short both nations, although allies in opposing the west and supporting dictatorships in Syria, North Korea and Iran, have become economically weaker. Worse, Chinese diplomatic support for Russia in Syria amounts to nothing.
December 8, 2015: A South Korea patrol boat fired warning shots at a Chinese patrol boat that had crossed two kilometers into South Korean waters and had ignored six radioed warnings to leave. State controlled Chinese media complained but that was as far as it went.
December 3, 2015: Officials from South Korea, Japan and the United States met in the U.S. to continue developing their improved alliance. The U.S. has been trying to get South Korea and Japan to cooperate more closely but centuries of hostility between the two made that difficult. In the last year a closer alliance (to deal with mutual problems with China, Russia and North Korea) was finally achieved.
November 27, 2015: For the first time Chinese warships on anti-piracy duty off Somalia have engaged in joint training with NATO warships there. In 2008 China began sending warships to join the international anti-piracy effort off the Somali coast. China squadrons (usually two frigates and a supply ship) served in the Gulf of Aden for three months at a time. The Chinese warships would also make port visits on the trip out and back, to show the world that the Chinese Navy had long arms. Now the Chinese feel confident enough to train with Western navies.
November 26, 2015: Chinese media are making much of a training exercise over the South China Sea featuring their H-6K bomber. This is the latest version of China’s largest and most capable long range bomber. In the recent exercise eight H-6Ks were seen more than a thousand kilometers out to sea and accompanied by electronic warfare aircraft. Four of the H-6Ks flew close to Okinawa and were photographed by Japanese aircraft. This was apparently an effort to demonstrate the Chinese capability to hit targets far from the Chinese mainland, especially American bases in Okinawa and Guam. This was but the latest effort to publicize the H-6K. In March China media heavily covered senior officials visiting airbases where the H-6K was shown off with media allowed to take close up photos of the aircraft, including the cockpit. Apparently that publicity did not do the trick so the November flights were used for emphasis.