Category Archives: Indo-Asia-Pacific

Controlling the Masses: Protests and Media in the People’s Republic of China

This article is published in partnership with the U.S. Naval Academy’s Foreign Affairs Conference (NAFAC).

By Yena Seo

In the Western world, the freedoms of press, speech, assembly, and petition are considered vital to the functioning of a healthy democracy. Free media acts as the fourth estate by providing information to the masses, while citizens under a democratic government can expect to have their speech heard through assembly and petition. In the People’s Republic of China, the freedoms of press, speech, assembly, and petition intersect as the government uses the media – rather than brute force – to repress and silence democratic movements. Media control in China affords the government a one-two punch when countering pro-democracy protests: censorship silences social movements from the bottom, and those that succeed into physical demonstrations are oppressed and marginalized via the state media’s protest paradigm.

According to Freedom House, China is home to one of the world’s most restrictive media environments.1 The Central Propaganda Department (CPD) and State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) ensure media content is consistent with the goals of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).2 In regard to pro-democratic protests, the government’s media approach consists of two prongs: repression and silence. State media coverage of protests falls under the protest paradigm, a phenomenon in which news outlets spotlight the appearance and behaviors of protesters – rather than their mission – in an attempt to marginalize them.3 The protest paradigm is a powerful tool for the Chinese media, which often portray protesters as violent and lawless, yet do not provide much content on the social movements themselves. Online, the Chinese government uses censorship to silence citizens, both leading up to and during demonstrations. Nationwide technical filtering, or “the Great Firewall,” blocks international news outlets.4 Furthermore, it blocks major social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, and Chinese alternatives such as Sina Weibo and WeChat are heavily monitored.5 Censorship is used to eliminate potential pro-democracy movements before they blossom into full-scale physical demonstrations; if large social uprisings do occur, the government censors terms and images associated with them. These tactics create a sophisticated strategy that enables the CCP to not only silence protesters, but systematically oppress them.

Media coverage of pro-democracy protests in China can be traced back to 1989, when government troops fired on thousands of Chinese citizens in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. During the protests, state television networks fell into the protest paradigm as they broadcasted endless condemnations of the “hooligans” and “counterrevolutionaries” responsible for the demonstrations.6 Radio stations carried out announcements of local arrests to further marginalize participants.7 Since the Internet was not widely utilized at this time, the government did not have to resort to pure censorship; instead, state media was able to suppress the spread of the movement by depicting it as violent and criminal. Tiananmen Square’s protest paradigm has also extended past its original coverage. On the 25th anniversary of the demonstrations, the Chinese government censored any and all mentions of the massacre. Even the most indirect references to June 4th – the date when the Chinese military opened fire on protesters – were blocked or deleted.8 The sole mention of the 25th anniversary in state media was in an unsigned op-ed piece in The Global Times, in which the author ridiculed those seeking to mark the anniversary as a day of remembrance: “The mendacious impression is made by anti-China forces in the West and Chinese exiles who have been marginalized there. They hope it will deal a heavy blow to the stability of Chinese society but they will end up failing.”9 Media outlets in Hong Kong, in contrast to mainland organizations, actively covered the anniversary. The South China Morning Post created a special multimedia project featuring video footage and photos from Tiananmen Square.10 Even on Hong Kong media websites, however, comments from Chinese users were removed.11

Indeed, media outlets from Hong Kong and mainland China have vastly different coverage of pro-democracy protests, due to the “one country, two systems” policy implemented after Hong Kong was reverted to Chinese rule in 1997.12 The former British territory maintained its social and economic systems, allowing media organizations in Hong Kong to be free from the same kind of state control as mainland news outlets; however, online censorship still occurs on a widespread scale. Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella Revolution illustrated the differences in pro-democracy protest coverage. Mainland media organizations aligned with the protest paradigm, reporting on the negative impacts that the protests had on “life in Hong Kong.”13 State media portrayed the demonstrations as disorganized, immature, and not to be taken seriously.14 The People’s Daily, a major state-controlled newspaper, called the Umbrella Revolution “illegal” and described the protesters as being selfish: “They incite people, paralyze traffic, impede businesses, cause conflict and seriously disturb the normal life of the people of Hong Kong, and even pose a threat to life and property.”15 Over the course of the demonstrations, images of the protests did not appear in any of China’s state-run media.16 In contrast, media from Hong Kong amplified the voices of citizens partaking in the Umbrella Revolution, who were protesting an election reform that would mandate Beijing’s approval of candidates for Hong Kong’s chief executive position.17 Hong Kong broadcasters such as NOW and Cable TV provided extensive coverage of the demonstrations, including footage of student leaders storming government headquarters and clashing with the police.18 Apple Daily, a pro-democracy newspaper in Hong Kong, ran its own live online feed that featured aerial imagery of crowds captured by a drone.19 Despite Hong Kong’s relative institutional independence from the CCP, censors still aggressively scoured Sina Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, to crack down on the protests; the rate of censorship was more than double that seen on the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen Square.20 Instagram was shut down in China during the Umbrella Revolution protests, and users reported posts being deleted from their social media platforms, even those in private chats.21

