Tag Archives: PLA

Flashpoint China, Chinese Air Power and Regional Security

Rupprecht, Andreas. Flashpoint China, Chinese Air Power and Regional Security. Houston: Harpia Publishing, 2016. 80pp. $23.45

By Lieutenant Commander David Barr, USN

Introduction

Since his rise to power six years ago, thousands of analysts and policymakers across the globe have attempted to understand the intentions of, and the mechanisms employed toward, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China Xi Jinping’s seemingly expansionist vision for China. That vision, dubbed “The Chinese Dream” by Xi in 2012, solidified his plan for “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Although arguably vaguely defined, “The Chinese Dream” has been viewed by some as Xi’s call for rising Chinese influence on the international stage – economically, politically, diplomatically, scientifically, and militarily, i.e., China’s “grand strategy.”

In support of this vision, Xi has embarked on a multitude of political and military reforms and now, backed by one of the world’s most technologically-advanced militaries, Xi is ready to thrust his revitalized China further onto the world stage. During his opening speech to nearly 2,300 party delegates and dignitaries at the October 2017 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, Xi publicly described the extraordinary complexity of China’s domestic and foreign policy challenges and opportunities: “Currently, conditions domestically and abroad are undergoing deep and complicated changes. Our country is in an important period of strategic opportunity in its development. The outlook is extremely bright; the challenges are also extremely grim.”1

In his new book, Flashpoint China, Chinese Air Power and Regional Security, Andreas Rupprecht, author of Modern Chinese Warplanes: Combat Aircraft and Units of the Chinese Air Force and Naval Aviation, attempts to break out of his comfort zone and succinctly capture the complexities of Chinese foreign policy and the geopolitical environment of the Asia-Pacific Region. The content of Flashpoint China is predominantly focused on Chinese regional security issues; however, in his introductory paragraph, Rupprecht states the goal of Flashpoint China is to “draw upon” Modern Chinese Warplanes and “offer an overview of potential military conflicts along the borders of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).”2 This is a laudable goal, for even attempting to synopsize the complexity of Chinese military history and foreign relations in a mere eighty pages would challenge the most knowledgeable defense and foreign relations expert. Yet for the most part, Rupprecht succeeds. There are some content areas however that could benefit from further research and development.

Following the introduction, Rupprecht utilizes Chapters Two through Five to succinctly introduce the various foreign policy concerns for China in each of its five Theater Commands. Each chapter opens with a succinct description of the nuanced histories behind each foreign policy concern, provides an overview of PLAAF and PLANAF capabilities available to each Theater Command, and closes with well-structured charts of each Theater Command’s PLAAF and PLANAF order of battle. It is through this structured approach that Rupprecht meets his goal of drawing upon Modern Chinese Warplanes and answering the following question: If conflict were to occur at any of the flashpoints, what People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and PLA Naval Air Force (PLANAF) units and platforms are likely to be involved?

Over the last two to three decades China’s entire military force has undergone a rapid and unprecedented military modernization campaign designed to transform it into a regionally-dominant and globally-significant force. To further tie his two books together however, Rupprecht would be remiss to not include an update of what has transpired within and across the PLA between the books’ publication dates (2012 and 2016, respectively) in the introductory section of Flashpoint China, specifically how PLA reforms and the subsequent establishment of the five Theater Commands have affected the PLAAF and PLANAF. Additionally, Rupprecht briefly describes concepts such as China’s “active defense strategy” and “anti-access /aerial denial (A2/AD)” (what the Chinese refer to as “counter-intervention”) capabilities. Counter-intervention represents how China plans to “deny the U.S. [or other foreign] military the ability to operate in China’s littoral waters in case of a crisis.”3 Collectively, these organizational, doctrinal, and operational changes should weigh heavily in a book of this nature yet Rupprecht does not fully incorporate their significance in his work. To do this, the author would need to answer the following question: How would PLAAF and PLANAF platforms and capabilities likely be employed to prevent U.S. or other regional forces from intervening in a conflict at any of the flashpoints?

Some of these geographical areas and issues carry a higher military priority for China. According to the U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) in its 2017 Annual Report to Congress, “Taiwan remains the PLA’s main “strategic direction,” one of the geographic areas the leadership identifies as endowed with strategic importance [and represents a “core interest” of China]. Other focus areas include the East China Sea [ECS], the South China Sea [SCS], and China’s borders with India and North Korea.”4 And as the strategic importance of a geographical area increases for China so does its allocation of PLA assets.

