The covid19 virus that first showed up in Wuhan about six months ago has led the government to decide it would be best to try and convince the world that the virus was not China’s fault while at the same time struggling to deal with the continuing problems the Wuhan virus is causing in Wuhan and elsewhere in China.
Very aggressive diplomacy, even by Chinese standards, is being applied against nations that contradict the Chinese assertions that they were not responsible for covid19 but the Americans were, and China has contained the virus inside China. Many Chinese scientists, doctors and people in Wuhan blame their government for failing to recognize the virus risk early on. While China is silencing (via warnings or arrests) many internal critics, their views, often including scientific or medical data, gets out. Same with many people in Wuhan who speak up about how bad it was initially, and still is. At the same time, the government is trying to suppress news that there are major outbreaks in other parts of China. When some Chinese economists recently published their analysis of the virus impact on the economy (20 percent unemployment rate), the government quickly forced that report to be withdrawn and repeated that the official unemployment rate was six percent. According to locals in many parts of China there is higher than usual unemployment and other economists believe GDP will at least shrink a bit this year and halt the decades of annual GDP growth. The Chinese diplomatic bullying may work on some nations but it is less successful in convincing at restoring confidence in the Chinese economy. The number of foreign firms pulling their manufacturing operations out of China keeps increasing. Chinese economists’ estimate of 20 percent unemployment explains why so many foreign firms are no longer working with Chinese companies or in China. What China tells the outside world about the state of its economy does not match what is actually happening, and foreign firms are not going along with the official deception policy.
The government was concerned about losing credibility with their own population and foreigners and have made the situation worse by trying to pretend reality was being “misinterpreted” by foreigners. This strategy has backfired and now the government is worse off internally and externally. Threats of economic retaliation against major trading partners, like Australia, failed and made matters worse for China.
China is also concerned that most other East Asian nations did a much better job of dealing with covid19. The very effective response of Taiwan was particularly embarrassing, as Chinese pressure in the UN has kept Taiwan from belonging to international health groups like WHO. That makes it more difficult for the rest of the world to learn how Taiwan was more effective in dealing with covid19. Local allies of Taiwan, like Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Vietnam and so on are able to get Taiwan virus tips quickly because all these nations are united in confronting Chinese aggression in the region. Covid19 is seen as just another problem with being a neighbor of China.
One very practical reason for the Chinese strategy was the realization that the health problems caused by covid19 were minor compared to the damage done by shutting down the economy in areas where the virus was active. People want to go back to work, but they are not happy with going back to work while the government insists there is no virus risk at all. That is not true and while healthy people are able to resist the virus as they would the annual arrival of Influenza, covid19 is particularly lethal to the elderly and anyone with serious health problems. Respect for the elderly is an important part of Chinese culture and the government policy. The government is seen as willfully sacrificing the elderly for political and propaganda reasons. The government ignores this while searching for ways to improve control over the population. It does not help when more Chinese realize that the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) does not “serve the people” but it is the other way around.
Still no confirmation about what conditions leader Kim Jong Un is in after his emergency heart surgery two weeks ago. China has sent teams of medical personnel in but these are officially there to help deal with covid19. Some of the Chinese doctors sent were known to be specialists in other areas. China is not saying anything but is concerned about its unstable, unruly and often disobedient neighbor.
In North Korea, the government continues to regard all information relating to covid19 as state secrets. Officially North Korea denies that covid19 is a problem in North Korea. This seems to be a practical attitude because North Korea has no real public health capability, especially the ability to monitor the overall impact of covid19. The only data collected about the disease was what impact it had on the military. That data was secret but because just about every family in the country has someone in the military, the data got leaked. By early March several thousand North Koreas soldiers appear to have been quarantined on suspicion of having the virus. These cases were almost all along the Chinese border. North Korea cannot afford to test many people for covid19. Instead, the army has been ordered to isolate any soldiers who exhibit symptoms of the virus. This probably puts some non-covid19 patients in quarantine with those who do have it. Hundreds of soldiers have died recently of “fever” and families are being told the bodies were cremated.