But censorship on pro-democracy protests is not limited to uprisings in China or its territories. When countries abroad faced their own pro-democracy movements, the Chinese government took swift action to prevent such revolutions from having a domino-like effect. Searches for the Chinese name for Egypt were blocked on Sina Weibo, resulting in an error message stating, “Due to relevant laws, regulations and policies, the search returns cannot be shown.”22 The Chinese government is wary of democratic uprising around the world influencing politics at home, and treat such social movements – whether in territories such as Hong Kong or on another continent – as “a matter of life or death…a fuse that can take down their world.”23

Free media has a profound impact on democratic movements, perhaps more than any other social institution. A free and independent press is a catalyst to free speech, assembly and petition. Understanding this, the Chinese government has taken a comprehensive approach toward the media in an effort to suppress pro-democracy uprisings. The state media’s protest paradigm approach and the government’s online censorship tactics make an effective system in oppressing the freedoms essential to democracy. As long as state media continues to vilify political changemakers and the government maintains strict online censorship and surveillance, China will continue to succeed in countering any kind of pro-democracy movement, whether in territories such as Hong Kong or on the mainland.

Yena Seo is a student at Ithaca College studying Journalism and Politics, with a concentration in International Studies. She plans to pursue a career in national security.

Works Cited

Calamur, Krishnadev, “One System, Two Media: How China, Hong Kong are Covering the Protests,” NPR, October 1, 2014, accessed March 31, 2018, https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2014/10/01/352747590/one-system-two-media-how-china-hong-kong-are-covering-the-protests.

Chappell, Bill, “25 Years After Tiananmen Protests, Chinese Media Keep It Quiet,” NPR, June 4, 2014, accessed March 31, 2018, https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2014/06/04/318756603/25-years-after-tiananmen-protests-chinese-media-keep-it-quiet.

Freedom House, “Freedom of the Press 2017: China,” accessed March 31, 2018, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-press/2017/china.

Martinez-Gutierrez, Paula, “Media Coverage of Protests in China,” Brown Political Review, March 4, 2015, accessed March 31, 2018, http://www.brownpoliticalreview.org/2015/03/media-coverage-of-protests-in-china/.

Newsweek Staff, “Covering the Tiananmen Square Massacre, Then and Now,” Newsweek, June 4, 2015, accessed March 31, 2018, http://www.newsweek.com/covering-tiananmen-square-massacre-then-and-now-339542.

Parker, Emily, “Social Media and the Hong Kong Protests,” The New Yorker, October 1, 2014, accessed March 31, 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/social-media-hong-kong-protests.

Ramzy, Austin, “Egypt Wave Barely Causes a Ripple in China,” TIME, February 8, 2011, accessed March 31, 2018, http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2046901,00.html.

Shahin, Saif, Pei Zheng, Heloisa Aruth Sturm, and Deepa Fadnis, “Protesting the Paradigm: A Comparative Study of News Coverage of Protests in Brazil, China, and India,” The International Journal of Press/Politics 21, no. 2 (2016), 143-164. Accessed March 31, 2018. doi: 10.1177/1940161216631114

References

[1] Freedom House, “Freedom of the Press 2017: China,” accessed March 31, 2018, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-press/2017/china.

[2] Freedom House.

[3] Saif Shahin, Pei Zheng, Heloisa Aruth Sturm, and Deepa Fadnis, “Protesting the Paradigm: A Comparative Study of News Coverage of Protests in Brazil, China, and India,” The International Journal of Press/Politics 21, no. 2 (2016), 145, accessed March 31, 2018, doi: 10.1177/1940161216631114.

[4] Freedom House.

[5] Freedom House.

[6] Newsweek Staff, “Covering the Tiananmen Square Massacre, Then and Now,” Newsweek, June 4, 2015, accessed March 31, 2018, http://www.newsweek.com/covering-tiananmen-square-massacre-then-and-now-339542.