For example, the richness and variety of the geopolitical concerns involving the countries presented in Chapter Two of Flashpoint China (Japan, Russia, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), and South Korea), provide significant examples of historical, current, and potential military conflict for China; however, in Chapter Two Rupprecht doesn’t reflect on the order of  strategic priority and therefore the military significance of the Northern and Central Theater Commands. Instead, Chapter Two opens with a very brief paragraph regarding Mongolia, thereby dampening the impact of the chapter’s “flashpoint” narrative.

Additionally, the sovereignty dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the ECS dominates the military significance of China’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Japan; however, Rupprecht merely allocates a single sentence to the situation: “The dispute over the Senkaku Islands – known as the Diaoyu Islands in China – is meanwhile a matter of heated rhetoric and near-open hostility.”5 Since the historical dispute took a dramatic leap forward in April 2012 following the Japanese purchase of three of the eight islets from their private owner, the PLA’s Eastern Theater Command has assumed primary responsibility for this flashpoint area. Unfortunately, Chapter Two mistakenly assigns PLA responsibility for China’s ongoing dilemma with Japan in the ECS to the Northern and Central Theater Commands: “The PLA subordinates responsibility for Japan and the Korean peninsula to the Northern Theater Command and to the Central Theater Command.”6 When the purchase was made public, the PLA immediately began regularly deploying maritime and airborne patrols from Eastern Theater Command bases into the ECS to assert jurisdiction and sovereignty over the islands. Additionally, as Rupprecht alludes to on page 25, in November 2013, China declared the establishment of its first air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the ECS which included the area over the disputed islands. Subsequently, both the PLAAF and PLANAF established routine airborne patrol patterns and the use of ECS airspace and the straits of the Ryukyu Islands to conduct long-range, integrated strike training with PLA Navy (PLAN) assets in the western Philippine Sea.

A map of the Southern Theater Command’s Area of Responsibility (from Flashpoint China, Chinese Air Power and Regional Security, Click to Expand)

Additionally in Chapter Two, Rupprecht aptly describes the history of Sino-Russian relations: “For years, relations between China and Russia have been described as a ‘tightrope walk’, and have frequently oscillated between close friendship and war.”7 However, the author fails to capture the significance of the military connection between Russia and China, especially as it relates to Rupprecht’s stated theme for this book, for China’s military modernization arguably started with mass acquisitions of Russian military technologies in the early 1990s. Over the ensuing decades, China embarked on a widespread effort to acquire Russian military technologies, reverse-engineer that technology, and then indigenously mass-produce similar technologies adapted to Chinese specifications. That period however may be rapidly coming to a close as many China analysts assess that China has now transitioned from a Russian technology-dependent force to a truly indigenous production force. In fact, China’s most recent procurement of Russia’s technologically-advanced Su-35 FLANKER S fighter aircraft and S-400 strategic-level surface-to-air missile (SAM) system, touched on by Rupprecht on page 18, may be the last significant items on China’s military hardware shopping list.

Another example is found in Chapter Three which Rupprecht opens by stating, “The issue of Taiwan is a very special one for the PRC, and certainly the top priority in regard to the PLA’s modernization drive. This is clearly indicated by the official order of protocol, which lists the responsible Eastern Theater Command first.”8 Although the Eastern Theater may have primary responsibility for the Taiwan issue, the extraordinary political, strategic, and economic significance of the Taiwan dispute represents a “core interest” of China. This fact cannot be overstated. The entire essence of Chinese military modernization efforts over the recent decades have been in direct support of the possible requirement to take back Taiwan by force should alternative means of reunification prove fruitless. As Chinese Communist Party legitimacy would ride on the success or failure of a PLA campaign to “liberate” Taiwan, an effort of this magnitude would involve PLAAF and PLANAF assets from multiple Theater Commands, something Rupprecht’s narrative and order-of-battle charts do not capture.

The geography, the respective sovereignty claims, and the strategic and operational scope of each Theater Command’s responsibilities matter greatly with respect to China and its ambitions. Each chapter ends with a wonderful map that provides a highly informative, geographical illustration of each respective theater. The geographical impact of each chapter’s flashpoints may be better served however by moving each chapter’s map to the beginning of the chapters rather than the end.

