The Chinese announcement that it would begin enforcing new rules, starting January 1st, that will have Chinese naval patrols escorting, or expelling, foreign ships from most of the South China Sea has mobilized a lot of resistance. This should not be surprising as the new rules include offshore areas of the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei, and Vietnam that international law does not recognize as Chinese. India and the United States have both announced that they will not obey and that Indian and American warships expect to move unmolested through the South China Sea in 2013.
China had issued new passports (since last May) which had the new map of China showing the South China Sea as Chinese territory and part of India as part of China. This was ignored until the recent announcement that the Chinese navy would threaten or harass foreign ships in parts of the South China Sea claimed by China. The Philippines and Vietnam have refused to recognize this passport. India is stamping visas for Chinese with the Indian version of the map. Filipinos are also angry at how China has reneged on its agreement to withdraw its warships from Scarborough Shoal (which, according to international law, is Filipino). Both countries agreed to withdraw their warships from the shoal but three Chinese ships remain. The Chinese keep offering excuses of why the ships are still there and the ships show no sign of leaving. This is typical of Chinese behavior with all the other countries disputing Chinese claims. China and Vietnam fought a low level war (that occasionally got very intense) for over two decades (from the late 1970s to the early 1990s) because of conflicting claims. That makes it clear that the Chinese are willing to use force but Vietnam had no strong allies during its long war with China. Now Vietnam has made nice with the United States and allied itself with Russia. The Philippines has developed close ties with America and expects some help here because both countries have an interest in free use of the South China Sea.
All this Chinese assertiveness has forced the neighbors to take a hard look at the new, improved (by modern weapons, recruiting, and training standards) Chinese armed forces. Are these the clumsy, if numerous and heavily armed, oafs of old trying to overwhelm you with mass and taking heavy casualties in the process? Or are the Chinese now able to meet modern (“Western style”) forces on equal terms. For several centuries Chinese troops have been getting the worst of it from these Western troops. But something encouraging happened in the late 19th century when the Japanese, who had enthusiastically modernized their military along Western lines a few decades earlier, crushed first the Chinese and then, in 1905, the Russians. While Japan was beaten badly in 1945, after it took on the United States, the Japanese had put up a serious resistance. This made it clear that the Westerners had no inherent superiority (as many Westerners and a lot of Chinese believed). Do everything that the Westerners did and you could match them in battle.
There was one problem with this solution: it meant selecting officers for their military ability, not their political loyalty. Then there is corruption. While the first Western armies and navies to encounter the Chinese in the 17th century had some corruption problems, they were paragons of virtue compared to the Chinese. Corruption has long been a problem in the Chinese military and it still is today. Partly, this is because the officers are politicized. The military is subordinate to the Chinese Communist Party, not the Chinese government or people. The party is corrupt and, despite increasing efforts to make it otherwise, so are the officers, especially the senior ones. The new Chinese armed forces look impressive but so did those of the Soviet Union. After that state collapsed in 1991, many of the secrets came out. The Soviet forces were rotten and propped up by a fresh coat of paint and lots of propaganda. That approach does not bring victory in battle.
Are Chinese leaders aware that their armed forces are a brittle instrument? Some are, but will that realization be kept in mind by the key decision makers if push comes to shove? The Chinese have long believed that it is better to outsmart your opponent than outfight them. That made corrupt Chinese generals less of a burden. In the South China Sea do the Chinese have enough clever ideas to win?
The Chinese government is increasing its efforts to curb corruption in the armed forces. It is taking two approaches. First, it is insisting that most new officers were college graduates. Since the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) was founded in the 1920s, the main qualification of a new officer was being a “good communist.” That is no longer the case and the last of the “old comrades” (officers who served in the late 1940s and early 1950s) are gone. There are still a lot of officers who came up in an atmosphere that favored “good communists” and tolerated a lot of corruption. Now a new generation of government leaders (all of them communists) are demanding that the officers be “good commanders” and much less corrupt. It’s a period of transition and there’s no telling when it will be reflected in better combat capabilities.
