China: War Of Wills In Troubled Waters

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November 3, 2015: China is accused of coercing the Burmese government to ignore a Chinese police raid into Burma on October 6 th . This was when a team of Chinese police crossed the border, kidnapped Bao Zhuoxuan and took him back to China. The victim was the 16 year old son of a prominent Chinese reform advocate. The teenage son was being sent to safety in the United States. This sort of thing is all because Chinese citizens are not allowed to openly criticize government corruption or misbehavior. Technically such criticism is legal, but in practice it will get you jailed or placed under house arrest (as happened to Bao Zhuoxuan). China does not want to go full police state on reformers (executions, “disappearances”) and instead uses the less newsworthy “iron first wearing a velvet glove” approach that has long been popular in East Asia. The velvet glove is not working as more and more reformer “criminals” are coming forward. The reformers, often journalists, also know how the game is played and keep their protests legal. These journalists are regularly jailed and cut off from the Internet but they keep coming. China fears all of this could lead to a successful revolution similar to what happened in East Europe in 1989 and in Russia two years later.

The U.S. announced that it would send warships into the South China Sea at least twice every three months from now on. Those ships would deliberately challenge Chinese claims to own the South China Sea. China believes it can handle these American intrusions without triggering a disastrous (especially for China) war because the U.S. Navy only has 55 warships assigned to the West Pacific while the China has 116 warships assigned to its southern fleet plus 200 large (over 500 tons) seagoing coast guard vessels in the area. Plus China can use Chinese commercial vessels to help out. China uses all these ships to aggressively confront American (or any other) ships that come close to Chinese ships or claimed territory in the South China Sea. This sort of aggressiveness has not been experienced by American warships on such a scale since the Cold War when Russian warships would risk collision in what American sailors came to call "Chicken Of The Sea."  All this is reminiscent of Cold War incidents, usually involving Russian ships harassing American ships by moving very close, or even on a collision course. This was all for the purpose of interfering with U.S. intelligence operations, especially those off the Russian coast. Earlier in the Cold War Russian warplanes would fire on American intelligence gathering aircraft, shooting some of them down. This sort of thing declined when the U.S. quietly informed the Russians that American warships and combat aircraft would aggressively return fire. By the end of the 1960s, this aggressive activity diminished to the point where it was considered a minor nuisance and even that was eliminated by a 1972 treaty. The same pattern is playing out with the Chinese but for the last few years the Chinese have continued to protest American intelligence gathering activity so close (up to 22 kilometers from Chinese territory, an area that is considered “territorial waters”) as well as the South China Sea operations. Long term China believes it can win this war of wills.

The Philippines, Australia, Japan and South Korea openly approved of the American moves in the South China Sea. Other nations involved (Taiwan, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia and India) were more discrete but privately relieved that America had finally acted decisively on an issue that threatens so many nations. Meanwhile the Philippines and its closest neighbors are slowly losing control of their offshore waters to increasingly aggressive Chinese claims. The Philippines faces losing control of 80 percent of its waters in the West Philippine Sea while Malaysia loses 80 percent of its coastal waters off Sabah and Sarawak. Vietnam loses half its coastal waters while Brunei loses 90 percent. Even Indonesia loses 30 percent of its coastal waters facing the South China Sea. These losses include several known offshore oil and natural gas fields and a number of areas that have not been explored yet plus lucrative fishing grounds and control over vital shipping routes. China is doing all this by ignoring the 1994 Law of the Sea treaty (as well as at least two other similar treaties. The widely adopted (including by China) 1994 agreement recognizes the waters 22 kilometers from land “national territory” and under the jurisdiction of the nation controlling the nearest land. That means ships cannot enter these "territorial waters" without permission. More importantly the waters 360 kilometers from land are considered the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the nation controlling the nearest land. The EEZ owner can control who fishes there and extracts natural resources (mostly oil and gas) from the ocean floor. But the EEZ owner cannot prohibit free passage or the laying of pipelines and communications cables. While this agreement eliminated or reduced many of the existing or potential disputes it did not completely deal with all of them. Thus some nations keep violating the agreements, usually because they feel their claims supersede the international agreements. China is the most frequent offender. For example China claims that American electronic monitoring ships are conducting illegal espionage while in the Chinese EEZ. But the 1994 treaty says nothing about such matters. China is simply doing what China has been doing for centuries, trying to impose its will on neighbors, or anyone venturing into what China considers areas that should be under its control. China is not alone, but because China is pushing the limits of how the 1994 law can be interpreted (or misinterpreted) other nations with similar opportunities to lay claim to crucial chunks of the seascape are ready to emulate China if some of the more aggressive Chinese ploys actually work. This is one reason why China faces strong opposition from nations worldwide.

