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China’s Military – Growing Assertiveness

Introduction

People’s Liberation Army

People’s Liberation Army

Over the last two decades, China has been steadily modernizing its military. This push to modernize reflects China’s desire to have military power commensurate with its growing economic and political status. It also reflects the fact that, from the Chinese perspective, the international realm gives rise to as many strategic uncertainties for China as a rising China does for other nations. In particular, many in China view the US as a strategic rival who wants to prevent China from becoming an equal leader on the global stage. The US’s “pivot to Asia” is viewed by many Chinese as example of the US’s containment effort. China is also unsettled by the US’s efforts to provide US allies and friendly states with weapons systems aimed to counter China’s growing military capability, and by the US’s continued arm sales to Taiwan.

Additionally, China considers Japan’s growing nationalism and Japan’s efforts to overhaul its military and security policies as a mounting threat. Its current alliances with North Korea and Russia notwithstanding, China views North Korea as a politically unstable nuclear power on its border, and Russia as a strategic competitor as well as an ally. China is also engaged in territorial disputes with Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam, Taiwan and Japan in the South and East China Seas and with India on its western border. Additionally, China considers Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang to be its sovereign territory, and will fight their any move toward independence.

Other objectives of its military modernization program include improving China’s ability to fight piracy, to protect its shipping lanes and its access to energy and resources abroad, to help ensure the security of its international assets and to safeguard its growing numbers of citizens working and living overseas. From the Chinese perspective, protecting its economic trade and investments is critical to achieving Xi Jinping’s China dream – “achieving the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”. Indeed, China’s 2015 Military Strategy Document states: “the Dream is to make the country strong. Making the Chinese military strong is part of the Chinese Dream. Without a strong military, a country can be neither safe nor strong.” China sees the global trends toward “multi-polarity and economic globalization intensifying” which it believes will increase “international competition for the redistribution of power, rights and interests”. China sees a strong military as a competitive advantage as it vies for influence in this changing global landscape.

China continues to emphasize its military modernization is defensive in nature. China states that it will strike militarily only if it has been attacked first. Overall, China tries to play a long game when working to achieve its political, economic and military objectives. For example, while it will quell unrest in Xinjiang by force when necessary, ideally China hopes to overcome Uyghur opposition to Chinese rule through economic development and continued cultural integration. Similarly, before the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea issues a ruling on Sino-Phillippines territorial disputes in the South China Sea – despite China refusing to participate in the arbitration – China is trying to maximize its facts in the water through the building of islands on contested reefs. By playing this long game in its strategic, multifaceted way, China is working to create a position of power so advantageous that it can accomplish its goals without ever having to use force. That said, China says that a first strike against the country need be military. China has stated that political, economic and strategic attacks could justify Chinese military action even if it means that People’s Liberation Army (PLA) fires the first weapon.

Levels of Military Spending

China’s J-10 airforce jet

China’s J-10 airforce jet

According to the well-respected Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), China’s annual defense spending has grown from approximately $33 billion in 2000 to $130 billion in 2011 compared to the US’s $690 billion in 2011. As a percentage of total GDP, China’s annual military expenditure has remained fairly constant at 2.1% while the US has grown its military spending from 3% to 4.8% of GDP from 2000 to 2011. Applying these percentages to 2014 GDP figures, it is estimated that China spent approximately $217 billion on its military compared to the US’s $836 billion. At current trends, some project China to become the world’s largest military spender between 2025 and 2035.

In fact, SIPRI believes that China’s actual defense spending could be as much as 50% higher than Beijing states since China keeps many of its defense expenditures off book or accounts for them at below market costs.  Indeed, according to Transparency International, China has one of the least transparent military budgets in the world.  Items that may be omitted from its official defense numbers include military research and development, paramilitary expenses, weapons purchased from abroad, expenses for strategic and nuclear forces, subsidies given to state owned industries engaged in defense manufacturing, contributions from regional and local governments, spending on the military-relevant part of China’s space program and PLA-driven fund raising.

People’s Liberation Army (PLA)

PLA fighting the Nationalists during the Chinese Civil War

PLA fighting the Nationalists during the Chinese Civil War

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was officially founded on August 1st 1927, more than two decades before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China that it now defends. It was founded by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as they fought to win control of the country. The PLA is an umbrella organization overseeing the PLA’s Army (PLAA), the PLA Navy (PLAN), the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and the PLA Second Artillery Force (PLASAF). The PLA is unorthodox in that does not actually answer to the State, but to the Chinese Communist Party itself.  Thus, whereas the President of the United States is always Commander-in-Chief of the military, it is theoretically possible – although unlikely as long as the Communists remain in power – for the President of the PRC to not command the military. This makes the Head of the Central Military Commission (CMC) both important and powerful. Currently, Xi Jinping is both President of China and Head of the CMC and there has not been a discrepancy between the two posts since Jiang Zemin held onto the post of Head of the CMC for a year after handing the presidency over Hu Jintao. Chinese 2015 Military Strategy Document reaffirms the Chinese Communist Party’s absolute control of the military, “China’s armed forces will unswervingly adhere to the principle of the Communist Party of China’s absolute leadership” and “will work to build themselves into the People’s military that follows the CCP’s commands.”

Chinese Military Goals and Strategies

Map of China and its Neighbors

Map of China and its Neighbors

China believes that increased military power will give it the respect and power commensurate with its growing economic and political clout, will deter rivals from threatening its sovereign territory and national interests, and will allow it to influence international affairs in its favor. In the short term, China considers that its most immediate military threats are likely to occur along its periphery or in its near seas, and much of its recent military investment has been made with these threats in mind. Termed by China as “Local Wars under Conditions of Informatization” China sees any military conflict arising from these regional threats to be limited in scope and duration, and to be typified by the pursuit of political goals through relatively constrained use of rapid force. From a Chinese perspective, ideally these short conflicts will result in a quick return to the negotiating table with China in dominant position. In these “informatized” wars, China expects that the effective use of advanced computer systems, information technology and communication networks to provide China with key operational advantages.

Informatization for China has many facets. Of highest priority is its Computer Network Defense (CND) which it monitors vigilantly even in peacetime. In the event of war, China intends to quickly establish information operations (IO) dominance including controlling the electromagnetic spectrum which would allow it to suppress or deceive enemy electronic equipment. China’s electromagnetic warfare (EW) strategies focus on controlling radar, radio, optical, infrared, and microwave frequencies as well as disrupting adversarial computer and information systems. If necessary, China will use IO warfare preemptively, particularly when confronting information-dependent adversaries such as United States.

As part of this strategy, China foresees calling on millions of civilian Chinese programmers to work with the Chinese military to disrupt enemy technologies. The Chinese military also envisions that Chinese civilians will provide logistical and other support during war. This strategy of mobilizing all Chinese citizens in the case of conflict was reaffirmed in China’s 2015 Military Strategy Document “bring into full play the concept of the People’s war, and persist in employing it as an ace weapon to triumph over the enemy”.