[7] Newsweek Staff.

[8] Bill Chappell, “25 Years After Tiananmen Protests, Chinese Media Keep It Quiet,” NPR, June 4, 2014, accessed March 31, 2018, https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2014/06/04/318756603/25-years-after-tiananmen-protests-chinese-media-keep-it-quiet.

[9] Chappell.

[10] Chappell.

[11] Chappell.

[12] Krishnadev Calamur, “One System, Two Media: How China, Hong Kong are Covering the Protests,” NPR, October 1, 2014, accessed March 31, 2018, https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2014/10/01/352747590/one-system-two-media-how-china-hong-kong-are-covering-the-protests.

[13] Calamur.

[14] Paula Martinez Gutierrez, “Media Coverage of Protests in China,” Brown Political Review, March 4, 2015, accessed March 31, 2018, http://www.brownpoliticalreview.org/2015/03/media-coverage-of-protests-in-china/.

[15] Calamur.

[16] Calamur.

[17] Emily Parker, “Social Media and the Hong Kong Protests,” The New Yorker, October 1, 2014, accessed March 31, 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/social-media-hong-kong-protests.

[18] Calamur.

[19] Calamur.

[20] Parker.

[21] Parker.

[22] Austin Ramzy, “Egypt Wave Barely Causes a Ripple in China,” TIME, February 8, 2011, accessed March 31, 2018, http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2046901,00.html.

[23] Calamur.

Featured Image: Tiananmen Square (Wikimedia Commons)

Turnbull’s Choice: Australian Security Policy Evolves to Face a Rapidly Changing Pacific

This article originally appeared in Strategic Vision for Taiwan Security and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By David Andre

Reacting to Australia’s Foreign Policy White Paper, a Chinese Defense ministry spokesperson cautioned Australia to get rid of its “old mentality in mind while having a new Asia Pacific in sight.” While these comments rank as some of the most benign in a recent series of caustic remarks, they do capture the essence of the maritime environment of South and East Asia: A boiling pot where competing historical narratives, rapidly changing geopolitics, and great power competition clash in the East and South China Seas. As these issues are unprecedented, so too are the challenges they present. Too often, though, Australia’s policies have been characterized as a choice between the United States and China, but such a characterization is misleading and oversimplified. One thing is certain: Australia’s maritime policies in South and East Asia will have a significant impact on the countries of the Pacific region.

In November 2017, the Australian government of Malcolm Turnbull released its new Foreign Policy White Paper—the first since 2003. This document describes a very different Asia-Pacific region than the one of 14 years ago, detailing a region where economic dynamism, great-power competition, and land and maritime border disputes are on the uptick. What appears from the White Paper is a resolute Australia, committed to stepping up its role in the security and prosperity of the Pacific. Nowhere is this resolve more salient than in the maritime domain, where disputed islands and maritime militarization threaten to undermine maritime security, destabilize the region, and create a polarized Pacific defined by the divergent security interests of the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). This scenario is routinely presented as a Sophie’s Choice for the Australian government: a choice between the security brought by the United States—Australia’s strongest ally—and the economic prosperity promised by continued trade and investment in China—now Australia’s biggest trading partner. This is a specious argument.

 State of Polarization

The argument oversimplifies what is a much more nuanced situation and neglects the fact that Australia has already chosen a side. Though that choice was never between the United States and China; rather it was a choice in favor of a maritime security environment defined by multilateral institutions and a rules-based global order, which neither the United States nor China distinctly embodies. Characterizing Australia’s maritime policies in Asia as anything else is an attempt to force a state of polarization in the region.

The Asia-Pacific is a maritime domain of competing realities and compelling narratives. In the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper, Australia offered a practical rendering of the geopolitical realities that define the Asia-Pacific. This rendering begins by acknowledging that the maritime superiority long enjoyed by the United States in the Pacific is now being contested by the PRC. Indeed, political, material, and budgetary constraints have placed and will continue to place a significant strain on US naval operations in the Pacific. This contrasts with China, where Xi Jinping holds an extraordinarily powerful position and possesses an economy to support his aggressive military modernization program. Certainly these realities have emboldened China, exemplified by Xi Jinping’s recent Party Congress speech, in which he referenced the construction progress China has made on the islands and reefs in the South China Sea, saying, “no one should expect China to swallow anything that undermines its interests.”

