China: Rebuilding The Empire


December 11, 2013: The Philippines and Japan announced further military cooperation to deal with growing Chinese claims on offshore areas that have long been considered the property of South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Vietnam. These five nations have formed a loose coalition, along with the United States and Australia, to oppose the Chinese aggression. India, also faced with extensive Chinese land claims, is something of an associated member of this group. The coalition gets stronger every time China makes another aggressive move, as happened on November 23rd, when China claimed control over large areas of international air space via an expanded ADIZ (air defense identification zone). China wants all military and commercial aircraft in these new ADIZs to ask permission from China before entering.  Coalition members responded by sending in military aircraft without telling China but warning their commercial aircraft operators to cooperate because it is considered impractical to provide military air cover for all the commercial traffic. China sees this as a victory, despite the obvious coalition intention to continue sending military aircraft through the ADIZ unannounced and despite whatever threats China makes. In response to that China has begun running combat air patrols through the ADIZ and apparently intends to try to intimidate some of the smaller coalition members.

South Korea has been very defiant against China regarding the ADIZs, including declaring its own ADIZ that overlaps the Chinese one. Japan has the most powerful military force, next to China and the U.S., in the region and is taking the lead in opposing China. This bothers China a great deal but plays into Chinese paranoia about foreign enemies plotting to block Chinese attempts to regain what has been lost during the last two centuries of rebellion, civil war, and Western aggression. This plays well inside China, where the communist government uses this empire building and reviving lost Chinese glory to distract people from the corruption and poor governance the Communist Party provided.

The government is trying to reduce the corruption and make the government more effective, but that has been the goal of Chinese leaders for thousands of years and has never been easy to achieve. To thoughtful Chinese their current government is simply another “dynasty” that is pretending it’s something new and different. But it’s the same old bunch of wealthy, corrupt, and inept aristocrats doing whatever it takes to hang onto their wealth and power. Democracy might change that. Chinese have seen democracy work its magic in Taiwan and Singapore. So the old “democracy won’t work for Chinese” attitude is no longer very convincing. The old imperial forms of government are not working in the 21st century and few Chinese are willing to go through another revolution to get a democracy. But there is the memory of what happened to the Russian communist empire in 1989-91. This haunts the communist bureaucrats who run China who, mindful of Chinese history, know that spontaneous mass uprisings are not unknown and can overthrow imperial rule. The people may not want a revolution but the people may, like the communist subjects of Eastern Europe and Russia did starting in 1989, just start saying “enough” and doing the impossible.

That scenario is also threatening to play out in neighboring North Korea. There an even harsher socialist dictatorship has threatened a key portion of China’s defensive strategy by coming closer to collapse. China wants buffer states on its borders to keep potential foes as far as possible from the heartland (the vast river valleys on the east coast of Asia that contain most of China’s agriculture, population, and industrial wealth). If North Korea collapses, China has a problem and North Korea gets more unstable with every passing year. The most recent problem was the very public, dismissal of the uncle of 30 year old North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The uncle (Jang Sung Taek, who is married to the sister of Kim Jong Uns father) was purged for corruption but also because the Jang was seen as too cozy with China. Jang was a key Chinese asset in its attempt to get the North Koreans to reform their economy. But Jang overplayed his hand and is now under arrest. China is not happy and may push back. That may halt cooperation in reducing the number of people escaping from North Korea via China. North Korean secret police and intelligence agencies have been ordered to do more to prevent people from fleeing the country. This time around more attention is being paid to families that have a member who is missing and believed to be in China. There are over half a million of these “missing” North Koreans, and the intelligence services have done the math and realized that once a family losses one member to the lures of China or elsewhere (especially South Korea) more tend to follow. The government is particularly keen to halt people from going to South Korea. This is the main goal of the new program. North Korea asked China to crack down on such defections and the Chinese have been cooperating, at least a little bit. That may stop and China may cancel permission for North Korean secret police to operate on the Chinese side of the border. But then North Korea might go after the large network of Chinese sympathizers in North Korea. There are no good options in North Korea, just less bad ones.