Compared to China and North Korea, South Korea has suffered a much lower death rate for people infected. In China, the death rate has been 3-4 percent while in South Korea it has been 0.7 percent. South Korea with a population (51 million) twice as large as in the north has so far apparently suffered 80 percent fewer covid19 deaths. China only reported covid19 data for about two months and then very reluctantly. After that China claimed that there was no longer any covid19 danger in China. Unofficial reports getting past Chinese censors and out to the rest of the world indicate that covid19 is still infecting and killing people in China, whose people are resisting government offers to pretend that the covid19 epidemic has passed. Similar situation in North Korea where the government insists there has never been a covid19 epidemic, just a few isolated cases that were quickly taken care of. North Korea does have one advantage in restricting the spread of covid19; poor transportation networks. Government mismanagement of the economy has left the roads, and railroads in poor shape and it is very difficult to travel in North Korea. So covid19 could not spread much from the few active entry points on the Chinese border and a few ports. Even with that, there were some large outbreaks along the Chinese border and in some military units.
By any measure, South Korea has an excellent health system. As a result, South Korea has been able to cope and has already contained the virus, with the number of new cases declining and fewer deaths per thousand infected people. Despite this superior performance, North Korea will not accept any South Korean help in this matter because the official word in the north is that the government kept the virus out. In most of the country that is true. But along the still porous Chinese border, it is no secret with the locals that covid19 got into their part of North Korea. People living near the Chinese border increasingly ignore government propaganda and take their own precautions to avoid the disease. While the military has a rudimentary health system for their personnel and some resources to deal with covid19 infections, modern health care is only available to the most senior officials, both military and non-military. These officials also have access to the outside world and what is really going on with covid19 in other countries.
North Korea is going through the covid19 epidemic the old fashioned way and that is not all that shocking in the north, where people are perplexed by all the fuss. After all, the North Korean government took no precautions during SARS (2003) and MERS (2015) virus outbreaks. What is different about covid19 is that it spreads more easily and quickly. Not to the extent that it could be described as an “exterminating disease”. Only a few percent of those infected die, and these are mainly the very old or already very sick. In North Korea, you have to add a fourth vulnerable group; the malnourished. Food shortages have been worse the past few years and a lot more people are simply not getting enough to eat. There are also more homeless children and adults in urban areas and they tend to be in poor health.
Some of these deaths may be from other causes but North Korean medical personnel, at least outside the capital, do not have the diagnostic equipment to confirm covid19 deaths. Officially there is a national health-care system but the reality is that only the capital and the military have any significant medical resources. The only place where you see a lot of people wearing face masks is the capital where only key security personnel and the most elite officials (the one percenters) were issued masks. Other people improvise.
North Korea has suppressed any official, or unofficial, news of what is really happening. But North Koreans still have their cell phones, although they have to use carefully selected code words to pass on covid19 related news. Information brokers on the Chinese side of the border are still getting plenty of business even though much less information is getting out since the government began restricting movement within North Korea and across the border in January. On February 20 all schools (except for a few elite science programs) were shut down for a month. Long distance travel by train, plane, automobile or boat was restricted or banned.
The border ban includes North Koreans arrested in China for being there illegally. It is also illegal to leave North Korea without permission and these prisoners are usually transferred back to North Korea for punishment. That has been halted until the covid19 danger has passed. The only legal crossings from North Korea are foreign diplomats being expelled on suspicion of having covid19. The military has banned leave for soldiers and restricted who can leave the base. New recruits are being turned down if they have any indications of sickness, especially lung related. Lacking the resources to test for covid19 military doctors are using cruder methods that sees more conscripts having their induction delayed for months or longer. The military only takes in new recruits twice a year but one of those induction periods occurs in mid-January and lasts about a month. The military also discharges soldiers who have completed their enlistments (of up to ten years) at the same time. These discharges have been delayed as well, for a month or more. Same deal for officers retiring or completing their mandatory active service before going into the reserves.
