Is China’s Navy hiding its real secret weapon?

The Chinese navy has in recent times focused much attention upon a decidedly more mundane and nonphotogenic arena of naval warfare: sea mines. This focus has, in combination with other asymmetric forms of naval warfare, had a significant impact on the balance of power in East Asia. In tandem with submarine capabilities, it now seems that China is engaged in a significant effort to upgrade its mine warfare prowess.

Source: Chinese Mine Warfare: A PLA Navy ‘Assassin’s Mace’ Capability | Andrew S. Erickson

The prolific and insightful Andrew Erickson suggested in 2009 that by focusing on aircraft carriers and anti-ship missiles, we may be missing the hidden secret of China’s maritime strategy: huge investments in mine warfare.

Is the Liaoning nothing more than a showy distraction, meant to invigorate nationalists at home and deceive observers abroad? This study makes an implicit argument that the received wisdom on China’s strategy is probably a false trail.

If nothing else, Erickson’s study should serve as a reminder that China will use a full spectrum of weapons in its efforts to control the seas, and that we have to be imaginative about what they will do, rather than allow ourselves to be sucked into a seductive narrative about carrier-killing missiles.

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Revisiting the Umbrellas

“Hong Kong Revisited”
Jeffrey Wasserstrom
The LARB Blog
November 18, 2015

U.C. Irvine professor and prolific writer Jeffrey Wasserstrom offers a minimalist retrospective on the Umbrella movement a year after the events began, and on the lecture he gave in Hong Kong on the topic last fall.

And while there are many reasons to be deeply worried about Hong Kong’s future, it is important to remember that, at least for now, a public lecture focusing on protest and featuring a large group of citizens thinking together about their city, their politics, and their future, is still possible in that very special city.

Wasserstrom does not come right out and foretell the end of democracy in Hong Kong, but the tone carries that ominous, almost fatalistic, overtone. It is impossible to say whether the umbrella protests of 2014 will have a meaningful effect on how Hong Kong is governed. The real question is whether we have witnessed the last such protest in the city’s modern history.

We who live outside of Hong Kong shall have no say in the matter. The future of politics in Hong Kong lies in the hands of the people of that city and the men and women who rule China.

Review Essay: An Unbetter China

Chinese armies defeating the Dzungar prior to the genocide.

There is a growing chorus of voices, mostly Sinophilic or Russo-philic, who attempt to bestow upon China a mantle of moral superiority in its dealings with the wider world for the sole reason that it has not waged any form of expeditionary warfare in its recent history.

This forum and this writer have criticized many of America’s forays into overseas military engagements over the past 50 years. That said, there is no moral standard of which this writer is aware that bestows moral ascendancy upon a country that systematically slaughters its own citizens over another country that engages in misguided adventures abroad.

It is possible to deplore most or even all major exercises of American military power abroad since the cessation of hostilities in Korea in 1953, to see them as misguided and their outcomes to be awful, and yet to acknowledge that with a few exceptions the intentions were neither evil, nefarious, nor malicious. As an historian, you judge the decisions of the past in the context of the times, on that basis this writer would argue that that on the balance the US mostly acted in good faith, with notable and egregious exceptions in Chile, Iraq and Afghanistan.

China’s history leaves the nation much for which it must answer, including the “red on its ledger” from the nation’s imperial period that has not been entirely expunged by decades of foreign incursion, Republican rule, civil war, and Communist rule. Indeed, in the period following the revolution, the Chinese Communist Party has continued some of the tendencies that characterized the worst behaviors of its emperors.

Explore, if you will, how a middling agrarian kingdom actually managed to expand to dominate the continent. I’ll give you a hint: they weren’t invited by their subject peoples, Han or otherwise. Dig, if you dare, into the the gritty details of China’s imperial tributary system, which was outwardly peaceful but often ugly and violent, involving the stationing of military forces beyond China’s borders. Ask the Koreans, Mongolians, and Russians how their histories see China as a “ good neighbor.”

Consider the forcible takeover of the Tibetan region in the 1950s, China’s war with India, and its attack on Vietnam in 1977. And finally, look at the background of the 20+ territorial disputes in which China is currently engaged, including China’s extraordinary claim to the overwhelming majority of the South China Sea, and it’s effort to buy vast swaths of land in Africa and elsewhere. China has been, and is once again, an Imperial Power with 21st Century Characteristics.

Both China and the US have done great things, and both have done atrocious things. But we do ourselves and those countries a disservice by exaggerating the good or whitewashing the bad of either. And if China appears to be under more of a microscope at the moment, there is good cause. For if we accept the premise proffered by scholars both within and outside of China that America is entering a period of relative decline in its international power and China is in a period of relative ascendancy, we must use extreme care in bestowing moral superiority over a nation whose record is distinctly mixed. Doing so only grants it license to engage in much more of the same.