Meanwhile, China is trying to reduce tensions with India, at least temporarily. This is aided by the fact that Indian military analysts, especially those working for the media, are openly admitting that India is at a disadvantage versus China when it comes to military power. Indians admit that the Chinese forces are better equipped and that the situation is getting worse for India. This is a bitter new reality for Indians to deal with. For decades, when Pakistan was the main foe, India always had the technological edge, in addition to spending more than five times as much on defense and having nearly twice as many troops as Pakistan. But in the last decade the Pakistani threat has declined and China has become the main antagonist. China has about as many troops but spends more than three times as much as India on defense. Increasingly, Chinese forces are equipped with more modern gear and more of it than their Indian counterparts. Now India knows how Pakistan has felt for so many years and it is not pleasant.

Western irritation with China goes beyond Chinese expansionism. Earlier this year it was revealed by Western Internet security researchers that a specific Chinese military organization, Unit 61398, has been responsible for over a thousand attacks on foreign government organizations and commercial firms since 2006. China denied this and some Unit 61398 attacks ceased and others became more discreet for a month or so. But since then Unit 61398 has apparently returned to business as usual. The Chinese found that, as usual, even when one of their Cyber War organizations was identified by name and described in detail there was little anyone would or could do about it. There was obviously a Chinese reaction when the initial news became headlines, but after a month or so it was realized that it didn’t make any difference and the Chinese hackers went back to making war on the rest of the world with their usual reckless abandon. Unit 61398 is believed to consist of several thousand full time military and civilian personnel as well as part-time civilians (often contractors brought in for a specific project).

China's Cyber War hackers have become easier to identify because they have been getting cocky and careless. Internet security researchers have found identical bits of code (the human readable text that programmers create and then turn into smaller binary code for computers to use) and techniques for using it in some of the hacking software used and commercial software sold by some firms in China and known to work for the Chinese military. Similar patterns have been found in hacker code left behind during attacks on American military and corporate networks. The best hackers hide their tracks better than this. The Chinese hackers have found that it doesn’t matter. Their government will protect them. Chinese Information War operations are increasingly being tracked down and examined in detail in the West, but apparently Chinese leaders decided to keep going with these operations and not make a major effort to conceal them.

In another first, China has found its first customer for its locally made submarines. Bangladesh has ordered two submarines from China. The specific type of sub was not mentioned but it was probably the Type 39 class, which is relatively modern and very similar to the Russian Kilo class that is a popular export item for Russia. The Type 39 is the first successful Chinese designed and built submarine. China currently has 13 Song class, 12 Kilo class, 7 Yuan class, and 18 Ming (improved Russian Romeo) class diesel-electric boats. The Song/Yuan class subs are meant to replace the elderly Mings. China is in the process of buying some even more advanced diesel-electric submarine technology from Russia for a new class of boats. This may change if Russia gets upset about China exporting cloned Kilos (which the Song boats could be considered, although China denies it). There are only 4 Shang class and 3 Han class SSNs, as the Chinese are still having a lot of problems with nuclear power in subs.

India is alarmed that neighboring Bangladesh is planning to buy Chinese submarines, especially since Bangladesh has never had subs before. Bangladesh is the largest customer for Chinese arms exports. India also suspects that Chinese subs have been operating in the Bay of Bengal. While China and India have been talking for months about reducing tension on their common border, China continues to claim Indian territory and establish bases in the Indian Ocean and Bay Of Bengal.

All this Chinese activity with its neighbors also includes Central Asia. To that end China has been enthusiastically pushing the activities of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). This is a regional security forum founded in Shanghai in 2001 by Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Russia, and China. The main purpose of the SCO was originally fighting Islamic terrorism. Russia, however, hoped to build the SCO into a counterbalance against NATO. SCO members conduct joint military exercises, mostly for show. They also share intel on terrorists, which is often useful. Iran, India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mongolia, and Turkey also want to join the SCO. These nations are allowed to send observers to meetings. China has put more emphasis on economic cooperation because greater Chinese economic power means that China is replacing Russia as the principal investor and trading partner throughout the region. Russia does not like to dwell on this, because it means China is expanding its economic and political power at Russian expense. On paper China is now the dominant military power in Eurasia, a fact that Russia likes to downplay. Many Russians fear that the aggression China is demonstrating with India and everyone bordering the South China Sea will eventually be turned towards Russia.