Rupprecht’s best work is reflected in Chapter Four. China’s sovereignty claims and the controversial Chinese land reclamation and infrastructure construction activity in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea (SCS) presented in Chapter Four are definitely the most contentious issues facing the Southern Theater Command. And here Rupprecht does not disappoint. The author allocates numerous pages to both describe and illustrate the significance of the SCS dispute to China, its regional neighbors, and the U.S. Just as in Modern Chinese Warplanes, Rupprecht has included spectacular, colored photographs of various Chinese aircraft into Flashpoint China. Various PLAAF and PLANAF fighters, reconnaissance and transport aircraft, along with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) are presented in wonderful detail throughout the book. Chapter Four however is especially unique for its inclusion of vivid photographs of China’s land reclamation and infrastructure construction activity in the Spratly Islands.

A UAV is showcased in a Chinese military parade (Flashpoint China, Chinese Air Power and Regional Security)

How Chinese, U.S., and regional neighbors approach this issue politically, diplomatically, and militarily carries significant strategic, operational, and tactical implications. History has proven how a single tactical event in the region can carry immediate and substantial strategic implications. For example, the infamous EP-3 incident of 2001 provides just one example of how tactical miscommunication and miscalculation can have significant strategic implications.9 These type of airborne interactions continue on a regular basis as U.S. reconnaissance aircraft operate in international airspace over the SCS. Chinese fighter aircraft routinely intercept the U.S. aircraft, sometimes operating outside the assessed bounds of safe airmanship. Japanese fighters also come into regular contact with Chinese aircraft, regularly scrambling to check Chinese airspace incursions over the ECS and through the Ryukyu Straits. These tactical events often receive attention from the government and military leaders of the respective countries and occasionally result in public demarches.

In a book of this nature, each SCS claimant country deserves its own dedicated section as China’s rise has forced each country’s government to reassess their national security and military means with some countries making substantial increases in their military expenditures. For example, Vietnam is “in the process of addressing its limitations with respect to combating modern threat scenarios with its existing obsolete equipment, and has embarked on military modernization plans over the last few years.”10 Additionally, the 02 May – 15 August 2014 Hai Yeng Shi You 981 oil rig standoff (also referred to as the “CNOOC-981 incident”) provides a real-world event which not only illustrated the contentiousness of the SCS claims between China and Vietnam, but also revealed an operational reaction from the PLA, with specific operational responses from both the PLAAF and PLANAF.11

Finally, the most impactful flashpoint for China in the Western Theater, presented in Chapter Five, regards India. Typically the issue between the two countries revolves around unresolved border disputes; however, much to India’s chagrin, China also continues to advance its military-to-military relationship with India’s rival, Pakistan. This is especially relevant for Rupprecht’s efforts within Flashpoint China as Pakistan’s Air Force and China’s PLAAF conducted the sixth consecutive iteration of the annual “Shaheen” series of joint exercises in 2017. Since its inception in 2011, the Shaheen exercise series has consistently grown in complexity and scope, incorporating a wider variety of PLAAF aircraft and platforms such as multi-role fighters, fighter-bombers, airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft, and surface-to-air missile crews and radar operators.

Conclusion

In Flashpoint China Andreas Rupprecht ambitiously attempts to couple the highly complex geopolitical environment surrounding modern day China with the PLAAF and PLANAF’s ever-evolving order of battle and force projection capabilities – an assignment with which even the most renowned scholars would struggle, especially within the allotment of so few pages. Via the well-structured narrative and fabulous photographs, Flashpoint China goes a long way in tackling the question of what PLAAF and PLANAF assets could China bring to the fight should a military conflict occur at any of the presented flashpoints. Readers however would have certainly enjoyed reading the author’s assessment of how might the PLA use its air power in support of Chinese military intervention into these contentious hotbeds. But this may have to wait for another day. Still, if brevity of space and time were the only options available to the author, then Flashpoint China can certainly prove useful as is. However, with even some minor content and structural improvements, the book could prove irreplaceable.

LCDR David Barr is a career intelligence officer and currently serves as instructor with the National Intelligence University’s College of Strategic Intelligence. All statements of facts, analysis, or opinion are the author’s and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Intelligence University, the Department of Defense or any of its components, or the U.S. government.

References

1. Buckley, Chris. “Xi Jinping Opens China’s Party Congress, His Hold Tighter Than Ever”; The New York Times; 17 October 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/17/world/asia/xi-jinping-communist-party-china.html

2. Rupprecht, Andreas. Flashpoint China, Chinese Air Power and Regional Security. Houston: Harpia Publishing, 2016. p. 9.