Japan Debates the Issue of Comfort Women

How to Cleanse Asahi’s Widespread ‘Misreports’ on Comfort Women
Masaaki Sugiura 
The Global Forum of Japan
1 December 2014, Vol. 7, No. 6

Venerable Japanese political commentator Masaaki Sugiura, offers a rebuttal to sensationalist reports in the Japanese media (specifically the Asahi Shimbun) about Japanese soldiers and “comfort women,” local girls and women from territories conquered in Japan who were essentially forced into prostitution serving Japanese soldiery before and during World War II.

Masaaki does not seem to be associated with the kinds of nationalist factions that make a habit of whitewashing Japanese behavior in the war. What he does, however, is call into question the dominant Korean and Chinese narratives about “comfort women,” and suggest that the nature and extent of the problem may well have been exaggerated in China and Korea for domestic political purposes.

An interesting issue, and an interesting read.

Beijing’s Belgrade Syndrome

China Matters: How It All Began: The Belgrade Embassy Bombing.

This is a superb post, and well worth the read. I do agree that we in the United States – including most of our leaders in Washington – underestimate the psychological impact that the bombing of China’s embassy in Belgrade had in certain quarters in Beijing. Nor do we realize, I think, the degree to which this shifted a modicum of power and credibility to the People’s Liberation Army.

That said, to suggest that the Belgrade bombing was the origin point of China’s grand strategy is to overstate, if not ignore history. The plans and doctrine that form the basis of China’s grand strategy were set in motion (at the latest) with the accession of Deng Xiaoping, and more likely traces its roots back to the Zhou Enlai’s Four Modernizations. (Defense, for those who will recall, was the fourth modernization, after agriculture, industry, national defense, and science and technology.)

China has been on this general course for decades. Have specific goals and force structure evolved as they adapted to new circumstances and opportunities? Certainly. But the tune China is playing today was first set on paper fifty years ago.

Understanding “Tao Guang Yang Hui”

A phrase that is making the rounds among China watchers is “tao guang yang hui.” I will not attempt to explain the concept: any brief explanation would hide too many nuances, and nuances are important here. I just watched an online debate amongst some of my more scholarly friends, and the battle was about different interpreteations of of the phrase.

One interpretation of the phrase is captured in Deng Xiaoping’s maxim “keep a low profile and bide your time, while also getting something accomplished.” Given the noises China has been making in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, the Indian frontier, and Hong Kong, it appears to some that China has abandoned the tao guang yang hui strategy altogether.

Others, however, suggest that the strategy was not abandoned, but that Deng’s intention all along was to wait for a time when China was ready to assert itself in the global sphere, not simply lay low forever.

Yang Wenchang, President of the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs, offers his interpretation in “My Views about ‘Tao Guang Yang Hui.” It is a worthwhile read, and an important one: not only does he provide an erudite explanation of the idom’s roots, his interpretation of the phrase seems to be at odds with China’s current foreign policy.

The entire debate may seem a petty tempest among the cognoscienti. If China is becoming more assertive globally, what does it matter whether this is Xi’s own policy or a continuation of the past?

In truth, it does matter: the answer to the question of whether this is part of a long-standing plan or whether this is Xi rejecting Dengist strategy would help us better predict where China is likely to jump next. We are unlikely to get clarification from the leadership compound at Zhongnanhai: Xi will want to seem unpredictable so as to keep his percieved opponents, both at home and abroad, guessing as to his intentions, leaving him with the initiative. Hence a better understanding of his strategic approach is essential to ensure that Asia and the west are not caught unawares by China’s next Great Leap Outwards.

 

China and the Limits of History

Some things we used to know about china’s past and present but, now, not so much” 
Alice Lyman Miller
Proceedings of the USC US-China Institute Symposium, “History and China’s Foreign Relations: The Achievements and Contradictions of American Scholarship”,
Feb. 16-17, 2008

Stanford’s Alice Miller is one of those China scholars who prefers not to mince words. Whether it was her sixteen years with the CIA or the cumulative effect of four decades studying China, she is direct and still unfailingly scholarly in her assessments and, as a result is, a joy to read.

Her paper at a USC symposium above is an excellent example. There is a school of China scholarship that attempts to parse Beijing’s politics and foreign policy through a prism of China’s imperial past. To those scholars, the CCP is just another dynasty in China dynastic cycle, its current leaders just emperors in new clothes, and China wants to turn the rest of the world into tributary powers.  As a history buff with late-life aspirations to historianship, these parallels are appealing to me, and they are clearly appealing to others, else Miller would not feel the need to debunk the approach.

And debunk she does. Offering ample examples from current scholarship and public discourse, she makes a convincing case that while the history has some general value as background in understanding Chinese strategic thinking, past behavior is no template for current or future action.

A must-read for any China-watcher, it surprises me that this paper has not received more attention, but perhaps it shouldn’t: as a longtime purveyor of the “China is more nuanced than that” approach, I know that people are not looking for nuance: they’re looking for easy. Miller makes it clear that this sort of intellectual laziness is a hazard to be avoided.

History, however, is not the bunk that Henry Ford thought. I side with Cicero: ignorance of history is the hallmark of intellectual immaturity. Miller is correct in saying that we should not rely on history too much. It is important to caution that we ignore it at our peril.