North Korea also demanded that Chinese border guards ban civilians from even approaching the Yalu River that comprises most of the border. North Korea threatened to use violence to enforce this ban. China told North Korea to tone down the rhetoric before something unfortunate, for North Korea, happened.
In early February North Korea halted all Chinese tourism, despite the fact that this is a major source of foreign currency and curbed normal (business and government) travel to China. North Korea is also very poor and in no condition to deal with an outbreak of the new virus. Yet North Korea still has a lot of smugglers operating along the Chinese border and in some coastal areas.
The border with China has been closed to major traffic since January 30th and that means bulk imports of food and fuel are not arriving. These are legal imports that China is the major supplier of. North Korea cannot afford to maintain much in the way of food or fuel reserves and what reserves do exist are for the military, in case there is a war or other national emergency. These supplies may already have been released to provincial security forces (soldiers and police) but they won’t last long if the Chinese border remains closed.
April 24, 2020: For the second time this month the U.S. Navy has conducted a FONOP (freedom of navigation operation) near China as an American destroyer passed through the Taiwan Strait (the waters between Taiwan and the Chinese mainland). Two weeks ago the same destroyer passed through the straits. Since July 2018 the U.S. Navy has carried out Taiwan Strait FONOPs nearly every month. Until the 2018 FONOP such trips through the Taiwan Strait (which American warships do regularly) were not publicized, something the U.S. had been doing since 2007. The renewal of publicizing these movements annoys China which responded by having their own warships following American warships passing through the Taiwan Strait and increasing Chinese naval ship patrols around Taiwan.
In the south, China ordered its border crossings with Myanmar (Burma) closed for 60 days, to prevent covid19 infected people from Myanmar from entering China. For several weeks before this closure thousands of Burmese who had been working in China returned home, many of them carrying the virus.
In Hong Kong, a hundred pro-democracy locals staged the first public demonstration since January, when public assembly restrictions were imposed to deal with covid19. Hong Kong was more effective at handling the virus and has gone 13 days without any cases of covid19. The demonstrators wore masks, gloves and eye protection. They stayed away from each other and were obeying all the virus restrictions. Except thee were displaying pro-democracy signs that the police left them alone for about an hour.
Hong Kong has suffered much less from covid19 than the rest of China. The local government hoped that the quarantine rules that are a part of containing the virus would eliminate the protests that have been going on since June 2019. The quarantine rules did halt the mass demonstrations but subsequent opinion polls showed public approval of the protestors had increased anyway.
Eight days ago the police arrested a dozen prominent local democracy supporters and declared the pro-democracy movement over. That may be premature. It depends on how much of Hong Kong’s effectiveness as a financial center is lost by declaring Hong Kong no longer a special zone but just another Chinese city.
April 23, 2020: China has sent a team of medical experts to North Korea to help with unspecified problems. This apparently has to do with recent heart surgery North Korea dictator Kim Jong Um had. There were complications and the patient has not been seen or heard from since the surgery eleven days ago. It was known that Kim suffered from diabetes, obesity and unspecified heart problems.
April 22, 2020: The government announced the navy had commissioned a new SSBN (ballistic missile carrying nuclear subs), probably one of the Type 94s known to be under construction. In 2019 there was a second successful test of the new JL-3 SLBM (sub launched ballistic missile) carried by the Type 94. Several tests have indicated a range of 9,000 kilometers (5,600 miles). That is nearly 30 percent farther than the earlier, and less reliable JL-2. The JL-3 appears to be the first Chinese SLBM reliable enough to use regularly in Chinese SSBNs and allow then to operate at sea regularly and reliably. That has not been possible until now, mainly because earlier Chinese SLBM designs were not reliable. In late 2018 commercial satellite photos available in the West confirmed that two new Chinese 094 class SSBNs were launched and docked for months of additional work before they are completed and ready for sea trials. Currently, only four 094s are available for duty and were long crippled by older JL-2 SLBMs that do not work. In addition, there are still problems with basic o94 design, which is considered too noisy to stay hidden from American efforts to locate and follow. The two 094s under construction were believed to contain a number of improvements. The second four are being called the 094A class and the existing 094s are apparently being upgraded. For the moment, though, China still does not have an operational SSBN force and after decades of trying, won’t have one until the 2020s. For China, this is how it works. That was also why China, for a long time, played down its efforts to build and operate nuclear-powered subs.