The relevance of these trends to Australia’s security and prosperity is undeniable. So, it should come as no surprise then that the Foreign Policy White Paper states that Australia must step up its efforts in the Asia-Pacific, specifically in regard to the maritime disputes in the South China Sea.

Enduring Allies

For Australia, there are geopolitical realities and historical narratives that impact its maritime policy in the Pacific. Foremost is the reality that the trajectories of China and the United States will continue toward increased competition and, potentially, direct conflict. Putting the debate over hegemonic aspirations aside, China is the most dominant regional power in East Asia and, by extension, the East and South China Seas. Little about this trajectory suggests that there will be a change in the coming decades.

Political climate notwithstanding, the United States and Australia are enduring allies, with a 2017 Lowy institute poll reporting a majority of Australians believe an alliance with the United States remains critical for security — again there is little to suggest that this will change. These trajectories intersect on the regional fault line of the South China Sea and put considerable pressure on Australia.

Second, each country believes it is executing a rational strategy and so has no impetus to change. These rationales derive from deep-seated historical narratives. China believes that the post-WWII global order and the accompanying international norms developed independent of Asian input, and are thus not binding. This leads to a modernizing China that is looking to cast itself as a sidelined power merely assuming its rightful mantle. While there is some validity to this reasoning, there is a counter opinion that purports that the global order, regardless of its Western-centric origins, has allowed China to become the leading economic and military power in Asia. This explains the United States portraying itself as a stabilizing influence and champion of a rules-based international order. As with most national narratives, there is a pragmatic mixture of truth and revisionism involved. Alas, the naval strategies at play in the Pacific are a result of these beliefs and it is unlikely that Australia will change the mindset of either actor. Given this scenario, Australia’s balanced approach remains the best course of action for realizing its interests and the interests of others.

A Third Choice

Portraying Australia’s Asian maritime policies as a choice between the security of the United States and the prosperity of China presents a false dilemma. Australia denounces such depictions, believing that an either/or characterization belies the complexity of Asia’s maritime issues. Unfortunately, such portrayals are common. In 2010, political scientist John Mearsheimer argued that it was inevitable that China’s rise would be seen as offensive in nature and that Australia would have no choice but to join the US-led balancing act.

More recently, in August 2016, a US military official offered a similar sentiment stating that “there’s going to have to be a decision as to which one [China or the United States] is more of a vital national interest for Australia.” With the recent release of the Foreign Policy White Paper, these calls have renewed in earnest, repeated to the point of cliché. Unfortunately, by presenting a polarized view of the maritime domain, these assertions neglect a third choice — the choice of global order and international norms, which supports Australia’s national security better than either of the national strategies of the United States or China.

Australia’s behavior represents a commitment to a multilateral Asia. A member and advocate of multilateral institutions throughout the Asia-Pacific, Australia maintains strong bilateral ties with many members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, (ASEAN), as well as rising powers India and Japan. While many write this off as the lot of a benign Middle Power, it comes with the power to tip the scales.

Proof of this power was on display in China’s reaction to the new Foreign Policy White Paper. Despite its oblique references to maritime disputes, China’s Foreign Ministry was quick to chide Australia for what it called “irresponsible commentary” and “propaganda.” Branding Australia’s foreign policy in such a manner represents China’s own coercive way of telling Australia that it must choose sides. It is also a harbinger of the difficulties that Australia will face as it attempts to navigate an increasingly unstable Asia.

Insistent Tone

While Australia’s tone may be growing sterner under the Turnbull administration, the message is the same: respect the international norms and rules- based global order. In maritime Asia, this means allowing the free flow of shipping through the East and South China seas. The message was present in the 2016 Defence White Paper, with calls to establish a Code of Conduct between China and ASEAN, to stop land reclamation, and uphold maritime rights in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Meanwhile, the increased military spending outlined in the Defence White Paper signaled a more insistent tone emerging in Australia’s Foreign policy. Australia struck a similar tone in July 2016, when reacting to the South China Sea arbitration, which ruled in favor of the Philippines.

Alongside these declarations are a series of practical, balanced statements representative of Australia’s position in the regional power dynamics. Julie Bishop’s statements in October 2016 asserting that Australia should seek to de-escalate tensions in the Pacific and not take sides exemplify this sentiment. The continual efforts to goad Australia into choosing sides disrespects Canberra’s strategy and risks removing an important actor’s ability to maintain balance in the Pacific. For just as Beijing’s vision of its regional role continues to expand, so too must Australia’s.