The new Chinese government has some unique problems with corruption and anger against the government (which, after all, is very much a communist police state). About two-thirds of the wealthy entrepreneurs (people who have fortunes of over $15.9 million) are emigrating or planning to do so. Many renounce their Chinese citizenship after having obtained citizenship in a foreign nation. Others move their family and many assets overseas and obtain the option to switch citizenship (China does not allow dual-citizenship). What these people are fleeing is fear, fear that the corrupt Chinese police state will collapse and so will the economy and order. They are saying, “It’s been nice but it won’t last and I’m getting out while I can.” The only way to change this attitude is much less corruption and to allow democracy. This would destroy communist rule in China and the money-making opportunities of millions of communist officials. Not surprisingly there is a lot of resistance to this among government bureaucrats.
The latest international survey of corruption showed China dropping five positions to 80, in the list of 176 countries stating how they rank in being “least corrupt.” The top 20 is full of prosperous “Western” states, while the bottom is occupied by the likes of Afghanistan, North Korea, and Somalia. The top 20 includes Singapore at 5 and Japan at 17. So East Asians, especially Chinese, can do it. This bothers corrupt Chinese officials a lot.
December 6, 2012: China warned Vietnam that it should stop all offshore oil and gas exploration in areas that both China and Vietnam claim. China has said the same thing to the Philippines.
December 5, 2012: China announced that it would not enforce tight control throughout the South China Sea after January 1, but only in waters off mainland China and the Paracel islands. Apparently China is hoping that this will calm down threats of resistance to growing Chinese claims of control of international waters. This is an example of China playing it smart. They have made it clear what their goals are and now remind everyone that they are willing to take their time to get there.
December 4, 2012: India announced that it will send naval forces to the South China Sea next year if the Chinese try to interfere with free passage and the use of international waters as defined by international law. China quickly responded by reminding India that they must respect China’s sovereignty and national interests.
December 2, 2012: China publicly criticized North Korean plans to launch a large ballistic missile. This has been described as an attempt to launch a satellite, but this is seen as a deception to cover testing an ICBM, something international sanctions prohibit North Korea from doing. China has been putting a lot of private pressure on North Korea to halt the launch, without any success. China wants North Korean leaders to spend more time and money on preventing economic collapse (which would send millions of starving North Koreans into China and leave China with a big and expensive mess to clean up).
November 30, 2012: U.S. and Chinese troops held joint disaster relief drills in China. This is an effort to increase cooperation and goodwill between the military forces of both nations.
November 29, 2012: Chinese media reported that China will enforce its claimed control over the South China Sea beginning January 1st.
November 28, 2012: Large protests at a Chinese copper mine in Burma have turned violent as the police attacked. This turned the dispute over land rights and compensation at the mine into a major political issue in Burma. China is in similar trouble with other economic projects in northern Burma (hydroelectric dams and pipelines). Then there is the issue of illegal logging, not just in Burma but throughout the region. This is largely driven by demand from China and organized by Chinese entrepreneurs and corrupt Chinese officials.
November 25, 2012: A Chinese built J-15 jet fighter successfully took off and landed on a Chinese aircraft carrier for the first time. This was hailed in Chinese media as a major achievement.
Organizers relented and allowed Japanese runners to participate in today’s Beijing marathon. There had been an effort to ban the Japanese because of the ongoing dispute over who owns the Senkaku Islands.
November 23, 2012: In the west (Qinghai province) another Tibetan set himself on fire to protest Chinese occupation of Tibet and attempts to suppress Tibetan culture. Another Tibetan had done this yesterday. About 80 Tibetans have died this way since China put down an uprising in Tibet three years ago. Police are offering a $7,700 reward for information about the group (if any) behind the growing number of immolations. The government fears another major uprising in Tibet and officially sees the unrest as the work of foreign agents, not popular discontent over Chinese oppression in Tibet.