While China prominently proclaims the peaceful intentions behind its growing military buildup, within the military the rhetoric is far more aggressive. The United States is the main foe among officers, and they continue to churn out books and articles about how America can be defeated. Lesser foes include Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam and South Korea. But it's understood, among Chinese officers, that if the mighty Americans can be brought to heel, all other local powers will become much easier to handle.
Meanwhile, the winds of political change can be detected within China. A group of 23 retired senior government officials and academics openly called for more democracy in China, and authoritarian rule. These old guys can get away with this kind of open talk because they are old, retired, and still have many friends within the government. The real target of the letter was the hard-liners in the government who pay more attention to maintaining the communist police state, than to improving the well-being of the average Chinese. The hard-liners used to include a lot of officials who still believed in communism, but there are few of those left, and not enough of them for anyone to bother with anymore. The hard-liners tend to ally themselves with corrupt officials (nearly everyone in the ruling elite is at least a little dirty) to maintain the police state. But many senior officials actually back more democracy, and accountability to the people.
The United States sees China as having a natural interest in protecting its access to the sea (for importing raw materials and exporting manufactured goods). This justifies the large amounts of money the Chinese are pouring into building up their fleet. This is very new for China, which has not been a major naval power for over 600 years. What alarms the Americans is how the U.S. is being demonized by the Chinese military leadership. Chinese politicians speak in more friendly terms, while tolerating the bellicose attitudes of their generals and admirals. The politicians refrain from reining in the aggressive attitudes of their military commanders. China experts counsel that the rants from the military are mainly to build morale within the ranks, and make it easier for the politicians to reduce corruption in the armed forces. This corruption is an old, old problem in China. It's been reduced in the last two decades, but is still there, in a big way. By whipping up this fervor for dealing with a major war, it becomes unpatriotic (for many, but not all, officers) to steal and connive. But to outsiders, it looks like the Chinese are preparing for something ominous. This is reinforced by the increasingly aggressive Chinese attitudes towards disputes with its neighbors over uninhabited islands (often just rock outcroppings only visible at low tide). Outright possession of these islets gives the owner possession of nearby oil or natural gas deposits. Something worth fighting for, and that's what worries neighbors when it comes to China's growing naval strength.
South Korean and Australian military officials believe China has recently made a major effort to steal secret data from them via the Internet. The hacking attacks try hard to hide their origins, but better forensic tools make it easier to find and follow tracks. The Chinese Internet based espionage efforts have been growing more frequent and aggressive over the last decade. As the evidence piles up, China is having a more difficult time trying to hide behind blanket denials.
China is aggressively offering inexpensive weapons and military training services to African nations. This would give China more influence within African armed forces, and better knowledge of what makes them tick. This can be useful when there are embarrassing incidents. Recently, in Zambia, two Chinese mine officials opened fire with assault rifles, when confronted by workers angry about the way they were mistreated. Two workers were wounded and the rest dispersed. The Zambian government wants to prosecute the two Chinese gunmen, while China wants to avoid any damage to Chinese economic interests in Zambia and Africa. China has also been approaching Western nations for greater military cooperation. The latest targets were Poland and Italy.
Not wanting to incur the wrath of China, Vietnam made it clear that it will not lease Cam Rahn Bay to Russia, or any other foreigners. From 1979-2002, Russia did lease access, but left in a dispute over how much they should pay. Russia recently offered to return, and China was not pleased. Despite centuries of tension, China is currently a major trading partner with neighboring Vietnam. While Vietnam has been deferential to China, most other neighbors of China (including India) are increasingly cooperating in efforts to form a de facto military and political alliance against China. If this ever becomes a formal alliance (an eastern NATO, against the eastern superpower), China will not be pleased.
China now has military alliances that allow it to fly combat aircraft all the way to Europe. A joint air force training exercise in Turkey last month had Chinese jet fighters flying through the air space of two allies, Pakistan and Iran, to new ally Turkey.
The U.S. has approached China about negotiating who would be allowed to do what in North Korea once the current North Korean government collapsed. Everyone in the region agrees that it's not a matter of if, but when, the North Korean dictatorship will collapse. South Korea considers it their responsibility to move in and clean up the mess. China has openly discussed other ideas, not involving South Korea. The proposed U.S. talks would seek to work out an arrangement that would not risk another major war in the area.
The government made a major effort to keep the recent news of imprisoned 1989 demonstration leader Liu Xiaobo winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Censors worked overtime to keep the news off all forms of media (especially cell phones and the Internet). It got through anyway, and the extent of the censorship effort made the government look weak and afraid of what the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations represented.
In the northwest, China continues to have problems with its Moslem minority. As mainstream (Han) Chinese continue to move into these remote areas, the locals, who are often Moslem, increasingly respond with violence. Last month, for example, over a thousand northwestern Moslems (not Turkic Uighurs, but Hui, a catchall term for dozens of Moslem ethnic groups in the area) rioted and tried to destroy a newly built (by Han, largely for Han) nightclub. The locals objected to the booze and prostitution such places featured.
October 14, 2010: China offered to hold talks with Taiwan over military matters. The current Chinese offer is that it would remove ballistic missiles and air bases from territory within range of Taiwan, if Taiwan would cease trying to modernize its armed forces. Taiwan declined the Chinese offer to discuss this. Recent polls in Taiwan showed that only five percent of Taiwanese wanted unification with China. At the same time, only 16 percent wanted Taiwan to declare independence (thus possibly triggering a Chinese invasion). Most Taiwanese want to continue doing business in China, while also building up Taiwan's military defenses.