Though Australia has yet to conduct any Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOP), like the United States has consistently done, the Royal Australian Navy’s presence has been steadily increasing in the region. Indo-Pacific Endeavour, Australia’s largest joint task group to sail in the Indo-Pacific region in 40 years puts action to the words detailed in the foreign policy document. The 11-week long deployment involved ASEAN partners Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand, as well as regional actors such as Japan, India, Micronesia, and East Timor.

Fundamental to Peace

As Australia’s physical role expands, so too does its affirmation of international order. Speaking about Indo-Pacific Endeavor, Minister of Defense Marise Payne referenced the ongoing disputes, saying, “Maintaining the rule of law and respecting the sovereignty of nations large and small is fundamental to continued peace and stability in our region.” In addition to Indo-Pacific Endeavour, Australia participated in a joint exercise with the United States and South Korea in November 2017. These exercises came on the heels of an agreement on joint maritime patrols with the Philippines in Western Mindanao.

(Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

In addition to conducting joint maritime operations throughout the region, Australia has steadily increased defense dialogues among ASEAN countries. In early November 2017, Australia concluded the first iteration of a new defense dialogue with Vietnam, which builds on increasingly stronger defense ties that have been building for a decade. There is also a deepening of the maritime relationship with Indonesia, Australia’s nearest ASEAN partner and a unique actor in the South China Sea disputes. In perhaps its most concrete act, Australia routinely conducts Maritime Patrols to contest China’s attempt to establish an Air Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea. Lastly, the September 2017 commissioning of the HMAS Hobart signaled the entry of a new class of Destroyers to support the intent of stepping-up engagement in the Pacific.

Australia’s steady expansion of its maritime role in the Asia-Pacific still allows room for engagement with China. In August 2017, Australia and China concluded the 20th iteration of their annual Defense Strategic Dialogue in Canberra. The dialogue acknowledged the importance of regional peace and stability in the South China Sea. Through this wide breadth of strategic dialogues and maritime exercises and operations, Australia shows its commitment to the maritime domain as well as the international order. So far, the realignment of power in the Asia- Pacific has been without direct conflict.

When it comes to the Pacific, the reality is Australia has placed international order at the forefront of its national security. As the Pacific’s maritime domain continues to evolve and the strategic stability of the post WWII-era is challenged, Australia’s policies toward the region will undoubtedly develop to meet this challenge. Considering Australia’s growing importance to the region, any actions Australia takes will undoubtedly have a significant impact on its regional partners. As such, attempts at polarizing Australia’s maritime policy will only worsen the divide.

As more and more nations feel compelled to choose sides, the likelihood of consensus drives down and the possibility of a bifurcated maritime domain rise. So, when it comes to the United States and China, Australia has not taken sides, nor is it in anyone’s best interests to do so. So far, the realignment of power in the Asia-Pacific has been without direct conflict and Australia plays an integral role in keeping it as such.

Lieutenant David Andre is a former Intelligence Specialist, and has served as an Intelligence Officer and Liaison Officer assigned to AFRICOM. He is currently serving as N2 for COMDESRON SEVEN in Singapore. He can be reached at dma.usn@gmail.com.

Featured Image: Prime Minister of Australia Malcolm Turnbull takes a selfie. (U.S. Embassy Canberra)

Taiwanese Navy Friendship Flotilla Visits Latin American and Caribbean Allies

The Southern Tide

Written by W. Alejandro Sanchez, The Southern Tide addresses maritime security issues throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. It discusses the challenges regional navies face including limited defense budgets, inter-state tensions, and transnational crimes. It also examines how these challenges influence current and future defense strategies, platform acquisitions, and relations with global powers.

“The security environment in Latin America and the Caribbean is characterized by complex, diverse, and non-traditional challenges to U.S. interests.” Admiral Kurt W. Tidd, Commander, U.S. Southern Command, before the 114th Congress Senate Armed Services Committee, 10 March 2016.

By W. Alejandro Sanchez

A three-ship training flotilla belonging to the Republic of China (ROC/Taiwan visited Central American and Caribbean states as Taipei strives to maintain close ties with regional allies. Taiwan regularly sends high-ranking defense officials and flotillas as part of goodwill initiatives in the Western Hemisphere, these initiatives will be even more important as the Dominican Republic announced at the end of April that it would sever relations with Taiwan and establish them with the People’s Republic of China.