3. Ibid. p. 15.

4. OSD. Annual Report to Congress: “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2017,” OSD, (Annual Report, OSD 2017)

5. Rupprecht, Andreas. Flashpoint China, Chinese Air Power and Regional Security. Houston: Harpia Publishing, 2016. p. 21.

6. Ibid. p. 21.

7. Ibid. P. 17.

8. Ibid. p. 31.

9. Rosenthal, Elisabeth. “U.S. Plane in China After It Collides with Chinese Jet”; The New York Times; 02 April 2001. http://www.nytimes.com/2001/04/02/world/us-plane-in-china-after-it-collides-with-chinese-jet.html

10. Wood, Laura. “Future of the Vietnam Defense Industry to 2022 – Market Attractiveness, Competitive Landscape and Forecasts – Research and Markets”. Business Wire; 04 October 2017. https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20171004006043/en/Future-Vietnam-Defense-Industry-2022—Market

11. Thayer, Carl. “4 Reasons China Removed Oil Rig HYSY-981 Sooner Than Planned”. The Diplomat; 22 July 2014. https://thediplomat.com/2014/07/4-reasons-china-removed-oil-rig-hysy-981-sooner-than-planned/

Featured Image: Two JH-7 fighter bombers attached to an aviation brigade of the air force under the PLA Western Theater Command taxi abreast on the runway before takeoff for a sortie near the Tianshan Mountains in late March, 2018. (eng.chinamil.com.cn/Photo by Wang Xiaofei)

Déjà Vu at the 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue?

By Tuan N. Pham

Introduction

Last year, CIMSEC published an article analyzing Beijing’s decision to send an unusually low-ranking delegation head, Lieutenant General (LTG) He Lei who serves as the Vice President of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) Academy of Military Science (AMS), to the 2017 Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD). The selection was a sharp departure from general past practice. In 2011, Beijing dispatched its Defense Minister (the highest-ranked representative to date) followed by the Vice President of the PLA AMS (lowest-ranked representative so far) the following year. From 2013 to 2016, the Chinese delegation was led by a deputy chief-level PLA general officer, closer in rank to the other attending defense ministers. This year, Beijing chose once again to send LTG He to the premier security forum in the Indo-Pacific region, despite last year’s pledge to send a delegation led by a four-star officer of Central Military Committee rank.

It was speculated that Beijing’s decision was a subtle refutation of last year’s stated agenda of “upholding the rules-based regional order, practical measures to avoid conflict at sea, and nuclear dangers in the Asia-Pacific” and pointed to a deeper problem that China has with the annual dialogue itself. Beijing chooses not to discuss its maritime disputes in any multilateral forum, asserting that bilateral negotiations are the appropriate mechanism to deliberate such contentious issues. The South China Sea (SCS) is a recurrent SLD topic – and China, much to its chagrin, has little influence over the non-friendly and as the Chinese might suggest, hostile agenda. There’s a growing sense within Beijing’s political elites that the SLD has become nothing more than an international forum to highlight (and shame) China’s perceived rule-breaking behavior in the region.

It was also suggested that Beijing may have been short-sighted. By downgrading its presence at the SLD, China ceded the strategic narrative and initiative to the United States and its allies. China yielded another highly visible international platform where its competitors could stake out their strategic positions, counter Chinese strategic messaging, and further challenge and encourage Beijing to become a more responsible global stakeholder that contributes positively to the international system.

The following analysis compares and contrasts the 2017 and 2018 dialogues in terms of Chinese themes, narratives, responses, and outcomes while trying to answer questions such as why did Beijing again send LTG He, what message is Beijing trying to convey, and what does it portend for the region in the near future?

2017 SLD Highlights

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull delivered the keynote speech, averring that Asia’s future peace and prosperity depend on preserving the rules-based regional order that has worked so well for so long. He suggested that China can only expand its strategic influence to match its economic might within the bounds set by the same rules-based regional order. The message implied that Beijing was undermining the rules-based order in Asia and warned that a coercive China would drive its regional neighbors to bolster alliances and partnerships between themselves and the United States. Prime Minister Turnbull also exhorted his regional neighbors to assume greater responsibility for their own security and prosperity.