April 21, 2020: The Philippines Navy revealed that in late February a Chinese corvette aimed its cannon at a Filipino corvette (a former South Korean Pohang class ship) when the Filipinos ordered the Chinese to leave the area near Commodore Reef, which is part of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Commodore Reef is recognized by international treaty as Filipino but the Chinese corvette kept telling the Filipino corvette that the area they were in was Chinese territory. The Chinese corvette kept moving and left the area, continuing to insist the area was China but obviously not willing to open fire and try to enforce the claim.
April 19, 2020: China has issued a list of official Chinese language names for places (reefs, islands and the like) in the South China Sea that have long used local and English language names (given by early European explorers). China will use these new names in all Chinese media and government documents and wait for the rest of the world to catch up.
April 18, 2020: In Iraq (outside Baghdad) two rockets were fired at a Chinese oilfield development operation. There were no casualties. This was the second such attack this month and the cause appears to be a local militia that did not get the terms they wanted from the Chinese for a business deal.
April 17, 2020: The city of Wuhan, where the Wuhan virus (covid19) originated, adjusted its virus statistics by increasing the official death toll by 50 percent to 3,869. The reason was that officials were not recording covid19 deaths for those who died at home. The number of confirmed cases was also increased, by less than one percent, to 50,333. Scientists, medical personal, residents and visiting journalists have all reported that the number of people infected and the number of dead was much larger than the official data. China handled this by silencing those who deviated from the official version. In many cases a warning or visit by the secret police worked. In some cases, there were arrests or critics simply disappeared. The official government explanation for covid19 is that it is American and introduced into Wuhan in late 2019. Chinese diplomats worldwide have been ordered to coerce foreign nations to go along with that using any means necessary. That usually involves economic or other threats.
Four Chinese coast guard ships came into Japanese territorial waters (within 22 kilometers of one of the Senkaku Islands) and remained in the area for 90 minutes despite warnings to leave. This was the seventh such Chinese incursion in 2020. In response to that, three weeks ago Japan established a military base on Miyako Island (between Senkaku Island and Okinawa). The Miyako and Senkaku islands are between Okinawa and Taiwan. Actually all three of these island systems dominate the seas between Japan and Taiwan and China has been making claims to some of these islands, especially the Senkakus and indicating that all of these Japanese islands are actually Chinese. The new garrison on Miyako Island has 380 troops and is being equipped with anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles. Chinese naval ships have frequently entered Japanese territorial waters (within 22 kilometers of land) around the Senkaku islands and remained in Japanese waters for an hour or more. There have been over twenty of these incidents since 2017. Miyako Island is 210 kilometers from the Senkakus and Japan plans to put garrisons on more of these small islands.
April 16, 2020: In the Malaysian portion of the South China Sea a Chinese warship (“escorting” a survey ship) arrived near where Malaysian oil exploration ship was working. The Chinese consider such Malaysian activity in offshore waters to be illegal even though the area in question is recognized as Malaysian by international agreements. China claims most of the South China Sea as Chinese and uses intimidation tactics like this to compel acceptance of their claims. In this case China soon learned that American and Australian warships were on their way to the area. Intimidation is a two-way street. China officially denies there is any naval confrontation but the photos and video say otherwise.