China views improving its anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) capabilities as integral to its Local Wars strategy. A2/AD capabilities are intended to thwart third party intervention – particularly by the United States – into its territory or what it considers to be its spheres of influence which increasingly include the water and land within the South China, Yellow and East China Seas. These capabilities will also be key to preventing the US and other allies coming to Taiwan’s assistance if it moves toward independence.

Other military objectives include an improved ability to protect it economic shipping lanes and its rapidly growing number of citizens working abroad, to offer humanitarian assistance during times of natural and other disasters, and to project greater military authority in the Asia Pacific region and in regions further afield.

Cyberwarefare

Map of China and its Neighbors

Map of China and its Neighbors

Cyberwarfare is a major aspect of China’s informatization strategy. Since 2008, all major Chinese military exercises have had significant cyber information operations components which are both offensive and defensive in nature. Additionally, China runs an on-going cyber warfare program to steal intellectual property, trade secrets and technology from defense contractors, government agencies and research institutions valued at billions of dollars annually. The US government in particular has estimated that 90% of cyberespionage against the United States originates in China.

In 2013, the US computer security firm Mandiant noted that Chinese hackers breached US energy and other critical infrastructure, leaving in place software tools that could be activated to destroy infrastructure components. Mandiant also detailed methodical data theft from at least 141 US organizations over seven years; Mandiant tracked this theft back to a Chinese military unit code named 61398 which is staffed by a large cohort of proficient English speakers with advanced computer security and networking skills. Most of the Chinese targets were US companies operating in aerospace, satellites and telecommunications, public administration, information technology and scientific research fields or in industries identified as strategically important under its Five Year Plans. Unit 61398 also attacked a dozen smaller US local, state and federal government agencies as well as international governmental agencies. On average, the hackers operating within breached computer system for about a year stealing pricing documents, negotiation strategies, manufacturing processes, clinical trial results, technology blueprints and other proprietary information.

China is also the leading suspect in a June 5, 2015 hacking of the US Office of Personnel Management in which over 20 million employees, retirees, contractors and job applicants had their personal data compromised.

Space

Launch of China’s Long March Rocket

Launch of China’s Long March Rocket

China considers the ability to utilize space and to deny adversaries access to space as key to effectively implementing its Local Wars, A2/AD and other military strategies. To this effect, China is procuring a range of technologies to advance China’s space and counter space capabilities. China has developed and continues to develop imaging and remote sensing satellites with dual military and commercial missions, and currently has approximately 100 satellites in orbit. China controls satellites programmed in communications, navigation, Earth resources, weather, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. Even the more commercially oriented satellites can assist the military by delivering situational awareness of foreign forces, critical infrastructure, and political targets. China also has demonstrated direct ascent kinetic kill anti-satellite capability to low Earth orbit. In 2007, for instance, China shot down a defunct weather satellite. Developing dual purpose satellites through commercial platforms has enabled China to access foreign technology through commercial means which it then uses to advance its military defense systems.

China believes that having high proficiency in counter space activities is critical to its being able to establish dominance in informatized warfare as satellites are significant to the communications, navigation and reconnaissance on modern day battlefields. By being able to take out enemy satellites, China aims to “blind and deafen its enemies” and to impede their ability to effectively use their precision guided weapons. As part of this effort, China is investing in a multidimensional program to advance its ability to limit or prevent the use of hostile space-based assets by developing jammers and directed energy weapons for direct ascent anti-satellite weapons used against China. Technologies advanced under China’s manned and lunar programs as well as technologies developed to detect and track space debris have significantly improved China’s ability to track and identify satellites, a prerequisite for ascent anti-satellite weapons attack. China is also continuing its development of the Long March 5 rocket, a next-generation heavy lift launch system designed to carry a load of up to 25,000 kg to low Earth orbits and 14,000 kg to geostationary transfer orbit. The first Long March 5 rocket is expected to be tested in 2016.

As part of China’s space effort, China is developing an independent human spaceflight program, and has a stated goal to construct a 60 ton space station. China’s growing space capabilities provide it with advanced skills which improve all aspects of conventional and nuclear targeting, ground air sea operations, precision conventional strike capacity and missile defense.

The PLA Army (PLAA) and the Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin Disputes

Map of Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin

Map of Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin

Owing to its 9000 mile temperate coastline with many good natural harbors, China is both a land and sea power. For millennia, however, China’s greatest military threat came from the land, particularly from the northern steppes with its fierce Mongol hordes. The large size of the PLAA compared to China’s other service branches reflects this historic land orientation. The PLAA has approximately 70% of total PLA servicemen under its command or 1.6 million ground force personnel, roughly 400,000 of whom are based in the three Chinese Military Regions opposite Taiwan. This personnel is organized into 18 Armies, with 15 infantry division and 16 brigades. The PLAA has an estimated 7000 and 8000 artillery pieces.

Since the 1980s, China has gradually decreased the size of its army while concurrently developing modern capabilities and systems.  In particular, the PLAA is investing in heavy armor, long-range strike artillery, increased-range air defense weapons, and attack and transport helicopters. Its battle tanks, armored infantry fighting vehicles, armored personnel carriers, self-propelled artillery, and air defense weaponry have all enjoyed significant upgrades in the last decades. Today, for instance, approximately 45% of its armored infantry fighting vehicle and armored personnel carriers are modern, 31% of its main battle tanks are third-generation, and 15% of all the artillery is self-propelled compared with 0%, 0.1%, and 9% respectively in 2000.

The PLAA has focused on its armored fleet to improve its ability to move forces quickly within China and to its borders. In the Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin areas, for instance, China is currently in dispute with India over ten separate territories at the Western End of the Tibetan Plateau, although several of the pieces of land are tiny. The two most significant areas of dispute are the 60,000 km² Arunachal Pradesh located in what India and most of the rest of the world consider to be the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, and the 37,000 km² Chinese administered Aksai Chin located to the west of Nepal, but claimed by India to be part of Kashmir. China and India have skirmished over these territories in 1962, 1967 and 1987. In 2009, China tried to prevent a $2.9 billion loan to India from the Asian Development Bank arguing that part of the funds would be employed to develop water projects in Arunachal Pradesh.

As well as aiding in border defense, improved military transport allows China to effectively quell domestic unrest particularly in Tibet and Xinjiang, and to have the army assist during natural disasters as it did in the aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

People’s Liberation Army’s Navy (PLAN)

Chinese Naval Ship

Chinese Naval Ship

Since 1990, PLAN has undergone significant modernization and expansion. As China reaffirmed in its 2015 Military Strategy Document, its “traditional mentality that land outweighs the sea must be abandoned, and great importance has to be placed on managing the seas and oceans and protecting maritime rights and interests.” Going forward, it can be expected that China will project hard power abroad primarily by means of its navy and its missile systems.

Today China has the largest naval force in Asia. In 2013, PLAN employed an estimated 255,000 sailors, soldiers, pilots and logistical personnel. Its fleet includes approximately 65 submarines, one aircraft carrier, 14 guided missile destroyers, 62 frigates, 211 patrol and coastal combatants, 238 amphibious boats and 205 logistics and support ships broken into three fleets: North, East and South fleets. PLAN also has an array of increasingly sophisticated aircraft from bombers and fighters to helicopters and transport aircraft. Over the next decades, China’s navy will continue to grow in both numbers and technological capability. Additionally, more of its fleet and fleet technology will be Chinese-built. For instance, the first Chinese-built aircraft carrier is slated to go to sea near 2020. Its current aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, is a refurbished vessel purchased from Ukraine in 1998.