Thus while the United States recently announced that it will send warships and military aircraft through areas of the South China Sea that China openly claims as “sovereign Chinese territory” that does not seem to be stopping the Chinese from harassing Filipino ships and fishing boats in disputed (but legally Filipino according to the treaty) waters. China will back off when the United States (or even Japan or Taiwan) move through disputed waters with warships but will continue to go after unarmed “intruders”. The Philippines and its neighbors knew they needed an ally who was willing and able to stick around and get China to back off. Until late October such an ally was nowhere to be found.

The government anti-corruption campaign is increasingly jailing more high ranking, and formerly believed untouchable, officials but it is not enough to limit the daily impact of corruption on most Chinese. More importantly the government has not been able to do much about the corruption that makes it so difficult for foreign companies to do business in China. This is becoming more important because a growing number of foreign firms are pulling out of China or refusing to invest in China because of the corruption. Unless the government can mobilize more anti-corruption efforts the growing problems caused by the corruption threaten to bring down the government. This has happened many times before in Chinese history and Chinese leaders are well aware of this history.

China and Pakistan are heavily publicizing the revival of an ancient economic powerhouse; the Silk Road. In Pakistan the city of Peshawar, on the eastern end of the Khyber Pass, was a major gateway of the ancient Silk Road between China and the Middle East. But that version of the road went through the pass and into Afghanistan. The new Silk Road is officially called the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and is a much more complex piece of work. In 2013 China agreed to spend $18 billion to build a road from Gwadar and into northwest China. This will require drilling long tunnels through the Himalayan Mountains on the border (in Pakistani controlled Kashmir.) The road and a natural gas pipeline are part of the $46 billion CPEC project. This will make it much easier and cheaper to move people, data (via fiber optic cables) and goods between China and Pakistan. China also gets a 40 year lease on much of the port facilities at Gwadar, which India fears will serve as a base for Chinese warships.

November 2, 2015: After years of building foreign air liners under license, China has rolled out its first locally designed and built competitor for the American B-727 and European A-320. The Chinese C919 received its first orders (in 2012) from two Chinese airlines that obligingly ordered fifty. The manufacturer expects to have 150 C919s in service by the end of the decade. The C919 will still use a lot of foreign components (engines and some electronics). First test flights will take place in 2016 and deliveries are expected to start in 2018.

November 1, 2015: The leaders of South Korea, China and Japan held a rare meeting (in South Korea) to discuss matters of mutual interest. The meeting was brief (less than two hours) and covered things like trade disputes and joint action on the growing threats from North Korea. They also agreed to put these meeting back on an annual basis, like they used to be. Since 2011 the meetings were suspended because of the many issues that divided the three. That eventually led to all three leaders agreeing that there were still enough mutual problems that regular meetings like this would be useful. Apparently the meeting today was a success, so far.

October 29, 2015: In the Netherlands the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled that it did have jurisdiction to decide on Filipino accusations about Chinese aggression in the South China Sea. China responded by saying it would ignore any ruling by the international court that has been operating since the 19th century and often decides cases that the UN considers binding. This case is one of those and a ruling against China would put it in clear violation of UN rules. China says it would not even try to defend itself before the court. This could result in a legal decision against China by 2016. Challenging such a decision exposes China to trade sanctions, which would stall economic growth and create a recession that could cause unrest. Chinese leaders are eager to avoid that.

October 28, 2015: China has responded to the regular (for the past few years) Japanese reports that Japanese fighters are increasingly called on to intercept Chinese intruders. China accused Japan of continuing its policy of harassing Chinese military aircraft that come close to Japanese air space and portray this as another example of Japanese aggression. In 2015 Chinese aircraft were the cause of over 60 percent of the instances where Japanese aircraft went up to confront military planes (often recon aircraft) coming too close to Japanese air space. For a long time Russia was the main offender but in 2013 Chinese intrusions exceeded Russian ones for the first time. This has been coming for several years. In 2011 nearly 43 percent of the sorties were for Chinese aircraft. That's almost three times as many Chinese intrusions as in 2010. Russian aerial activity has been declining for years and this is believed due to the difficulty and expense of keeping elderly Russian aircraft operational. Russia cannot afford to replace its Cold War era aircraft.