Chinese UAVs seem to be doing better in Libya than the Turkish ones their opponents are using. Today LNA (Libyan National Army) forces shot down another Turkish Bayraktar TB2 UAV. This is the eighth Turkish UAV the LNA shot down this month. So far the LNA has claimed to have taken down 28 Turkish UAVs. Photographic evidence is not available for some of destroyed UAVs is available and the LNA admits that some of the Bayraktar TB2s were destroyed over the enemy (GNA/Government of National Accord) controlled areas. The LNA is actively supported by several Arab states, mainly Egypt and the UAE (United Arab Emirates). The UAE has been operating its Chinese armed UAVs in Libya for several years and the LNA has an active air force (courtesy of Russian technicians and material support) that can shoot down large UAVs like the Bayraktar TB2. Despite these combat losses, the Turkish UAVs have performed as expected and are considered equal to the Chinese UAVs. All these UAVs are based on the American Predator and not designed to survive in a combat zone where the opposition is equipped with modern anti-aircraft weapons. The Turks intervened in Libya last year because the weaker (controls about ten percent of Libya) GNA was recognized by the UN and willing to sign a treaty with Turkey to bolster Turkish claims on Greek offshore waters where there might be natural gas deposits. The LNA controls most of Libya and has the support of most Libyans. China does not supply weapons directly to the LNA but does sell weapons to anyone who can pay and the UAE has bought a lot of weapons, including UAVs, from China and used them in Libya without any complaints from China. As far as China is concerned with their UAVs' successful performance in Libya makes their UAVs easier to sell as “combat proven”.
April 12, 2020: In North Korea dictator Kim Jong Un underwent emergency heart surgery.
April 4, 2020: Somalia has discovered that one of four Somalis who had returned from China in March had covid19. This was the first such case known to be in Somalia and the man is being treated. If covid19 gets loose in Somalia the local health system won’t be of much help because the local health system is largely non-existent. So far confirmed cases of covid19 are low (about 25 per million people) as were confirmed covid19 deaths (about one per million Somalis.
April 3, 2020: The Chinese navy boasted that only China had an operational aircraft carrier in the West Pacific because all four American large carriers were forced into port because of covid19. The U.S. responded that there were American helicopter carriers in the West Pacific that can operate more jets than the Chinese Liaoning is, according to China, a training carrier and in practice China does not have many pilots of jets capable of operating it from it. Thus a few American F-35Bs operating from helicopter carriers are more than a match for the Liaoning. In addition, there is an active carrier task force near the Persian Gulf that could be off the China coast in seven days.
April 2, 2020: China has announced that it is establishing a scientific research stations in the South China Sea on Subi (Zamora) Reef and Fiery Cross (Kagitingan) Reef. Both of these locations are in the South China Sea. Subi Reef is Filipino because it is within 22 kilometers of Pagasa Island, which is Filipino sovereign territory. China also occupies Mischief Reef and Mckennan Reefs which are both on the Filipino continental strength and, according to international law, part of the Philippines.
Off the coast of Vietnam, near the Paracel Islands (Woody Island) a Chinese coast guard ship rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat. According to China, such fishing is illegal because China has claimed (and occasionally occupied) the Paracel islands since 1974 when it used force to drive off South Vietnamese forces seeking to take possession. China considers Woody Island part of China and that all waters within 22 kilometers of this Chinese territory are Chinese as well and unauthorized visits by foreigners are forbidden. The problem is that international law does not recognize these Chinese claims and the Chinese make it clear they do not care what the rest of the world thinks. Woody Island is still claimed by Vietnam as well as Taiwan.
In North Korea at least a dozen cargo trucks were seen crossing the Friendship Bridge at the Dandong border crossing. This is normally the busiest trade route between China and North Korea and it has been closed since the end of January because of covid19. China recently allowed North Korean run restaurants in China to reopen.
April 1, 2020: In the South China Sea, Chinese coast guard ships are patrolling Second Thomas Shoal, First Thomas Shoal, and Half Moon Shoal, all within the Filipino EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone, waters 380 kilometers from the coast) but now claimed by China. The Philippines EEZ in the South China Sea is where Filipinos have been fishing the reefs and other shallow waters for centuries, long before there was a Philippine state and without interference from Chinese fishermen, who only occasionally showed up. That’s because fishing boats with refrigeration, a 20th century invention, only recently made it possible for Chinese fishermen to scour the entire South China Sea for fish to profitably catch, refrigerate and carry back to China. The 20th century also meant the possibility of finding oil or gas deposits in the South China Sea as well as controlling key shipping routes via the Malacca Strait.