 Friendship Flotilla 2018

Taiwan’s friendship flotilla No. 107 (Flotilla de la Amistad in Spanish), is comprised of “Pan Shi, a modern and sleek Fast Combat Support Ship, Pan Chao, an older, U.S.-designed frigate, and Kuen Wing, a more recent, French-made stealth frigate,” according to AFP. There are around 800 personnel on board in total, including an unspecified number of cadets from the ROC Naval Academy who are utilizing the voyage to learn how to operate in the high seas.

The flotilla commenced its training voyage by first visiting the Marshall Islands; while in the Western Hemisphere it visited the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. The local and Taiwanese media have covered the visit during each port call. For example, the  Nicaraguan newspaper El Nuevo Diario has noted that the last time a Taiwanese flotilla visited the Central American country was in 2016 while other outlets mentioned that this is the sixth time that such a visit has occurred.

Meanwhile the Minister of Defense of El Salvador, Munguía Payés, reportedly praised bilateral relations, stating that “the armed forces of El Salvador and of Taiwan are and will always be an important factor not only when it comes to the internal security of our respective nations but also supporters of development and guarantors of democracy.”

Taiwan, China, and Latin America

Even with recent advances in naval technology and the ability to resupply at sea, it is still necessary for vessels traveling far from their nation’s territorial waters to be allowed to dock at friendly ports and conduct exercises with friendly naval forces from other nations. The problem is that Taiwan is running out of ports in the Western Hemisphere to dock its naval platforms and engage in constructive naval initiatives with friendly forces as regional governments switch from recognizing Taipei to Beijing. As previously mentioned the DR switched at the end of April, Panama switched in 2017, while Costa Rica did the same a decade ago, in 2007. The DR’s switch is somewhat embarrassing to Taipei, as the flotilla docked in Santo Domingo in mid-April, only to have the Dominican government switch to Beijing two weeks later.

While Beijing is gaining new allies in the Western Hemisphere, Chinese naval presence in Latin America and the Caribbean is pretty limited: a destroyer Shijiazhuang and the supply ship Hongzehu visited Chile in 2009; four years later, destroyer Lanzhou and frigate Liuzhou visited Argentina in 2013. Additionally, China’s Peace Ark (866 Daishan Dao), a Type 920 hospital ship that is operated by the People’s Liberation Army Navy, has visited the Western Hemisphere as part of “Harmonious Mission 2011” and “Harmonious Mission 2015.” Nevertheless, if more regional governments recognize Beijing (and there are constant rumors about which will be the next country to do so), and as Beijing seeks to project its naval presence well past its borders, there may be a larger Chinese naval presence in the Western Hemisphere in the coming years.

Rear Admiral Wang Fushan (third from right), deputy commander of the North Sea Fleet of the Chinese Navy, holds a meeting with officers from the Chilean naval forces aboard the Chinese destroyer Shijiazhuang, in Valparaiso. (News.cn)

The Flotilla in Context

The visit of the three-vessel Taiwanese flotilla in itself is not meaningful as Taiwan does not have bases in the Western Hemisphere, nor does Taipei have some kind of collective security-type defense treaty with regional countries. In other words, this visit does not signify that Taiwan would come to the aid of one of its regional partners, should one of them be attacked by a third party. Hence, the international media has placed the visit in the context of Taipei-Beijing and Taipei-Washington relations; for example Reuters published a piece titled “Taiwan warships drop anchor in Nicaragua amid sinking ties with China,” while the Strait Times titled its own report on the subject, “China demands halt of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, as island stresses Central America ties with navy visit.”

Additionally, given ongoing tensions with China, there have been a number of reports about the Taiwanese Navy undergoing  a modernization process to obtain new platforms. There have been similar discussions in Washington regarding what kind of weaponry should the U.S. sell Taiwan. It is worth noting that in 2017 the Taiwanese Navy received two decommissioned Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates but ongoing Washington-Beijing tensions seem to hint that more modern equipment (including submarine technology) could be sold to Taipei as part of ever-changing geopolitics in Asia.

While the recent visit of a Taiwanese flotilla will not affect Central American or Caribbean geopolitics, its use is more symbolic, as it demonstrates that the Asian nation strives to maintain diplomatic relations with its remaining friends in the Western Hemisphere. Taiwan’s naval diplomacy, unlike similar initiatives by other countries, is not so much about maintaining cordial defense relations, but maintaining diplomatic relations. Countries like El Salvador and Nicaragua still recognize Taiwan, but the recent loss of DR, which occurred right after the flotilla visited the country, is an example that such initiatives, defense and others, must be constant.

