China’s Assertiveness: Seven Years in the Making (At least)

Imperialism with Chinese Characteristics? Reading and Re-Reading China’s 2006 Defense White Paper
Mike Metcalf
NI Press
September 2011

Flag ~ China - People's Liberation Army

Flag ~ China – People’s Liberation Army (Photo credit: e r j k p r u n c z y k)

Mike Metcalf, a member of the faculty at the National Intelligence University in the US, has spent a lot of time parsing China’s seminal 2006 Defense White Paper. China has issued such signalling documents in the past. What distinguishes this one, according to Metcalf, is that it points Beijing toward a national security posture that goes beyond territorial defense.

In the publication, Metcalf provides his own overview of the white paper, then offers two translations of the analysis of the paper by the man considered its pricipal drafter, Dr. Chen Zhou of the PLA Academy of Military Sciences, as well as Metcalf’s own analyses of Dr. Chen’s point of view.

It is a rare treat to have an informed and scholarly discussion on Chinese source material made available in a format the rest of us can digest. All the more so given that the import of this book is to prove that China’s assertive nationalism is not a product of Xi Jinping’s making, but something that has been in the works for nearly a decade. As such, it is hard to expect this direction to be fleeting: we are looking at what is likely to be a lasting trend in Chinese international relations.

Advertisements

Losing our Sinocism

Picture of the Confucian philosopher Mencius.

Picture of the Confucian philosopher Mencius. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I began covering China and writing a monthly newsletter in the early 1990s (the long-gone and unmourned “China Business and Economic Review,”) daily coverage of the region was scant and very general. As late as 1996, I was able to keep a weekly clippings file on all China coverage in the mainstream english media. (I did this with scissors, glue, and manila folders.)

Things have changed. Coverage of China has exploded, and keeping up with it all is a job I now leave to professional clipping services. But those services, whatever their virtues, do not give me or anyone an idea of what in this avalanche of copy is important, or how it all fits together.

For the past 18 months, Bill Bishop has tried to do that and more with his outstanding Sinocism newsletter. Fluent in Chinese and able to read through both the mass of English and Chinese coverage, Bill has provided a daily roundup of all of the news worth reading on China, curating all sources, clustering them as topics, and adding his own thoughtful annotations that put everyting into context.

For many of us, his was a vital resource. We stepped out into the day fortified with at least a feel for how things were going in China, all without having to slog through our RSS feeds or a stack of newspapers. Given how fast things move in China, that daily feel for the market was a lifeline for those of us whose jobs depend on knowing what is going on.

Today that all ends.

Despite having over 14,000 email subscribers, such a tiny percentage of those readers actually paid the paltry $5 per month for the service that Bill could not make a go of it. Bill has folded the daily publication, returned any prepaid subscription fees (did I mention he’s a mensch on top of everything else?), and out of pure passion has gone to a weekly publication.

China is a vexing place, I suspect no less for Chinese than for those of us born in parts far flung from the People’s Republic.
No single viewpoint will ever be sufficient to understand this complex place. But to lose the glasses provided by an astute observer like Bill Bishop is a mighty loss indeed.

I hope he will find some other way to continue his service, and that more of us will see fit to dig deep and support it. I fear, however, that Bill is destined to have his insights privatized and put to work for a small coterie of wealth managers and high net worth clients.

He would only be continuing a trend. One by one, the wiser heads on China have been snapped up by organizations willing to pay them for their insights. In the process, they have either slowed their published sharing, curtailed it, or placed it behind a paywall. Those wise heads receive the compensation they richly deserve. We, on the other hand, are left at a growing disadvantage to those of greater means.

This is something for us to contemplate the next time a Bill Bishop comes along. We can either shell out to support wisdom and insight, or we can lose out to those who will.

The PLAN and Mahan

Alfred thayer mahan

China’s new strategist? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is no coincidence that the officers of the Chinese navy have taken to studying the writings of American naval historian and strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan, and in particular his 1890 opus, The Influence of Seapower Upon History, 1660-1773. That Mahan’s thesis – that countries with greater naval power will have greater global influence – strikes a chord with these officers is understandable: China’s navy has been the nation’s junior service since long before the revolution, and the Sino-sailors would probably like that to end. (The official name of the force alone is testament to the naval arm’s third-class status: “People’s Liberation Army Navy.” Cue sympathetic cringe.)