During the first plenary session (United States and Asia-Pacific Security), U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis called out China for disregarding other nations’ interests and international law, militarizing the SCS, and undermining regional stability. He reiterated that the United States would continue “to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, and demonstrate resolve through operational presence in the SCS and beyond.” Secretary Mattis urged China to recognize that North Korea has become a strategic liability and cautioned Beijing that seeking cooperation on Pyongyang did not mean Washington would not challenge Chinese activities in the SCS. Secretary Mattis also restated America’s steadfast commitment to the defense of Taiwan as outlined in the Taiwan Relations Act. 

During the second plenary session (Upholding the Rules-based Regional Order), then-Japanese Minister of Defense Tomomi Inada leveled similar criticism against China in her speech. She implied that Beijing bore most of the responsibility for the extant regional instability and criticized China for “unilaterally” altering the status quo in the East China Sea and SCS. Minister Inada also urged Beijing to follow international law and respect the prior year’s tribunal ruling on the SCS and expressed support for U.S. freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the SCS.

Chinese diplomatic and media responses were expectedly swift and coordinated, but ultimately uninspiring. The PLA delegation held a media briefing on the summit’s sidelines at the end of the second day, defending China’s position as a rising power that abides by international law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The delegation repeated longstanding policy positions on Taiwan, North Korea, and the SCS while expressing frustration that Beijing is unfairly singled out for criticism. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs followed the tepid response the next day and called out Mattis and Inada’s statements on the SCS and Taiwan as “irresponsible.”  

During the second special session (New Patterns for Security Cooperation), LTG He presented a self-serving speech underscoring the need for a new Asia-Pacific security framework featuring “common, comprehensive, cooperative, and sustainable security.” LTG He emphasized China’s peaceful and benevolent rise that contributes to global peace and prosperity and promoted the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) while promising to advance within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations the adoption of a Code of Conduct framework for the SCS.

2018 SLD Highlights

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered the keynote speech. Although the tone of his speech was largely conciliatory and deferential to Beijing, Prime Minister Modi repeatedly used the term “Indo-Pacific,” highlighting the critical role that America plays in the regional (and global) order, and underscored the imperative for a common rules-based system based on the consent of all.   

IISS Shangri-La Dialogue 2018 – Keynote Address by Narendra Modi (Photo by IISS)

During the first plenary session (U.S. Leadership and the Challenges of Indo-Pacific Security), U.S. Secretary of Defense Mattis rebuked China for “intimidation and coercion” in the Indo-Pacific and declared that America does not plan to abandon its leading role in the region. He also specifically called out Beijing’s destabilizing militarization of the SCS, while further encouraging and challenging China to act responsibly in accordance with established global rules and norms.

During the third plenary session (Shaping Asia’s Evolving Security Order), the Vietnamese Minister of National Defense General Ngo Xuan Lich made the emphatic point that “under no circumstances could we excuse militarization by deploying weapons and military hardware over disputed areas against regional commitments.” Two weeks later, Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry denounced China’s recent redeployment of missiles to Woody Island as a serious violation of its sovereignty in the SCS (Vietnam also has its claims) and that this has threatened freedom of navigation and overflight in the SCS. Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry also “requests that China immediately put an end to these wrongful activities and withdraw the military equipments it had illegally deployed on Vietnams Hoang Sa Islands (Paracel) Islands.”

During the fifth plenary session (Raising the Bar for Regional Security Cooperation), the French Minister of Armed Forces Florence Parly and British Secretary of State for Defense Gavin Williamson largely echoed Secretary Mattis’ sentiments with the former making the bold statement on the SCS…“fait accompli is not a fate accepted” (referring to Chinese attempts to deny international access to the disputed waters). Both announced their intent to jointly sail their deployed naval vessels across the SCS to demonstrate their nations’ inherent right to traverse international waters and to send the “strongest of signals” on the importance of freedom of navigation.

Chinese diplomatic and media responses were again expectedly swift and coordinated, but much sharper and more assertive (and perhaps even better prepared) than last year. The PLA delegation forcefully defended Beijing’s military activities in the SCS and sharply criticized Secretary Mattis’ “irresponsible remarks” on the issue and for his unhelpful “hyping” of the situation. LTG He also took advantage of the public forum to reiterate Taiwan as a Chinese “core interest” and a “red line that cannot be challenged.” This is part of its deliberate campaign to push back hard against the Taiwan Travel Act, approval of marketing licenses to sell U.S. technology to Taipei that would allow for building of advanced Taiwanese submarines, a U.S.-Taiwan agreement to share defense research, and the dispatch of formal U.S. officials to the opening ceremony of a new office building to house the American Institute in Taiwan (the defacto U.S. Embassy).   