December 9, 2013: South Korea expanded its own ADIZ to overlap with the new one China declared on November 23rd. South Korea is openly defying China, in part because the new Chinese ADIZ includes a bit of disputed submerged rock (Leodo) that South Korea has stationed troops on using a platform built on the rock.

December 5, 2013: The government announced improvements in rural schools, which have long been substandard, at least compared to those in the more affluent areas along the coast. These rural schools have also been subject to corrupt local officials, as was made clear when some newly built schools collapsed during a major earthquake (that killed 80,000) in 2008. It was obvious that the schools had been built with substandard methods and materials, which is common when corrupt officials work with corrupt builders to cut costs and pocket the savings. Despite efforts to keep that sort of thing out of the news, the anger over the dead school children and bad rural schools in general remained alive because of the Internet and bitter memories among many rural Chinese. So now the government promises to act. People will be watching.  

The government announced 60 reforms on November 15th and that has revived the Chinese stock markets, which were performing less well this year because of growing popular gloom over the corruption and its impact on the economy. If nothing else, there is optimism because of the newly revealed reform efforts, although most Chinese keep in mind that these announcements often do not result in any real change. That is suspected here because the government also implemented new rules making it more difficult for Chinese to go public with information about corruption. Chinese are aware that their communist government is more concerned with holding onto its power than it is in improving the lives of Chinese. Many of the most senior officials are known to be corrupt and it is accepted that the senior communist leaders are a new hereditary aristocracy.

December 2, 2013: China announced that it has the right to set up an ADIZ over international air space near the Philippines or even within the Filipino EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) that extends 380 kilometers from the coast. The EEZ is recognized by an international treaty that China signed but now ignores by claiming reefs and uninhabited islands off the Filipino coast. The Philippines quickly responded that it would not tolerate a Chinese ADIZ off the Filipino coast. But the Philippines will have to rely on stronger allies to actually thwart such Chinese moves.

November 30, 2013: Indians are angry at China for protesting the visit of the Indian president to the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh (which China claims as a part of Tibet). In 2012, China loudly protested the visit of the defense minister to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the state of Arunachal Pradesh. In both cases the two countries made a big deal about the dispute in the media. This is just another escalation in a long-running border dispute. India's military preparations to defend Arunachal Pradesh makes it more likely that there will be some violence along the disputed border. India is not only concerned about the land fighting but is building an aircraft carrier and submarine force to block Chinese attempts to control Indian Ocean trade routes. The tension over Arunachal Pradesh became more intense as Indians became aware that China has, since 1986, occupied 28 square kilometers of Indian territory. Part of the response was a 2010 announcement of an Indian five year plan to increase Indian abilities to deal with any Chinese aggression against Arunachal Pradesh. The Chinese claims have been on the books for decades, but in the last decade China has become more vocal about it. That's one reason India has been rapidly increasing its defense spending. But since both nations have nuclear weapons, a major war over Arunachal Pradesh is unlikely. But India fears that China might try to carry out a lightning campaign (a few days or a week) and then offer peace terms (with China keeping all or part of Arunachal Pradesh). Since neither country would be willing to start a full scale nuclear war over Arunachal Pradesh (a rural area with a population of about a million people, spread among 84,000 square kilometers of mountains and valleys), the "grab and parley" strategy has to be taken seriously, if only because China used it fifty years ago to grab some Indian territory on the Tibet border. In the meantime, China keeps finding ways to annoy India over this issue.