Similarly, China is stepping up the production of its submarines, one of PLAN’s core strengths. Indeed, some predict that China’s submarine force could grow larger than that of the US within 15 years. As part of this submarine expansion program, China is upgrading missile systems and quieting technologies. It JIN-class sub, for instance, now carries ballistic missiles with an estimated range of more than 4000 nautical miles, giving China its first credible sea-based nuclear deterrent. Future submarines will have guided missile attack competence, giving China a submarine-based land-attack capability. Since 1990, China has brought to water six new classes of indigenously built destroyers and four new classes of frigates. These new ships have more up-to-date hull designs, propulsion systems, sensors, weapons and electronics.

China is also rapidly expanding its small combatants such as its JIANGDAO-class corvettes – the first six of which entered service in 2012; China is expected to build 20 to 30 corvettes in total. In 2004, China also introduced its Houbei-class wave-piercing, stealth catamaran missile patrol boats. Both these boats improve China’s operational ability in coastal and near waters. Being able to successfully engage in high intensity conflicts within the South China, East China and Yellow Seas remains China’s highest priority. As part of this effort, China is developing unmanned underwater vehicles and is continuing to upgrade its inventory of an estimated 50,000 naval mines.

Working in conjunction with PLAN, China operates other paramilitary maritime law enforcement agencies including the China Marine Surveillance, The Fisheries Law Enforcement, the China Coast Guard, the Maritime Safety Administration, and the Customs Anti-Smuggling Bureau.

People’s Liberation Army’s Naval Strategy and the Nine First and Second Island Chains

Map of First and Second Island Chains

Map of First and Second Island Chains

In 1982, the architect of China’s modern naval strategy, Chinese Admiral Liu Huaqing, set as a goal for China to control the first island chain by 2010, the second island 2020, and for China to curtail US naval dominance in the Pacific and Indian Oceans between 2020 and 2040. An analysis of current Chinese military expansion, rhetoric and activities reveals that China is making strong efforts to implement this maritime strategy. Specifically, China is stepping up its efforts to exert control within the first island chain. The first island chain is defined as the chain of islands extending out from the East Asian continental mainland coast. In its broadest definition, the first island chain encompasses the Bering, Okhotsk, Japan, Yellow, East China and South China Seas including the Aleutian and Kuril Islands, parts of the Japanese Archipelago, the Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan, the northern Philippines and Borneo ending at the Malay Peninsula.

By demarcating the first and second island chains, PLAN hopes to engage foreign navies in waters as far as possible from China in order to defend its territory and its territorial waters. Other naval military goals include traditional missions such as protecting and evacuating Chinese nationals in foreign countries, providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, protecting sea trade from terrorism, maritime piracy and foreign interdiction, prohibiting foreign surveillance and reconnaissance activities near its coast and conducting independent and joint naval sea exercises. China is also using PLAN as a force to discourage Taiwan independence and to defend what it considers to be its land, fish, oil and gas rights in the East and South China Seas.

China also wants to regulate military activities in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). An EEZ is the sea zone extending 200 nautical miles from a nation’s coast over which it has special rights regarding the exploration and use of marine resources. While the US and most other nations do not regard it as unlawful to be active in foreign EEZs, China maintains that it is unlawful for a foreign navy to penetrate China’s EEZ despite its activities to the contrary. Indeed on several occasions in 2001, 2002 and twice in 2009, Chinese aircraft confronted US Naval ships as they conducted ocean surveillance operations in the South China Sea. China is also creating coastal economic belts and marine economic zones within the first island chain area and is engaging in marine research and development.

The second island chain is a series of island groups that is generally defined to run north to south from the Kuril Islands, through the Japanese archipelago, the Bonin Islands, the Marianas Islands and Palou to the Indonesian archipelago. Over time, China hopes to extend its first island goals into this larger geographic sphere. China’s assertion into the second island chain is made difficult due to the strong presence of the US and its allies including Japan and South Korea who not only have their own significant military forces, but also provide air, naval, logistic and supply bases to the US Additionally, the US Navy dominates in the La Perouse, Tsugaru and Tsushima Straits, allowing it to move quickly to the Korean peninsula and to defend Guam, its main air and naval base in the Western Pacific.

To date, China’s sea experience beyond the second island chain has centered on its counter-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden where it keeps an on-going, three ship naval presence to defend Chinese mercantile ships from pirate attacks. This is China’s first sustained naval operation outside of Asia. China has also begun to engage in some naval activities in the EEZs of other nations, particularly around Guam and Hawaii. China is also making long-distance deployments a more constant part of its naval training cycle. In 2012, for instance, it sent naval tasks groups beyond the first island chain seven times. Limited logistical support hampers China’s ability to operate its navy more widely. In the coming years, China will work with its allies to create welcoming logistical ports in the Indian Ocean and farther afield. An example would be its assistance in helping Pakistan to construct the deep water port Gwadar. China would also like to develop the capability to project power across the globe for sustained, high-intensity operations similar to those that the United Kingdom engaged in when retaking the Falkland Islands in early 1980. China would also like to displace US influence in littoral and more distant waters.

The Nine Dashed Line and China’s Territorial Disputes within the South China Sea

China’s Nine-Dashed Line

China’s Nine-Dashed Line

Within the first island chain, China has drawn the nine-dashed line by which it asserts that the majority of the South China Sea falls within its traditional maritime boundary line despite the boundary being more than a thousand miles from China’s mainland in several instances. Since November 2012, China has added a map with this line into all its passports in order to reinforce the validity of its nine-dashed claim, and makes increasing reference to the area in its government documents. Not only are islands, reefs and banks within the nine dashed line contested by many neighbouring countries, but there are also competing claims on the area’s fishing, oil and gas resources.  Moreover, the South China Sea is a vital shipping lane for North East Asia. 80% of oil shipped to Japan, South Korea and Taiwan travels through South China Sea waters.

Within the East and South China Seas, China claims sovereignty to many islands also claimed by its neighbours. For instance, the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea are also claimed by Vietnam. The Spratly Islands, wholly claimed by China, are partly claimed by Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, and Vietnam, with Indonesia also claiming maritime rights in the area without actually staking a claim to any territory. Additionally, there are disputes with the over the Macclesfield Bank, and the Philippines and Taiwan over the Scarborough Shoal. The Macclesfield Bank, also known as the Zhongsha Qundao, is a completely submerged chain of reefs that does not qualify as territory under international law since it cannot be inhabited by human beings. The Scarborough Shoal, known in Chinese as the Nanyan Dao, is a group of small islets or rocks and thus subject to international jurisdiction. One motivation for China to claim these islands is that it will allow it to expand its EEZ throughout the area.