During the fifth special session (Strategic Implications of Military Capability Development in Asia-Pacific), LTG He vigorously defended Beijing’s actions and activities in the SCS to include the recent deployments of weapon systems to its military outposts. He re-asserted the Chinese strategic narrative that the islands belonged to China, Beijing was only acting to defend the country’s indisputable sovereignty, and that U.S. FONOPs were the “real militarization of the SCS.” He also reiterated the point that China has not obstructed any military vessels following international laws and was open to discussions on the interpretation of FON. The rest of his speech characterized the ongoing PLA reforms and modernization efforts as benign and largely defensive in nature, praised Beijing for its constructive role in the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, and repeated last year’s talking points on the need for a new Asia-Pacific security framework and the BRI.   

So What’s Next

At the end of the day, the scope, nature, and extent of China’s present participation in the SLD can best be summed up as taking the middle road (hedging). Beijing wants to respond to any policy criticism and challenge any narrative counter to their own at the forum, but does not want to openly endorse or promote the SLD. It seems content for now to limit its role in the special session, and reserve the right to speak at the higher-visibility plenary session when warranted (only individuals of full ministerial rank can speak in plenary).

That said, Beijing may one day conclude that the juice may not be worth the squeeze. Why bother with the biased and fading SLD, when it can focus instead on building up its own Xiangshan Forum? This regional forum is already widely seen in Beijing as a growing counter to the SLD and an important part of a strategic agenda to displace the extant Western-oriented world order with one without dominant U.S. influence. If so, one can expect a re-emerged, revitalized, and restructured Xiangshan Forum after an unexpected and self-induced one-year hiatus.

The BRI (with its hidden nationalist agenda and subdued geo-strategic implications) ultimately needs an accompanying and complementary security framework with Chinese characteristics that the forum can help foster and promote under Beijing’s terms.

The new Chinese strategic approach calls for the balanced integration of interests – both long-term economic development with concomitant security reforms intended to restructure and realign global political and security order. This will be pursued in tandem with safeguarding and enhancing the internal apparatuses of China’s socialist and authoritarian system until it can be the center of that new Beijing-oriented global order. 

Conclusion

Beijing clearly views the SLD as an adversarial international forum used by its perceived strategic rival – Washington – and its allies to unfairly criticize (and contain) China. But despite the critiques, Beijing may also see some value (but not necessarily the overwhelming need) to participate in these multilateral dialogues and perhaps begrudgingly accept the criticism of China as a natural outgrowth of its rise as a global power.

Tuan Pham is widely published in national security affairs and international relations. The views expressed therein are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Government.

Featured Image: SINGAPORE (June 1, 2018) Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis delivers remarks during the first plenary session of the Shangri-La Dialogue 2018 June 2. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Joshua Fulton/Released)

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)

China’s Claim to the Spratly Islands is Just a Mistake

This article is an adaptation of an academic publication by Bill Hayton published in ‘Modern China’ as ‘The Modern Origins of China’s South China Sea Claims: Maps, Misunderstandings, and the Maritime Geobody.’ A version of this article was published in Vietnamese by BBC and may be read here.

By Bill Hayton

The South China Sea is a dangerous place because of the layering of several different struggles on top of one another. There are struggles over the future of the world order, struggles between regional powers, and struggles over maritime resources. But underlying them all is a knot of territorial disputes over a few hundred tiny rocks and reefs. Given how much attention the disputes currently attract, it is surprising how little attention has been paid to their origins. A few flawed accounts were written several decades ago but more evidence has come to light since then and it is time to revise the conventional wisdom. Governments like to pretend that their claims to the hundreds of rocks and reefs in the sea are historical and logical. However, after several years of studying them, it is clear that this is far from true.

The focus of most of the current trouble in the South China Sea is the Spratly Islands and a few underwater features that are closer to the coasts of Vietnam and Borneo. These are a very long way from the Chinese mainland and China has never made clear the precise origins of its claim to them. My own research – just published in the academic journal ‘Modern China’ – leads me to conclude that the Chinese claim only emerged because of some poor translation and bad map-making during the 1930s. My conclusion is that China’s claim to the Spratly Islands is actually a mistake.