But there is more to this than inter-service rivalry. What makes their fascination important to note is that it reflects a much deeper change in China. Mahan’s focus on control of commerce by sea is cut to fit a nation that is increasingly dependent on inputs from abroad and manufactured exports. Consider the facts:

  • China’s most developed regions lie on or near the coast or its major riverine arteries. In an age of standoff weapons, defending those shores needs to take place far from shore.
  • Despite huge investments in domestic road, air, and rail transport, coastwise shipping still carries a huge percentage of China’s internal trade. Unlike the US, China faces other nations across its coastal seas, some of which are latently hostile;
  • Fishing and aquaculture are becoming more important to the nation’s effort to feed itself, but the defilement of coastal fisheries by pollution and toxic runoff has forced the nation’s fishing fleet to range well beyond coastal waters;
  • China can no longer feed itself, finding itself thus increasingly dependent on the flow of foodstuffs arriving by sea from Canada, Australia, Africa, and the U.S.
  • China is becoming increasingly dependent on energy from abroad. While a good portion of that is from Eurasia (think Iran and Iraq,) regional instability makes overland shipment impractical.
  • Many of China’s key industries are reliant on from inputs from abroad. Some comes by air, but minerals and commodities flow in by sea.

Look at that list carefully, and you realize that as the PRC emerges from its underdevelopment and its generation-long stint as the world’s factory floor, it has become something different. It is now looking more like the US in the late 19th century and Japan in the early-mid 20th century than many of us recognize. China is now a mercantilist economy.

Xi Jinping gets the implications. Zach Keck at The Diplomat quotes Chinese state media summarizing part of one of the president’s recent speeches in a tone that nearly apes Mahan word-for-word: “In the 21st Century, oceans and seas have and seas have an increasingly important role to play in a country’s economic development and opening up to the outside world.”

China has been – and remains – a continental power focused on its long land frontiers. It is across those borders that have come nearly all of its historic enemies, with the notable exception of the European powers during the declining days of the Qing empire. But that history is not destiny. China is more dependent on the outside world today than it ever has been, and that realization cannot but focus the minds of China’s leaders and defenders as they start to understand the new importance of coastal defense, sea frontiers, and protecting sea lines of communication (SLOCs).

Recognizing necessity, The PRC has set itself on the course to become a maritime power. The last Asian nation to set itself on a Mahanian course was Japan. Anyone interested in understanding where China and Asia are headed could do worse than read Mahan, if not his books, than his more readable journal articles.

Chatham House on the Xi Administration

 

Xi Jinping - Caricature

Xi Jinping – Caricature (Photo credit: DonkeyHotey)

“The New Leadership in Beijing: Political and Economic Implications”
Kerry Brown
Chatham House
July 2013

If you have grown tired of reading analyses of Xi Jinping and his leadership program, you are not alone. The tea-leaf readers have been out in force this year, and anyone coming to the party at this point is somewhat late. But if you really care about what is going on in China, you are left with little choice but to keep reading. I do. Not necessarily because I expect a revelation with each new document, but because the better ones sharpen the definition of an incredibly fuzzy picture.

Many of my fellow China Condors and I are hoping to get some clarity about the next ten years following the coming plenum of the Party congress. The leaders have been chosen, the theory goes, and now it is time to lay out the policy platform that will guide the country over the next decade. There is much wishful thinking here: none of us are betting that we are going to be any clearer about the new leadership’s priorities then than we are now.

So we keep scouring the literature, and Kerry Brown’s paper is delightful in its brevity and clarity. Of all of his conclusions, the one that is likely to spark the most controversy (see the Eurasia Review link below) is this:

This is a leadership set up therefore for a domestic agenda and that will resist attempts to pull it more deeply into international affairs, which are seen as lying beyond what the elite define as in China’s national interests (preservation of stability, building up economic strength, safeguarding sovereignty), despite the very real pressures that will be put on it to that effect.

Comforting words, if true, particularly to China’s neighbors. Japan and the Philippines in particular are understandably worried about Chinese adventurism. Yet there is a limit implicit in Brown’s statement. The moment that China’s elite define the national interest as a plunge into international affairs – perhaps as a palliative to a restive populace, or in defense of the threatened assets of national enterprises – all bets are off.