W. Alejandro Sanchez is a researcher who focuses on geopolitical, military and cyber security issues in the Western Hemisphere. Follow him on Twitter: @W_Alex_Sanchez.

Featured Image: Nicaraguan students wave Taiwanese flags to welcome three Taiwanese Navy warships at Corinto port, some 149km north-west of Managua, on April 9, 2018. (Photo: AFP)

The Growing Dragon: The Radical Reorganization of the PLA

By Pawel Behrendt

Two years ago, President Xi Jinping announced the reorganization of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the implementation is gaining momentum. The changes, which go far beyond administrative restructuring and equipment modernization, will make the world’s most massive fighting force more modern and flexible. The reorganization gives Xi and his team an opportunity to purge political opponents within the military and address many of the problems that have plagued the military for decades.

During his speech to the National People Congress in 2012, Hu Jintao announced the modernization of the PLA, seeking a modern armed force, able to “win local wars under informationized/hi-tech conditions.” Under Xi Jinping, these modernizations began to materialize. The first noticeable change was the restoration of political officers in the PLA, a clear sign of turbulent relations between the new leadership and the generals. Next, Xi announced a wide-reaching anti-corruption campaign. Most notably, former deputy chairmen of the Central Military Commission, Generals Xu Caihou, and Guo Boxiong, were among those accused of corruption. Their fate was settled in 2016 – Xu died of cancer while under arrest and Guo was sentenced to life in prison.

With the backdrop of the anti-corruption campaign, a real military reform was afoot – in 2014, a reorganization of the command structure was announced. The number of military regions was reduced from 7 to 5, and a joint operation command was established to coordinate actions of ground, air, and naval forces in each area. There was also an increase in the role of the Air Force and Navy, both of which are more prominent in a state with global ambitions as opposed to an Army-dominated system that has long characterized China’s military. In celebration of the 70th anniversary of World War II, Xi Jinping announced the reduction of the PLA by 300,000 soldiers to 2 million standing troops. On the last day of 2015, amid overall personnel reduction, new military branches were established – the Rocket Force and the Strategic Support Force.

2016 brought about important, but less flashy, changes. Specifically, the creation of a DARPA-equivalent research lab was announced in March 2016. The agency was operational in July 2017. In April 2016, military education reform was announced and, as a result, departments related to land forces reduced the number of freshmen by 24 percent and the departments of logistics and support shrunk by 45 percent. Conversely, the number of students admitted to courses related to aviation, Navy, and missile technologies was increased by 14 percent. An increase of 16 percent was planned for departments related to space technologies, radars, and drones.

Further, closer cooperation between universities and training units was also announced. This was the result of increasingly louder complaints that soldiers cannot take full advantage of the increasingly modern equipment. Overcoming this gap is now considered one of the most critical tasks to the PLA. Xi Jinping stressed several times a great need for officers who have a broad knowledge of advanced technologies. Most concerning is the shortage of IT specialists. Like many other countries, Chinese IT companies offer much better compensation and work conditions, robbing the military of talent. Higher military income and attractive career paths are being implemented to prevent the talent bleed. Further, to attract talented college graduates, the draft was aligned with the college graduation season.

In September 2016, the activation of the Joint Logistics Support Force was announced. This step aims to improve the decentralized PLA logistics system. Within each of the military regions, a Regional Joint Logistics Support Center was established with headquarters in Wuxi, Guilin, Xining, Shenyang, and Zhengzhou. Of note, the Joint Logistics Support Force is not subordinate to the PLA HQ, but to the Central Military Commission.

Starting in 2017, even more radical changes were made. In mid-March, a five-fold increase in the size of the Marine Corps was announced. The force now numbers 20,000 soldiers organized in two brigades, but the goal is as many as 100,000 troops in six brigades. The greatly expanded Marine Corps is dedicated primarily to the protection of the maritime thread of the One Belt, One Road, and defense of the overseas interests of the Middle Kingdom. The Chinese Marines will be permanently stationed in Gwadar, Pakistan, and in Djibouti. The African garrison is rumored to have as many as 10,000 soldiers. It is important to mention that, according to media sources, the first Type 075 amphibious assault ship was laid down in March 2017. Specifics on the ship design and numbers are still unknown. The Chinese Admiralty wanted LHDs similar to the American WASP-class but opted for a smaller ship – based on the French Mistral-class – due to financial constraints. Recent information suggests that “something in between” has been chosen.