Disputed Territory in the East China Sea within the First Island Chain

Map of the Senkaku and Diaoyu Islands

Map of the Senkaku and Diaoyu Islands

In the East China Sea, the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands are also claimed by Japan and Taiwan. At stake in these contested areas vast amounts of natural gas and oil beneath the sea beds as well as rich fishing resources. The East China Sea alone, for instance, is believed to hold approximately 7 trillion ft.³ of natural gas and up to 100 billion barrels of oil. Japan has suggested that the East China Sea be divided into separate EEZ with a line equidistant from each country allowing each to share the offshore oil and gas deposits. Instead, China claims an extended continental shelf reaching almost to Okinawa, giving it effectively exclusive rights to almost all the East China Sea oil and gas. In an effort to create a precedent for its claim and in part to intimidate, China has increased its naval, paramilitary and its joint naval/air force training activities in the sea/air area surrounding Japan.

PLA Air Force (PLAAF)

Chinese Airforce Jet

Chinese Airforce Jet

The PLAAF is in control of China’s territorial air security. It currently commands 398,000 officers and men divided between its seven military area commands in Shenyang, Beijing, Lanzhou, Jinan, Nanjing, Guangzhou and Chengdu. The PLAAF is composed of aviation, ground air defense, radar, airborne and electronic countermeasures arms. As of 2013, it commands approximately 1700 Fighters, 600 Bombers/Attack and 475 transport aircraft. While China increasingly flies modern fourth-generation and early fifth generation aircraft, about 68% of Chinese air fleet are still second and third generation aircraft or upgraded models of these aircraft.

That said, in 2013 China was considered to have over 500 modern fourth generation aircraft, outnumbering most air forces in the Asia-Pacific region. China’s fourth-generation fighters include the J-10, J-11, Su-27, Su-30, JH-7, J-15, J-20 and J-31 aircraft. China is also developing its fifth generation fighter force, slated to take flight around 2020. These new fighters will have significant maneuverability, stealth, internal weapons bays, modern avionics and sensors that offer better situational awareness for network-centric combat theaters, radars with high-level targeting capabilities and protection against electronic countermeasures, and integrated electronic warfare systems with advanced communication and GPS navigation functions.

As it modernizes, the PLAAF is emphasizing the development of new generation aircraft which will be effective in its Local Wars strategy and which can support the other PLA branches along the entire periphery of China and increasingly in the East, Yellow and South China Seas. China is also upgrading it H-6 bomber fleet to achieve greater range and to be armed with long-range cruise missiles. China is also developing a large aircraft likely to be called the Y-20 which will work in conjunction with its smaller fleet of strategic airlift aircraft.

China’s commercial and military aviation industries work together to advance China’s overall aeronautics standards, and share technology and systems. China’s military aviation has benefited from business partnerships with Western aviation and aerospace firms where technology shared for commercial purposes has then been employed to improve China’s military aircraft.

China is also building a state-of-the-art national integrated air defense system.  The air defense system is multidimensional, employing weapon systems, radar and C4ISR- Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance – platforms to counter multiple types of aircraft at various ranges and altitudes. A further goal of the air defense system is to protect China from precision strike ballistic and cruise missiles, particularly those fired from long distances. China is also upgrading its early warning, command and communication networks, and it is improving its long distance airstrike capabilities.

Drones

Chinese Drone

Chinese Drone

China is also developing unmanned aerial vehicles or drones which currently seem to be largely founded upon reverse engineering of foreign technologies. Research indicates that China plans to build as many as 40,000 land- and sea-based unmanned systems between 2014 in 2023. By way of comparison, the Pentagon only operates approximately 7000 aerial drones. In 2013 alone, the Chinese unveiled four drone models – the Xianglong, Yilong, Sky Saber, and Lijian.  The Pentagon believes that the Yilong, Sky Saber, and Lijian are all precision-strike weapons, and the Lijian drone has some stealth capability.  To date, most of China’s drone fleet has been employed in surveillance of China’s domestic population. For instance, China has been flying drones in Xinjiang in order to counter unrest in the province.

In June 2015, China released pictures of its new Divine Eagle, one of the world’s largest twin fuselage drones. Influenced by the Russian designs – there’s speculation that China stole critical design features from Russia – the Divine Eagle is a high-altitude, long-endurance multi-mission platform with both long-range surveillance as well as strike capabilities with some stealth capability. It is reported to carry multiple Active Electronically Scanned Array radars as well as Airborne Moving Target Indicators that are designed to track airborne targets such as enemy fighters and cruise missiles. This large drone platform is ultimately expected to act as an effective satellites to aid in the targeting of missiles and other tactical platforms well beyond the first island chain. When fully operational, it will be harder for the United States and its allies to operate undetected close to Chinese shores.

China has also been progressing its ability to electronically jam US drone flights, especially those flying over the South and East China Seas which are conducting surveillance on China’s island construction and other activities in disputed waters and territories.

PLA Missile Forces – the Second Artillery Force (PLASAF)

Map of range of Chinese Missiles

Map of range of Chinese Missiles

China’s Second Artillery Force (PLASAF) controls China’s nuclear and conventional ballistic missiles. The PLASAF runs missile bases, training bases, specialized support units, academic and research institutions. It has approximately 100,000 men under its command. China has one of the largest, most diverse and rapidly growing missile development programs in the world. It is currently estimated that the PLASAF has command over approximately 1000-2000 short-range ballistic missiles, 50-75 intercontinental ballistic missiles, 75-100 medium range ballistic missiles, 5-20 intermediate range ballistic missiles, 200-500 ground launched cruise missiles. In 2015, it was also confirmed that China now has nuclear missile technology with multiple independently-targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRV) – or the capability to place multiple warheads on a single missile and deliver the individual warheads to separate targets.

The development of China’s missile force has been impressively quick. Even just ten years back, China had a very limited ability to attack targets within or beyond the first island chain. China has modernized its missile force under a strategy of dual deterrence and dual operations. The basic idea behind dual deterrence and dual operations is that both conventional and nuclear missile capabilities will most effectively deter China’s adversaries from starting a war and defend China during wartime. Today, the SAF has the ability to credibly deter adversaries at intercontinental ranges; its DF-3, B-6 and LACM missiles, for instance, can strike targets 3300 km away. It has been a priority for China to extend its strike warfare further from its borders. Other objectives of the PLASAF program include effecting A2/AD operations, and deterring any move by Taiwan toward independence. Indeed, China has an estimated 1100 short range ballistic missiles currently targeted at Taiwan.

China is also developing a missile defense system involving the use of kinetic energy intercept at exo-atmospheric altitudes as well as intercepts of ballistic missiles and other aerospace vehicles within the upper atmosphere. China has already demonstrated an ability to intercept ballistic missiles at midcourse using ground-based missiles. To protect its missile systems, China has developed a 5000 km long network to mitigate the risk that its missile network could be materially weakened by a preemptive strike. For each missile launcher, China also has a large inventory of reserve missiles to ensure its ability to engage in sustained conflict if China were to come under attack.