The First Claim

The story of China’s claims in the South China Sea began in 1907 with the discovery of a Japanese merchant digging up petrified bird droppings on the island of Pratas (between Hong Kong and Taiwan). Nishizawa Yoshiji was one of many Japanese entrepreneurs mining guano for fertilizer all over the Pacific. However, there were rumors that Japan was also planning to build a naval base on Pratas and that concerned the United States and its newly-acquired colony in the Philippines. The American government informed officials in Beijing in late 1907 but it took well over a year before a Chinese ship was sent to investigate. In March 1909, Chinese officials confirmed Nishizawa’s presence. That triggered large protests in southern China and a boycott of Japanese products. The Japanese government agreed to negotiations, which eventually led to Japan recognizing Chinese sovereignty over Pratas.

However, at the same time, the southern Chinese authorities learned about the existence of the Paracel Islands, apparently for the first time, and became concerned that Japan might try to annex them. This led to an expedition in May and June 1909 during which China formally claimed sovereignty over the Paracels for the first time. The Chinese ships spent three days among the islands firing cannon and planting flags before returning home. However, it was immediately clear to the expedition leaders that the Paracels were not going to deliver any riches. Newspaper accounts mention a plan to turn them into a penal colony but within weeks the authorities had completely lost interest in the islands. They did not return until the 1920s.

The next major incident in the South China Sea created complete confusion – a muddle that infected the earlier academic accounts of the Chinese claim and still affects historical discussions to this day. In December 1931 France – the colonial power in Indochina – claimed sovereignty over the Paracel Islands and, nine months later, China protested. In July 1933, while the two governments were still arguing over the Paracels, France also announced the annexation of six of the Spratly Islands. This led to great confusion in China. It is clear from official documents and newspapers of the time that the Chinese authorities did not know the difference between the Spratlys and the Paracels. They thought that the islands that France had just annexed were the same that China had claimed in 1909. It took several weeks for the confusion to be cleared up. During the discussions the Chinese Navy even sent a telegram to the Chinese Foreign Ministry asserting that the Spratly Islands did not exist! The situation was only cleared up with the help of maps provided by American officials in Manila. In the end, the Chinese government decided that it could not prove a claim to the Spratlys and so did not protest against France’s actions.

However, this confusion led the Chinese government to instruct its ‘Land and Water Maps Review Committee’ to investigate the situation. Among the committee’s other tasks, it inspected and translated maps to show which islands were the Paracels and which were the Spratlys. It also gave Chinese names to them – but these were simply translations or transliterations. North Danger Reef became Beixian 北險礁 (a translation from English). Spratly Island became Si-ba-la-tuo 斯巴拉脫島 (a transliteration of the name of the English sea captain, Richard Spratly), and Luconia Shoals was transliterated as Lu-kang-ni-a 盧康尼亞滩. My own research suggests that the list of names the committee translated was probably taken from the China Sea Directory, published in 1906 by the United Kingdom Hydrographic Office.

However, in the process, the committee made some mistakes. It seems to have been particularly confused by the English nautical terms “bank” and “shoal.” Both mean an area of shallow sea—the former describes a raised area of seabed, the latter is a nautical expression derived from Old English meaning “shallow.” However, the committee chose to translate both as tan 灘, which has the ambiguous translation of “sandbank,” a feature that might be above or below water.

The committee gave one particular underwater feature, James Shoal, the Chinese name Zengmu tan 曾姆滩, and another, Vanguard Bank, the name Qianwei tan 前衛滩. Zengmu is the transliteration of “James,” Qianwei is a translation of “vanguard,” and tan is the translation of “bank” and “shoal.” This translation choice has had major consequences, as we shall see. Why it decided to make a particular point of selecting these two underwater features for its list is also something of a mystery.

My hypothesis is that, since they did not undertake any of their own hydrographic surveys, committee members were completely guided by the maps that they were copying. One map that would have been part of any standard collection at the time was one produced by Edward Stanford Ltd. of London. The company’s 1918 map entitled Asiatic Archipelago gives particular prominence to both James Shoal and Vanguard Bank and to most of the other features listed by the committee (see Figure 1). I suspect that this map also guided the committee’s choices about which features to give Chinese names to.

Figure 1. Asiatic Archipelago, showing James Shoal and Vanguard Bank as underwater features (circles added by author). Map published by Edward Stanford Ltd., London, 1918 (British Library shelfmark Maps 88715.