A great read, and if you have read nothing else about the new leadership, Brown’s paper is an excellent précis of a vast and growing corpus of analysis.

Japan has Territorial Issues with Russia, too

“On Trenin’s Proposal for Russia to Return Four Disputed Islands to Japan”
Hakamada Shigeki
GFJ Commentary
February 28, 2013

As if having to argue with China and Korea over rocks was not complex enough for Japan, a third territorial counterparty is (re)emerging in the form of Moscow. It seems like, since everyone else in the neighborhood wants to clarify territorial issues, the Russians are chiming in as well.

This time, the tone is conciliatory, even though it does not come from the Kremlin. Dmitri Trenin, who directs the Carnegie Moscow Centre, put out a paper in December of 2012 proposing a mechanism by which four islands taken by the USSR from Japan at the end of World War II would be returned to Japanese control.

Professor Hakamada Shigeki of the University of Niigata prefecture is cool to the proposal. While conceding that any such opening is worth pursuing, he is under no illusions about Trenin’s position (a Western-funded think tanker rather than a Kremlin insider) and Putin‘s continuing need to prove to Russians he is a strongman.

To expect Russia to concede territory for nothing would be unrealistic. But Hakamada sees other wheels at work. China looms large for Russia (especially after Xi Jinping’s recent visit) but Putin will not want to close out other options in the region. Working out longstanding territorial disputes with Japan would allow Russia to play the conciliator in a Sino-Japanese standoff, and would keep Japan in the game as an alternate destination for Siberian natural gas.

The source of the suggestion is Machiavellian. To have the suggestion come from the Carnegie Centre could be serving as Putin’s trial balloon, giving him a chance to judge Japanese reaction without committing himself publicly.

The next move, as Hakamada hints, is Japan’s. It will be interesting to see how this plays out. Clearly, the diplomatic game is afoot in East Asia.

What is Beijing Thinking?

 

English: Profile image of Hu Shuli

English: Profile image of Hu Shuli (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

China 3.0
Mark Leonard, et. al.
The European Council on Foreign Relations
November 2012

Those of us watching the goings-on in Chinese politics have been treated to the non-fiction equivalent of a byzantine soap opera over the past two years. The unexpectedly turbulent generational leadership transition has given us opportunity to speculate ad nauseum about who was going to get what seat, a debate doubly invigorated by the drama surrounding Bo Xilai‘s metoric rise and fall.

But the seats are filling, the slate of leaders is falling into place, and our attention turns from personalities to policies. What, exactly, are those leaders going to be doing for the next ten years?

President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang have begun to lay out their policy priorities, but there are few surprises or insights to be gleaned from public positions. Of far greater interest are the debates taking place within government and the nation’s intelligentsia over the path to take in the future. As James McGregor summarizes in his recent book No Ancient Wisdom, No Followers, for the first time in generations the path forward for China is unclear, there are contending schools of thought at the top of the Party organization, and China lives under the threat of indecision and paralysis in Beijing.

Which is why this slim volume, edited by Mark Leonard, c0-founder and director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, is such a valuable survey. Rather than focusing on the dramatics, Leonard’s line up of scholars and observers (including Caixing’s Hu Shuli and blogger Michael Anti) focus on how the debates around finding that way forward are playing out.

In the course of a dozen pithy essays we are treated to a glimpse of how the nation’s leaders are thinking about the future of domestic politics, the economy, foreign policy, and the search for models from which China can glean its own pathway to the future. Most of us will never get a chance to sit in the halls where these decisions are being made, but in China 3.0 Leonard and the ECFR have given us a chance to sit outside the door and listen at the keyhole, all while being treated to the perspectives of 17 of China’s own most astute observers.

Meet the New Generals. Same as the Old Generals?

“China’s New Military Leadership and the Challenges It Faces
Greg Chaffin
National Bureau of Asian Research

Greg Chaffin interviews Roy Kamphausen, Senior Advisor for Political and Security Affairs at NBR, on what he thinks the new Central Military Commission will mean for the People’s Liberation Army and for China’s defense posture.