Nuclear Weapons

An early Chinese nuclear bomb

An early Chinese nuclear bomb

China launched its nuclear weapons program in 1955 and detonated its first nuclear bomb in 1964. China is in a unique geo-strategic situation in that it shares land borders with four nuclear powers – Russia, North Korea, India and Pakistan – and faces the consideration that of the other four nuclear powers, three – the US, France and the UK – all have the ability to reach China with their nuclear weapons. China therefore believes that the maintenance of a nuclear arsenal is of existential importance. It also believes that its risk of being attacked by nuclear weapons declines significantly if an adversary’s initial nuclear strike does not eliminate China’s ability to retaliate. China therefore values secrecy over transparency in regards to its nuclear program.

It is estimated that China has approximately 130-195 deployed nuclear-capable weapons ready to be deployed on a variety of short- and long-range ballistic land- and sub-based missiles systems, although some US experts believe that China is hiding a much larger nuclear arsenal. Improving the range and numbers of its submarine-launched nuclear arsenal is a priority. In total, China’s has a nuclear inventory of approximately 250- 300 nuclear weapons. Additionally, it is also believed that China has a stockpile of about 16 tons of highly enriched uranium and 2 tons of plutonium. China also operates reprocessing spent plutonium fuel plants. These facilities isolate plutonium that is created from the reactor from spent fuel. China also runs an experimental fast breeder reactor and has been is considering purchasing two further fast reactors from Russia. If so compelled, China may be able to use plutonium created in these facilities for military use.

China has conducted 45 nuclear tests. In the 1990s, China accelerated the pace of its nuclear testing in order to complete a series of tests on smaller warhead designs before becoming a signatory of the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty created to prevent all nuclear explosions in all environments for both military and civilian purposes. China is also a signatory to the 1970 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons designed to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology. In 2002, China ratified the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Additional Protocol IAEA which allows the IAEA to conduct extended inspections of nuclear facilities to verify records maintained by State authorities on the whereabouts of nuclear material under their control, to check IAEA-installed instruments and surveillance equipment, and to confirm physical inventories of nuclear material. China also has a “no first use” policy and a policy to not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states.

China’s Reserve Forces, Militia and Paramilitary Forces

Ministry of State Security

Ministry of State Security

In addition to the PLA’s armed forces, China also has approximately 510,000 military Reserve Forces, and an estimated 8 million Militia Members. Reserve officers are recruited from China’s pools of retired servicemen, civil officials, cadre of the people’s armed forces department, cadre of militia and civilian technicians. The Reserve Forces are designed to buttress regular PLA units during times of conflict in areas such as logistics and information warfare. The PLA Militia Forces are under the command of local military district governments, and are dedicated to logistics and technical support, air defense, internal security and stability, counterterrorism, disaster relief and emergency rescue. Each year, approximately 90,000 militia guard the country’s bridges, tunnels and railway, 200,000 join in military-police-civilian defense patrols, 900,000 in emergency response, rescue and relief operation following major natural disasters, and nearly 2,000,000 help to maintain social order in rural and urban areas. Increasingly the militia is being organized into specialized technical units including anti-aircraft artillery, ground artillery, missile, communication, engineering, anti-chemical, reconnaissance and information units. Other units are being developed to serve separately the Navy, Air Force and Second Artillery Force. The Militia is trained to help during natural and other emergencies and to maintain domestic stability. Most Militia hold regular jobs as well as being Militia members.

China’s other security and paramilitary forces include the Ministry of State Security which engages in foreign and domestic intelligence and counter-intelligence collection, and the Ministry of Public Security which is responsible for internal security and oversees the 1.9 million police personnel which in turn provide domestic patrol, traffic control, detective investigations, anti-riot and anti-terrorism services. China’s 660,000 strong People’s Armed Police Force acts as an internal security force, operates as a rapid response force for public emergencies, guards critical infrastructure and resources including gold mines, hydroelectric projects and transportation facilities, combats terrorism and supports national economic development. The People’s Armed Police Force is divided between the Internal Security Forces and the Border Defense Force including the Coast Guard, the China Marine Survey Agency, the Maritime Safety Administration and Fisheries Enforcement.

Upgrading all PLA force

Training Chinese troops

Training Chinese troops

As it reduces the overall troop numbers, China is increasingly recruiting personnel with higher levels of education. The PLA gives bonuses of up to $3500 to college graduates who volunteer for the Armed Forces and tuition allowances to college student deferring university education for PLA service. In 2009, for instance, the PLA recruited 100,000 college graduates. The PLA also grants civilians with particular technical skills NCO rank when they join up. It also supports veterans seeking advanced degrees and provides them with advanced employment opportunities and exemptions from postgraduate entrance exams.  China’s 2015 Military Strategy Document China is also placing more emphasis on training it forces in military theory- “to bring it into place a system of advanced military theory commensurate with the requirements of future wars.”

As part of its training, the 2015 Military Strategy Document reaffirms that all forces in the PLA “always treat ideological and political building as the first priority” so that the PLA will carry forward “the Core Socialist Values, cultivate the Core Values of Contemporary Revolutionary Service Personnel” and will uphold “the Communist Party of China absolute leadership over the military” and “the Armed Forces will resolutely follow the commands of the CPC Central committee at all times and under all conditions.”

Military Alliances and Cooperation

Summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization

Summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization

China’s 2015 Military Strategy Document states that it is China’s objective to “actively expanded military and security cooperation, deepen its military relations with major powers, neighboring countries and other developing countries, and promote the establishment of the regional framework for security and cooperation.” China participates in a myriad of military alliances, multilateral dialogue and cooperation mechanism such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting plus, ASEAN Regional Forum, Shangri-La Dialogue, Jakarta International Defense Dialogue, in the Western Pacific Naval Symposium.

Arguably China’s most important current military relationship is with Russia. The US rebalance to Asia and Russia’s involvement in Crimea and Ukraine – sanctioned by the West -have led to an improved relationship between China and Russia. President Xi Jinping’s made his first official state visit to Moscow in 2013 while Putin made his first foreign trip to China after re-assuming the Russian presidency in 2012.  Concurrently, the two countries signed agreements on cooperation in military exchanges, technology, energy and trade. China and Russia also ratified the 2013-2016 implementation guidelines of the China-Russia Treaty of Good Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation. Additionally, in July 2013, Russia and China’s Navies staged their largest ever joint naval drill, the Joint Sea – 2013 exercises, and the two countries are also conducting anti-terrorism drills together. Bilateral trade between the two countries is expected to reach $100 billion by 2015 and $200 billion by 2020, driven in part by a 2013 $270 billion deal in which Russia will double its oil exports to China.

China is a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) comprised of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. The key objective of the SCO is enhanced regional security focused on combating the “three evils” of terrorism, extremism and separatism; in the case of separatism, the SCO cooperates to ensure that “color revolutions” do not threaten the stability of the region. Annual joint practice operations in various fields of conflict have increased to include a total of more than 5000 participants from all six member states. The majority of these participants come from the China and Russia; closer military and strategic ties between these two states is one of the most significant outcomes of the SCO’s development. In 2015, for instance, China and Russia conducted joint naval exercises in the Mediterranean.