October 27, 2015: A U.S. Navy destroyer moved close (less than 22 kilometers) from Subi Reef in the South China Sea. According to China this is illegal because China has built up parts of the reef so they are above water all the time. China declared these artificial islands to be part of China and that all waters within 22 kilometers of this new Chinese territory are Chinese as well and unauthorized visits by foreigners are forbidden. The problem is that international law does not recognize this Chinese tactic and the Chinese make it clear they do not care what the rest of the world thinks. They do care what the United States thinks because despite the presence of several Chinese warships, none of them fired on the “intruder.”

October 22, 2015: Today 175 Indian counter-terrorism troops completed ten days of joint training with 175 of their Chinese counterparts in China. This is the fifth such joint exercise.

October 18, 2015: Pakistan announced that all Uighur Islamic terrorists in Pakistan had been killed or driven from the country. This announcement was for the benefit of China. Thus Pakistan made it clear that the primary Uighur Islamic terrorist organization, the East Turkestan Independence Movement (ETIM) was no longer operating in Pakistan. For several years China has been pressing Pakistan to do something about Chinese Islamic terrorists (Turkic Uighurs from northwest China) based in Pakistan. Finally Pakistan began making some serious moves on that problem in early 2014. There followed the June 2014 offensive in North Waziristan concentrating on the “bad Taliban” and their allies (like the Uighurs).  Pakistan is still reluctant to admit it is the cause of so many regional Islamic terrorism problems but the neighbors were not being very understanding. China, which supplies a lot of Pakistan’s weapons and foreign investment, finally told its troublesome neighbor to fix the situation or see China go from being a helpful to a hostile neighbor. The other neighbors have had a similar reaction, but given China’s place as Pakistan’s most important ally, Pakistan could no longer ignore the problem. The other major military ally and weapons supplier, the United States, has been less insistent than China and been safely ignored. India and Afghanistan have no way to put economic pressure on Pakistan and their complaints about Islamic terrorism are dismissed or turned around with Pakistan accusing Afghanistan and India of supporting Islamic terrorism inside Pakistan.

October 10, 2015: China declared operational a newly built lighthouses on two reefs in the South China Sea. According to China these lighthouses (not really needed in the GPS age) strengthen their claims on the surrounding waters.

Pakistan’s agreement to buy eight Chinese diesel-electric submarines for $625 million each includes the stipulation that four of the subs be built in Pakistan. Since mid-2014 China and Pakistan have been negotiating prices and terms for the sale. The high price indicates the sale is for Type 041s although there has been no official announcement yet about the details of this sale. Currently the Pakistani Navy has five submarines. The Type 041s have the most modern equipment including an AIP propulsion system that enables these boats to stay under water for more than a week at a time. This contract is the largest arms purchase Pakistan has ever made from China. Despite this sale many Pakistani admirals believe their combat capabilities are declining because there is not enough money to maintain the fleet and pay for training (which means lots of time at sea).

A senior (number five in the top leadership) Chinese official arrived in North Korea to hold four days of talks with his North Korean counterparts. This is expected to include China delivering some ultimatums to the increasingly troublesome and disrespectful North Korean leadership. North Korea’s traditional allies China and Russia, despite still providing some aid and other benefits (help in smuggling) are finding that, unlike in the past, they now have little sway over the North Korean government. The Russians can ignore all this but China cannot. To make matters worse China has found itself being publicly insulted by North Korea, something that was unknown until recently. In response China began publicly criticizing things that are wrong in North Korea (mismanagement, nuclear weapons, criminality in general). The current visit to North Korea is expected to spell out the consequences in some detail. As usual with North Korea this could get very interesting. On the bright side China offered a carrot as well as a stick. Following the Foundation Day events Chinese censors were ordered to suppress popular criticism of North Korea and to have state controlled media say nice things about Kim Jong Un for a while. Thus China offers North Korea a choice; cooperate and be rewarded or continue to offend their “elder brother” and suffer the consequences.

 

 

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