Amphibious assault ships are necessary if China wants “American style” power-projection capability. The Chinese are well aware of the unique requirements of the Marines, and outdated PLAN Marine Corps equipment is discussed openly. The force has spent years preparing for an invasion of Taiwan and operations in the nearby waters of South and East China Seas requires a thorough reorganization.

The marine brigades of the PLAN are not the only amphibious assault units of the PLA. There are also four amphibious mechanized infantry divisions (AMID) that are part of the PLA Ground Force. These units are essentially mechanized divisions equipped with more amphibious vehicles and river crossing equipment. In effect, the divisions are more suited to crossing rivers and lakes than in taking part in actual seaborne operations. Under the reorganization of the PLAN Marines Corps, the future of AMID is unclear.

Chinese marines storm a beachead (AFP 2018 / Xinhua)

Around the same time that the PLAN Marine Corps reports emerged, PLA Ground Force restricting was also announced. From 1949 through the mid-1980s, the Ground Force was organized into 70 corps. Then, during one of the previous reorganizations, the number was halved and later reduced to 24. At the same time, the corps were renamed “group armies.” During subsequent reductions in the 1990s and 2009, their number fell to 21 and, eventually, to 18 corps. Now, the group armies are returning to corps and further decreased in number to 13. This change, however, has a deeper meaning. Specifically, the 16th and 47th Group Armies will be disbanded. Both are large units and were closely linked to the aforementioned Generals Xu and Guo. According to social media, not all soldiers from disestablished units will leave the military – some may be reassigned, even to the Air Force, Navy or Rocket Force. Some of the other units that will be disbanded are the 14th, 20th, 27th and 40th group armies.

In April 2017, further information was officially disclosed by the Ministry of Defense, when it revealed an even more drastic reorganization. The entire PLA will be divided into 84 corps that will comprise all military branches, as well as garrisons, reserves, military academies, and research units. This means an interruption of historical continuity, cultivated mainly in the Ground Force, in which new army corps will have numbered from 71 to 83. Most of them will be located in northern and western China, opposite the U.S. forces and Japan, but also Russia and North Korea.

Airborne units have also undergone serious organizational changes. Until 2017, there had been three airborne divisions (43rd, 44th, and 45th), organized into the 15th Airborne Corps, subordinate to the PLAAF. Each division consisted of two airborne regiments, a special forces group, an air transport regiment, and a helicopter group. After the recent reorganization, the PLA Airborne Corps was created, and separate divisions were disbanded. Airborne regiments were reclassified as brigades (127th, 128th, 130th, 131st, 133rd, and 134th), and special forces and transport groups were organized into separate brigades. Confusingly, signal, chemical and engineering troops have been assigned into a single brigade. This solution is perceived as the next step in the development of a robust Chinese airborne force and their transformation from light troops into heavily armed units modeled after Russian paratroops.

The large-scale reorganization of the armed forces has also brought about some unexpected personnel problems. Public protests by active duty servicemen and veterans have become common, and the primary cause of dissatisfaction is not only the reduction of posts. Unlike previous cuts, the severance pay program and employment efforts for former military personnel failed. In fact, pay and military pensions sometimes arrived late or in reduced sum. Veterans are particularly embittered, and they accuse the government of ignoring their needs and problems. In October 2017, more than 1,000 vets protested at the Ministry of Defense singing military songs and waving party flags. Police and security officers were confused and surrounded the protesters with buses and police vehicles. On October 11, another protest lasted late into the night, resulting in several arrests. According to human rights organizations, protests are not rare, with over 50 occurring in 2016 alone. As a result, a special Ministry of Veterans Affairs was established in March 2018. The new institution will help veterans to find jobs, lodging, and ensuring their status of “revered members of society.”

Conclusion

A reorganization of a structure as big and complex as the PLA is never an easy task and it is compounded by resistance from active and veteran military personnel. Unlike the USSR, there is no clear division between party, military, and security force. Further, the military has always had a strong influence on the state apparatus. During his second term, Hu Jintao warned about the negative consequences of this system. Despite silencing the most hostile officers whose status and influence were endangered by the reform, protests by lower ranks and veterans show that the Communist Party of China has to be very careful. From the military point of view, the reform aims to convert the force designed primarily to defend Chinese territory into one prepared for expeditionary operations.

Pawel Behrendt is a Political Science Ph.D. candidate at the University of Vienna. He is an expert at the Poland-Asia Research Center and is the deputy chief-editor of konflikty.pl. Find him on Twitter @pawel_behrendt.

Featured Image: Chinese marines (Xinhua)