The promotion of closer economic ties is also an objective of the SCO.  China has proposed, for instance, that the Russian led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) – a trading blocking comprised of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia – connect with China’s rapidly developing Silk Road Economic Belt – a series of economic initiatives that follow the Old Silk Roads across Eurasia and South Asia. China sees closer economic ties including everything from the increased trade of oil to the expansion of transportation, infrastructure and cultural ties across the region.

Importantly, the SCO is expanding its members to include two of its three observers – India and Pakistan; the third observer Iran is not currently eligible due to international sanctions, although this may change if the Iranian nuclear deal is ratified. Pakistan believes membership in the SCO will provide it with enhanced tools to combat extremism within its borders, will enhance its international prestige, will potentially help improve its relations with India and may help it resolve its dispute with India over Kashmir.  India sees the SCO as a mechanism to improve its relations with Pakistan as well as Russia, China and the countries in Central Asia. From China’s perspective, expanding SCO membership increases the prestige of an organization in which it has a leading position.

Since 2001, when China first became involved in UN backed peacekeeping operations (PKOs), it has rapidly increased its level of commitment. At the beginning of 2012, China had more than 1800 troops involved in PKOs, slightly down from a high of 2100 in 2008, but still more than any other permanent member of the UN Security Council. In 2014, China had over 3000 Chinese soldiers serving with the UN.

Future Trends

Chinese soldiers

Chinese soldiers

China’s 2015 Military Strategy Document sees the world becoming increasingly multi-polar and globally interconnected with “historic changes in the balance of power, global governance structure, Asia-Pacific geostrategic landscape.” It sees increased international competition “in the economic, scientific and technological and military fields” and “for the redistribution of power, rights and interests”. Against this changing landscape, it is China’s goal to achieve “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation … by 2049 when the People’s Republic of China marks its centenary”. China sees its military buildup as key to allowing China to benefit from this shifting landscape and as key to reclaiming its positioning as a global world leader.

Given this, it can be expected that China’s military build-up will continue apace. Indeed, it is China’s goal to develop a world-class military in all branches over the coming decades. Thus, as its economic growth rate natural slows from historic blistering rates, it is possible that China’s military spending as a percentage of GDP may increase above its 2% level.

In terms of emphasis, China will continue to prioritize space and other technologies that will give it an edge in “informatized” warfare; China views technology as key to offsetting its deficits in military strength and experience. Continued naval and missile build-up will be prioritize; it sees these arms as being particularly critical to diminishing US military hegemony. Specifically, its paramilitary naval forces are expected to increase by 25% over the next decade; China sees its paramilitary as a way to assert its near seas claims in way that is less confrontational than if the same actions were taken by its navy.  China will also prioritize the development of air force and drone stealth technology as part of its A2/AD strategy. China will also invest heavily in underground facilities to safeguard all branches of its military.

Such upgrades on technology will continue to reduce the need for raw manpower – in line with most modern militaries around the world. To this end, Xi Jinping announced a further reduction in troop numbers of 300,000 during his speech in China’s large military parade on September 3rd 2015. Though significant, this will still leave the PLA as the largest military force in the world.

China will continue to use non-military tools to achieve its objectives.  These include everything from increasing its international media presence to pushing ahead with its build-up of land masses on atolls in the South China Sea to continuing its massive lending, investment and aid programs.

Going forward, China will also place increased emphasis on the quality of its military training with more emphasis being placed on training in difficult weather, terrain and electromagnetic conditions. China will also continue to improve troop skills with its new technologies and weaponry. China will also engage in more joint training between its military branches. Prior to 2000, joint training across branches was very infrequent. China will also continue to participate in joint training organizations with its allies.

Overtime, China will also increasingly develop its own indigenous military equipment and weapons systems so that it can limit its dependence on foreign weapons systems, particularly those of Russia. It will also work to expand its global port and base access so that it can project its forces farther from its shores.

As China develops indigenous weapons, it can be expected that its military exports will continue to grow. From 2009 to 2013, Chinese arms exports totaled approximately $14 billion. To date, these weapons have been less sophisticated than Western and Russian exports. Pakistan is China’s largest arms customer; the two countries also co-develop weapons system such as the JF-17 fighter aircraft and the F-22P frigate. China uses its weapons sales as part of a multi-pronged strategy to promote trade, access natural resources and expand its global influence. From its customers point of view, Chinese arms come with fewer political strings attached which appeals to those who might otherwise have little access to Western weaponry.

China can also be expected to more aggressively assert its claims over contested territory and resources in its near seas, actions which come in conflict with its assertion of a peaceful rise. Interfering with resupply missions to the Philippine outpost on the Thomas Shoal and the deployment of oil rigs to what Vietnam considers its EEZ are recent examples of this greater assertion.

Sino-Japanese Relations: In the Shadow of History

An Overview

There can be no doubt that China and Japan are the giants of East Asia, both in economic and political terms. The bilateral relationship is, therefore, of great importance to both the region and the wider world. Despite a mainly cordial relationship over two thousand years of known interaction, Sino-Japanese relations have been complex and difficult for over a century. After a brutal invasion and occupation of the Chinese mainland during its expansive war of the 1930s and 1940s, Japan was defeated and found itself firmly in the anti-Communist bloc during the Cold War. A thaw in the 1970s, driven by the Chinese split with the Soviets led to the normalization of diplomatic relations but the Chinese and Japanese never truly reconciled this history. As a result, the question of history remains one of the biggest thorns in the side of the Sino-Japanese relationship. Compounding this emotional problem is a series of territorial disputes in the East China Sea, most notably around the Diaoyu (in Chinese) or Senkaku (in Japanese) islands. There are also ground for optimism; China has been Japan’s largest trading partner since 2007 and the two countries have worked together to promote regional cooperation and low level institutionalization. Nevertheless, the difficult shared history casts a constant shadow over the relationship.

The Historical Relationship

China’s relationship with Japan has a long and complex history, with interaction between the two cultures stretching back over at least two millennia. There can be no doubt that much of Japanese culture has its roots in that which it borrowed from the Chinese. This is most notable in the written form of Japanese, which uses both Chinese characters and two other scripts that are derived from written Chinese (though the oral language is entirely distinct from Mandarin). The other major similarity lies in philosophy and religion; the adoption of Confucianism and Buddhism, both of which were learned through interaction with the Chinese over many centuries, is still clearly evident in modern Japan. This adoption of aspects of Chinese culture took place across several of China’s dynastic periods, during which interaction was predominantly cordial with the Japanese paying tribute to the Chinese emperors without ever really becoming a “vassal state” in the way that many other areas of East Asia did during this time.

The relatively cordial interaction was brought to an end during the Edo period in Japan (1603-1868) during which it effectively closed itself to dealings with other states. The end of this period coincided with several of China’s military defeats to Western powers, including the Opium Wars, which led to various parts of China becoming “concessions”, effectively miniature colonies within China. These defeats were part of the long decline of China’s final dynasty, the Qing, and Japan, like several Western powers, sought to take advantage of the chaos and confusion that ensued. After the first Sino-Japanese War of 1894-5, which had initially been fought over control of Korea, China was forced to sign the Treaty of Shimonoseki, under the terms of which Japan occupied Taiwan and the Penghu Islands. This defeat is considered by many Chinese to have been a huge psychological blow to the nation. After millennia of perceived Chinese superiority in the region, just a few short decades had seen China’s military humiliation at the hands of various “barbarians” from outside of East Asia and now at the hands of the Japanese, over whom the Chinese had always considered themselves to be both culturally and militarily superior.