In 1936, Bai Meichu 白眉初, a founder of the China Geography Society, used the committee’s information to publish his New Atlas of China’s Construction 中華建設新圖. Taking his cue from the committee’s mistranslation, he made a massive mistake. He drew the underwater James Shoal and Vanguard Bank as islands. He then added a U-shaped line around the South China Sea as far south as James Shoal and as far southwest as Vanguard Bank (see Figure 2). Bai’s meaning was clear—the line marked his “scientific” understanding of China’s rightful territory. Because of his mistakes the James Shoal and Vanguard Bank would later became the limits of China’s claim in the South China Sea. This was the very first time that such a line had been drawn on a Chinese map. It was not a state document though; it was the work of a private individual.

Figure 2. Map from New Atlas of China’s Construction (1936) published by Bai Meichu. James Shoal is labeled as Zengmu tan 曾姆滩, and Vanguard Bank as Qianwei tan 前衛滩. Both are drawn as islands with solid outlines and colored infill and are encompassed by the Bai’s boundary line. (Highlighting circles added by author) Source: Beijing Normal University Newspaper no. 295 (May 10, 2012), http://bnu.cuepa.cn/show_more.php?doc_id=613549.

Bai added some other innovations, too. He also drew the underwater features of the Macclesfield Bank (in the center of the South China Sea) as islands. This may be the reason why, to this day, the Chinese state talks about four “archipelagos” in the sea, even though one of them demonstrably does not exist!

The Republic of China still did not claim the Spratlys, however. As late as 1943, the ROC Ministry of Information published its China Handbook 1937–43, a comprehensive guide to the country’s geography, history, politics, and economics. On its opening page it stated that “the territory of the Republic of China extends from [the Sajan Mountains in the north] . . . to Triton Island of the Paracel Group.”

This view of China’s maritime territory would change dramatically over the following three years. It seems likely that this change was facilitated, perhaps even orchestrated, by two of Bai Meichu’s students. In 1927, while he was chair of the Department of History and Geography at Beijing Normal University, Bai taught Fu Jiaojin 傅角今 and Zheng Ziyue 鄭資約. After the Second World War, they were hired by the Chinese Ministry of Interior to advise the government on its territorial boundaries. They drew the government maps in 1946 and 1947 that led to the official Chinese claim in the South China Sea. Fu and Zhang used Bai’s map and his ‘U-shaped line’ to guide them. Thus China would claim the underwater features of the James Shoal and Vanguard Bank as its territory. This makes no sense at all – except if you understand this strange piece of history. The Chinese claim is the result of a series of mistakes.

In October 1947 the ROC Ministry of the Interior renamed the islands within its new claim. Most of the 1935 translations and transliterations were replaced by new, grand-sounding and more “Chinese” titles. For example, the Chinese name for Spratly Island was changed from Si-ba-la-tuo to Nanwei 南威島 (Noble South) and Scarborough Shoal was changed from Si-ka-ba-luo 斯卡巴洛礁 (the transliteration) to Minzhu jiao 民主礁 (Democracy Reef). Vanguard Bank’s Chinese name was changed from Qianwei tan to Wan’an tan 萬安灘 (Ten Thousand Peace Bank). This process was repeated across the archipelagos. The ministry seems to have recognized its earlier problem with translating “shoal” at this time because it coined the word ansha 暗沙, literally “hidden sand,” as a neologism to use instead of tan 灘 in the names of several features, including James Shoal, which was renamed Zengmu ansha.

It was not until 1948, therefore, that the Chinese state formally extended its territorial claim in the South China Sea to the Spratly Islands, as far south as James Shoal. Clearly something had changed in the years between July 1933, when the Republic of China government was unaware that the Spratly Islands existed, and April 1947, when it could “reaffirm” that the southernmost point of its territory was James Shoal.

Conclusion

Although the Chinese government likes to say that it has an ancient and historical claim to the reefs and rocks in the South China Sea, a detailed examination of evidence shows that it actually emerged in the first half of the twentieth century. It also changed during a 40-year period 1907-1947. The whole process was filled with confusion and misunderstanding. A few mistakes by a small number of poorly-informed Chinese officials and academics back in the 1930s have created lingering confusion that still poisons the politics of Southeast Asia to this day.

Bill Hayton is an Associate Fellow with the Asia-Pacific Programme at Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, London. He is the author of The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia and Vietnam:Rising Dragon.

Featured Image: Satellite image taken in June 2015 of China’s land reclamation efforts on Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands. (AMTI/CSIS)