November 29, 2013: Chinese leaders released a long list of reforms on November 15th and more details are still coming. While most of them dealt with issues important to most Chinese (corruption and economic matters) there were some important military reforms that meant little to the general public. These items did not make the headlines but they make a difference in how effective the Chinese military is and how people will hear about the improved performance. First, China revealed that it will streamline the military by removing many non-combat operations from the direct control of the military. This is unofficially opposed by many generals and admirals, mainly because the combat support operations (construction and the purchase of staples like food, electricity, fuel and the so on) has been notoriously corrupt with lots of kickbacks and generals sending millions in cash overseas for their retirement (and escape from possible prosecution). The civilian politicians (some of them former officers) don’t want to take on this corruption directly. That would be messy, embarrassing, and might trigger a mutiny. Better to remove a lot of this financial activity from the military. Corrupt civilian managers are easier to deal with and execute (as often happens with the worst cases). In effect, take the big money away so the generals have less to steal. Moreover, there will be fewer generals that are basically doing jobs that can be handled by a civilian bureaucrat. This “civilianization” of the military is one of many ideas the Chinese have adopted from the West. While the Western media likes to vilify the growing use of “contractors” by the military, this approach makes a lot of sense and the Chinese quickly figured that out. Another item the Chinese quietly adopted from the West was the use of a combined media organization for all the security services. Currently all the many military and security organizations have their own press offices and often don’t coordinate what everyone is saying about the same issue. This often leads to one branch of the military contradicting another. So the new National Security Commission will eliminate a lot of the past planning and publicity problems. China is also increasing its official defense budget 10.7 percent (to $120 billion) for the next year. So while the American defense spending shrinks, that of China, Russia, and most other East Asian nations increases.

November 24, 2013: Uighur Islamic terrorists have released a video on the Internet taking responsibility for the October 28 terror attack in Beijing. China has tried to play down this incident, which was very public and left five dead and 40 wounded, including some foreign tourists. In Western China the local Uighurs are under increasing pressure from Han Chinese soldiers and intrusive government officials. Because of that, many Uighurs continue to support anti-Han activity, and this makes it possible for Islamic terrorists to survive and operate. Chinese officials have been publicly urging soldiers and police to be more aggressive against uncooperative Uighurs. The government tries hard to suppress the news of Uighur unrest and the incidents receive little coverage in the state-controlled media. The government has been at this for a long time, constantly shutting down web sites that promote Uighur autonomy and other Uighur matters. The government accuses Uighur activists of endangering state security. This is part of an ongoing effort to suppress Uighur unhappiness in the face of the growing number of Han Chinese moving to traditionally Uighur and taking over the economy and most of the good jobs. The same thing is happening in Tibet, where the government is using the same tools to keep everyone under control. In the days after each incident police and soldiers are out in force to intimidate the Uighur population and see if any more Islamic terrorists can be found.

November 23, 2013: China announced a new air defense identification zone (ADIZ) that overlapped South Korean, Philippine, and Japanese air space. China now demands that any foreign military or commercial aircraft request permission before flying into this zone. South Korea and Japan protested while the United States flew some B-52s into the zone on the 24th without asking for Chinese permission. China protested and the United States ignored them.

November 19, 2013: A Chinese UCAV (unmanned combat air vehicle), called the Li Jian, made its first flight today. The Li Jian was photographed moving around an airfield under its own power back in early 2013, which is the sort of thing a new aircraft does before its first flight. Since 2011 the Li Jian has been photographed as a mock up, then a prototype, and now it is in the air. The Li Jian is similar in size and shape to the U.S. Navy X-47B, which is a 20 ton UCAV that weighs a little less than the 24 ton F-18A carrier fighter and has two internal bays holding two tons of smart bombs. Once it is certified for carrier operations the X-47B can be used for a lot of bombing, sort of a super-Reaper. The navy has been impressed with the U.S. Air Force success with the Predator and Reaper. But the propeller driven Reaper weighs only 4.7 tons. The much larger X-47B uses a F100-PW-220 engine, which is currently used in the F-16 and F-15. The U.S. is far ahead of other nations in UCAV development, and this is energizing activity in Russia, Europe, and China to develop similar aircraft. The X-47B has demonstrated it could land and take off from an aircraft in 2013, and recently did so in bad weather as well.


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