However, by far the most significant conflict between the two powers, both in terms of the shutterstock_2646972 resizednumber of deaths and the continuing impact on the bilateral relationship, was the invasion of China by Japan that occurred in the 1930s. After first colonising Manchuria, in the Northeast of China, Japanese forces went on to occupy almost half of Chinese territory, committing widespread atrocities along the way. The most notorious of these atrocities was the Nanjing Massacre, a six-week orgy of violence and destruction during which as many as 300,000 Chinese, many of them civilians, were killed. Almost as notorious was the work of Unit 731, a Japanese research unit that conducted chemical testing on live Chinese prisoners of war. The occupation, including the colonisation of Manchuria, lasted a total of fourteen years, only coming to an end with Japan’s defeat in 1945.

With the dawning of the Cold War era, the PRC and Japan did not normalise relations until 1972, following Richard Nixon’s visit to Beijing. During the negotiations to establish mutual diplomatic recognition the Chinese agreed to forgo any war reparations or compensation from Japan for its wartime atrocities. For the remainder of the 1970s the two enjoyed a warm relationship, culminating in the signing of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship in 1978 and, following China’s decision to embark on market reform, the initiation of a series of low-interest loans (frequently referred to as “Yen loans”) from Japan to China to fund development of industry and infrastructure. While never explicitly acknowledged as such by either party, these were widely considered to be in lieu of war reparations.

The “History Issue”

Despite the apparent thaw in relations it is widely acknowledged that the reconciliation between China and Japan was only ever at a superficial level. This is evidenced by the CHEN WS / Shutterstock.comrecurrence of what has come to be termed “the history issue” in the relationship. Though the countries normalized relations in 1972, the history issue did not rear its head until the early 1980s. An apparent revision of Japan’s history textbooks in the early 1980s, which seemed to downplay Japan’s invasion of China, sparked an angry response from China at both the societal and political levels. Though it transpired that this was a misunderstanding caused by reporting errors in the Japanese media, the damage had been done and this issue recurs each time Japan’s Education Ministry approves a set of history textbooks, normally every four years. In 2001 and 2005, this issue caused widespread anger in China when a book was approved that apparently downplayed the Nanjing Massacre and referred to the invasion of China has merely an “advance”. What is rarely understood in China is that the textbooks in question are produced by the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform, a very narrowly focused right wing group that attracts little support in the wider Japanese society, and that they only appear on a list of books approved to be used, rather than being the set text. As a result, only a handful of Japanese schools have adopted these books with a reported 0.03% of Junior High School students actually studying them, a figure that would have been much lower were it not for the campaign group issuing free copies to schools for disabled students. Nevertheless, the approval sparked angry demonstrations across China with protest marches attracting in excess of ten thousand in several different cities and violent attacks on Japanese business interests and the Japanese Embassy in Beijing. Though some reports at the time suggested that the Chinese government played a role in organizing and inspiring these protests, later research showed this not to be the only driving force behind the outpouring.
shutterstock_87269803Another particularly sensitive matter is Yasukuni Shrine, a highly controversial Shinto shrine in Tokyo that honors all of Japan’s war dead. Under Shinto beliefs it is believed to be the resting place for the kami (loosely translated as souls) of all those who have died fighting for the Emperor of Japan since the shrine’s inception in the 1860s. This includes Class A war criminals that were convicted after Japan’s occupation of China of war crimes. Most notorious among these is Hideki Tojo, the wartime prime minister. After the Class A war criminals were enshrined in 1978 in a secret ceremony that was revealed a year later, the Emperor refused to visit the shrine again until his death a decade later. His successor has continued the policy of staying away in order not to offend Japan’s neighboring states. However, there have been several high profile visitors that have caused consternation in China (and other East Asian countries, most notable South Korea). In the early 1980s, it was commonplace for Prime Minister Nakasone to visit, until he did so on August 15th 1985, the fortieth anniversary of Japan’s surrender. In response to opposition in China, the General Secretary of the CCP, Hu Yaobang, personally requested that Nakasone stop these visits. Though two other prime ministers visited the shrine in the following 15 years, the issue was largely put to rest until Prime Minister Koizumi returned to the shrine in August 2001. He fulfilled his pledge to visit the shrine once a year while he was in office at great cost to the Sino-Japanese relationship at the highest political level and also at the societal level; bilateral summits were suspended and his actions created the impression among many Chinese that Japan had not fully repented for its previous wrongs and even a fear that it might return to its militaristic past. By the end of Koizumi’s tenure in 2006 the political relationship between the two powers had almost completely broken down and on several occasions popular Chinese anger spilled over into protest and even violence against Japanese in China. Subsequent prime ministers elected not to visit the shrine, allowing the political relationship to thaw once more, but this period serves to highlight that the issue of history is never far from the surface of Sino-Japanese relations. In fact, during the three years that the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) led the country from 2009 to 2012, the issue took a back seat in the relationship. However, it has begun to rear its head once more since the LDP (Koizumi’s party, and the overwhelmingly dominant force in Japanese politics since the end of the US occupation) regained power. In December 2013 Shinzo Abe, now in his second stint as prime minister, visited the shrine on the first anniversary of his return to the post. The act was greeted with anger from across the region but most notable in China and South Korea (with whom Japan has also had a difficult relationship in recent years). Abe has since refrained from visiting the shrine, though he has repeatedly sent offerings under his own name. Objections from the US that have become public since his December 2013 visit might provide an incentive for him not to return in person but even if it is a one-off it has put the shrine issue firmly back on the agenda of Sino-Japanese tension. To mark the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II, Abe made a significant and closely observed speech, repeating aspects of previous apologies but insisting that future generations should not be “condemned” to repeatedly apologize for actions in which they had no part. This was a clear indication that he wanted to move Japan away a position that he – and his supporters – consider to have been overly deferential to China in this area for too long. Such a shift does not go down well in China and this was underscored by Xi Jinping’s speech at its own commemorations of the 70th anniversary a few weeks later.

Slips of the tongue from Japanese politicians (that are not always unintentional) often cause anger and resentment in China as well. In his first period in office immediately succeeding Koizumi, Shinzo Abe managed to offend both China and South Korea by claiming that the issue of ‘comfort women’ – a euphemism for the thousands of women forced into sex slavery at the hands of the Japanese military during their occupation of East Asia – had been exaggerated, earning himself a telling off even from the US. More recently, the mayor of Nagoya declared that he did not believe that the Nanjing Massacre happened. This was particularly insensitive as he made the claim when welcoming a delegation from Nagoya’s sister city: Nanjing. It is this level of insensitivity – displayed by only a minority of Japanese but often by those who make themselves most well heard – that continues to cause frustration, bemusement and resentment among the Chinese. Even more recently, similar views have been expressed by one of the governors of NHK, Japan’s national broadcaster.

