As the Philippines takes its dispute with China about who owns rocks and reefs of the Filipino coast, China insists that its claims are indisputable but that it is still willing to negotiate. Much the same thing has been said to Japan and other nations in the region who find their offshore territory now claimed by China. All this is classic Chinese strategy. China has a long history of seeking to win such disputes without going to war. This approach has been much admired (and often used) throughout thousands of years of Chinese history. One thing Chinese leaders rely on a lot is lessons from Chinese history. In this case China is claiming most of the South China Sea, as well as choice bits off the coasts of Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea. The prize is fish, oil, gas, and any other wealth to be had in those waters. China has tremendous advantages in these disputes. China has nuclear weapons (none of its opponents do), massive economic muscle, and the largest armed forces in the region. Thus equipped China can use the “two steps forward, one step back” tactic. This means making a few concessions while steadily taking control of the disputed territory. China is building manned outposts on many of these uninhabited reefs and rocks and keeping the troops there supplied at great expense. Any use of force to remove these token forces (or to prevent the bases from being built) can be declared a military attack on China, which justifies a military response. China would use massive force (which it is now able to deploy in the South China Sea and other adjacent waters) and then call a halt for negotiations. China believes it has a winning strategy here and so far they are winning.
To complicate matters further, Taiwan is using similar tactics against Japan in the dispute (which includes China) over who owns the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. But the main aggressor is seen as China, and this has triggered an arms race from India to Korea. China also has several major land claims on India and the Indians are rapidly building up their forces on their border with China, as well as naval strength in the Indian Ocean, where the Chinese Navy is increasingly seen.
The mighty Chinese economic growth engine is slowing down. Economic growth last year (7.8 percent) was the lowest in over a decade and appears to be part of a trend. China is suffering a labor shortage, which is going to get worse (because of the “one child” policy imposed over three decades ago) and growing inflation (as firms bid for the shrinking number of workers). The newly affluent Chinese are proving to be much more outspoken and demanding than previous generations. The national leadership is alarmed. The prospect of the Communist Party losing control of the country is seen by more and more Chinese as a real possibility. Unrest over corruption, inept government, and growing pollution (the side effect of all that economic growth) is not going away. Government efforts to terrorize dissidents into silence are not working as well as it used to. Amping up anti-corruption efforts has helped, at the expense of hurting the morale, and reliability, of lower ranking government and Communist Party officials. Worse, the government is under growing pressure to prosecute the most corrupt senior officials and their families. That is a little too close to home for the people at the top but may have to happen. Despite growing (and often effective) efforts to control the new media (cell phones and Internet), bad news (for the government) keeps getting into wide circulation. This is believed to be one of the reasons for pushing territorial disputes with neighbors, as nationalism often distracts critics at home. Not always and not forever, but usually.
Last year 73,000 officials were punished for corruption or incompetence. But there are millions of corrupt officials out there. Nailing a few percent a year is not seen as a long-term solution. Meanwhile, most Chinese are unhappy with the vigorous government efforts to eliminate pornography. What is particularly annoying about this is how it leads to major cuts in foreign movies, in which material that would not even get a movie rated “adults only” in the West is cut as being too offensive for Chinese audiences. The worst aspect of this is that many Chinese see pirated versions of these films, without the cuts, and realize how annoying and ineffectual the censors are. All this irritates many Communist Party members and leaders, adding yet another issue that is splitting the unity the party has long enjoyed.
January 18, 2013: Chinese state-controlled media went public with Chinese government threats to cut aid to North Korea if the North Koreans went ahead with their third nuclear weapons test. China is also unhappy with North Korea threatening to use its nukes and ballistic missiles to attack the United States. While North Korea really does not have this capability, as an ally of China, such threats imply the assent of China, which is not the case. China is very much the major economic and military ally of North Korea. Despite that, North Korea often defies China, pretending that China needs North Korea more than the other way around. This is an illusion but China has never used force to make North Korea comply. Usually China keeps disagreements like this out of the media (but not out of the rumor mill). This time China is taking it up a level. If North Korea defies China and detonates the nuke, it will be daring China to respond. That could get interesting, as China expects that it will have to take over North Korea eventually and install a more obedient North Korean government. That will be expensive and politically messy. China would prefer not to go there but is less and less reluctant to bring the hammer down on the current North Korean leadership.
January 17, 2013: Burma was warned to avoid any further incidents of mortar or gun fire landing inside China. The Burmese Army is again fighting ethnic Chinese tribal rebels in northern Burma. The fighting occasionally takes place very near the border and Burmese fire sometimes lands in China. It’s a remote area, on both sides of the border, but the Chinese are not happy with the continued flow of refugees coming in, as well as the activity of Chinese smugglers (who carry weapons and ammo to the Burmese rebels and illegal drugs into China).
January 14, 2013: China has allowed the mass media (state controlled and independent) to publish data on air and other types of pollution. Up until now it was illegal to publish this data. But despite all the censorship, such pollution was being measured and the data getting to the public. An example of how this worked can be seen in the activities of the American embassy in Beijing. Last year, without naming names, China warned foreign embassies that using pollution monitors on embassy property (which the Chinese government cannot touch) and releasing that information to the public was illegal. Embassies post this information on their websites for the benefit of their citizens visiting Beijing (the Chinese capital). China does not want to publicize how bad the pollution is in Beijing (or anywhere else in China) and it is illegal to monitor and make public this sort of bad news. The U.S. is one of the nations where pollution data is posted, and China risked a diplomatic spat if they tried censoring the use of the American embassy website inside China, to protect Chinese from the bad news about air pollution. Beijing and much of northeast China is currently suffering from record air pollution levels and the population is very unhappy about the government response (or lack of same). Chinese efforts to get the American, and other embassies, to cease their pollution monitoring led to easing of restrictions for local media as well. This sort of thing keeps happening, leaving the once-mighty Chinese censors increasingly demoralized.