Territorial Disputes

The other major issue that threatens the stability of the bilateral relationship from time to time is the dispute over sovereignty of the Diaoyu Isalnds (known as Senkaku in Japanese). These uninhabited islands are currently administered by Japan, but are claimed by both countries (and also by Taiwan). It is widely believed that significant levels of resources, including oil and gas, may lie underneath the islands, as well as within the maritime EEZ that would accompany recognition of the sovereignty of the islands. Complicating the issue is China’s exploitation of the Chunxiao gas field; although there is no dispute over the sovereignty of the gas field itself, it is within four kilometres of what Japan considers to be its EEZ and it argues that China may siphon resources from its side. China disputes that this is likely and, in any case, does not accept Japan’s demarcation of its EEZ as it is based on Japanese sovereignty of the islands.

Attempts to resolve the dispute have been largely unsuccessful; during the negotiations for the Treaty of Peace and Friendship it was determined that the matter should be shelved and left for future generations to resolve. However, nationalist activists on both sides have sought to push forward their respective country’s claims to the islands, often leading to heightened diplomatic tensions between the two. One of the most serious incidents in recent times occurred in September 2010 when a Chinese fishing boat collided with a Japan Coast Guard ship that was patrolling the area. The captain and crew of the boat were all arrested and imprisoned in Japan, leading to a major diplomatic dispute between the two countries, with both governments accusing the other of violating sovereignty. The captain was eventually released without charge after Japanese prosecutors determined that action against him would harm Japan’s national interests, though a video was leaked to the media that showed the captain, apparently under the influence of alcohol, intentionally ramming his boat into the Japanese ship. The strength of China’s reaction shocked many in Japan as several Japanese businesspeople were arrested on fairly dubious grounds and exports of rare earths to Japan were apparently halted, though Beijing insisted that the issues were unconnected.

shutterstock_103396334In 2012 Shintaro Ishihara, then the mayor of Tokyo and a right wing firebrand who had long campaigned for a tougher policy towards China, launch a campaign to nationalize the islands. The three largest islands had been in private ownership since Japan integrated them into its territory at the end of the eighteenth century. The family that held the rights to them had been keen to sell them on but was not willing to do so if there could be any threat to Japan’s sovereignty claims. As a result, Ishihara launched a bid to raise enough funds to buy the islands and vowed to take them under the umbrella of the Tokyo government. His plans also included the building of a harbor on the largest island, a move that would unquestionably have inflamed tensions with China and possibly have provoked a military response. When Ishihara’s campaign achieved its goal of raising sufficient funds, the national government decided it had no option but to move on the issue. The then-Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda announced that the national government would purchase the islands and quickly struck an agreement with the family that owned them. This move was, without doubt, driven by a desire to lessen the tension with China as Ishihara’s plan was deemed highly provocative. Under the national government’s ownership no development of the islands would occur and the status quo would effectively be maintained. Noda clearly hoped that this move would be recognized by the Chinese and the response would be proportionate.

However, the nationalization of the islands proved to be a particularly hot topic in China and the response from Chinese society was the most serious that has been seen in any international issue in living memory. A series of scathing diplomatic attacks from the government served as a backdrop to widespread anti-Japanese protests across China. In total, 85 cities on the mainland witnessed large protests with many of these becoming violent. Japanese businesses and citizens were harassed, with even the ambassador’s car coming under attack in Beijing. Calls for boycotts of Japanese produce – a common response from nationalistic Chinese whenever a dispute with Japan occurs – appeared to have a greater effect than ever; in one bizarre demonstration of support for this idea a man set fire to his own Honda car in the middle of a Shanghai street. The economic relationship was demonstrably affected, with Japanese firms temporarily closing factories in China and laying off tens of thousands of workers. Sino-Japanese trade had previously been thought to be almost immune to the repeated spats between the two countries, but annual trade dropped by 4% in 2012. Two-way tourism figures fared even worse, with Chinese visitors to Japan down 33% in October 2012 compared with the previous year while the numbers of Japanese visitors to China fell by two thirds in the second half of 2012.

Since the nationalization China has stepped up “surveillance” of the areas surrounding the islands. Where once an unwritten agreement not to enter Japan’s de facto contiguous zone around the islands had kept the prospect of conflict to a bare minimum, China has since regularly flouted this norm. Though the incursions are frequently “Marine Surveillance” vessels rather than military ships, the possibility of conflict has been raised to its highest level since the two countries normalized relations in 1972. This was brought into sharp focus in December 2012 when a Chinese “Maritime Surveillance” plane entered the airspace of the islands, leading to the Japanese scrambling jets in response. A further escalation of the dispute in January 2013 occurred when the Japanese claimed that a Chinese PLAN frigate (a navy warship) had locked its radar onto a Japanese ship in the waters, suggesting that the first shots were about to be fired. Though China subsequently denied the incident the fact that such ships are now in frequent and close contact has significantly raised the possibility of a miscalculation that might trigger actual armed conflict between the two powers. The seriousness of the situation was heightened by a declaration from Hilary Clinton in January 2013 that the US’ joint security treaty with Japan covers the islands, thus obliging it to defend Japan if attacked by China. This raises the possibility of direct conflict between China and the US for the first time since the Korean War and is a stark reminder to all involved of the gravity of the situation. This was again brought into sharp focus in April 2013 when Prime Minister Abe issued a warning that Japan would respond with force to any attempt by China to land on the islands. Though this is would clearly be a war that would benefit nobody, it remains an unpalatable possibility.

In October 2013 China declared an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) above the East China Sea, including directly above the islands. This requires aircraft entering the zone – which is separate from China’s territorial airspace – to identify themselves to the Chinese authorities, log a flight path and retain open communications for the duration of the period of time in the zone. Although the zone is not unique – several of China’s neighbors have similar zones, including Japan – the sudden declaration and the more stringent requirements imposed by China have made this a controversial move that is clearly linked to the islands dispute. Aircraft from both Japan and the US have so far ignored the rules without serious consequence but the potential for miscalculation has clearly been raised even further by this development.

The islands issue has calmed somewhat in recent months but remains a potential flashpoint between the two countries. Certainly no resolution of the issue appears imminent and it has clearly played a role in Japan’s moves to reinterpret its Constitution in order to allow its military to play a role in collective self defense, a move that has caused a great deal of unease in a number of countries in the region, not least in China and South Korea.

The Taiwan Issue

When Japan defeated the Qing in the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-5, one of its major prizes was the ceding of the island of TaiwanTaiwan has not been ruled by Beijing since then, despite its continued claims of sovereignty. Though the Japanese were expelled after their defeat in 1945, its role and position within the Taiwan issue remains a cause of consternation for the Chinese. In particular Japan’s continued hosting of US forces on Okinawa, an island that is of clear strategic importance should the US ever seek to defend Taiwan in a conflict with China, causes friction with Beijing, though it should be noted that it is even more controversial in Okinawa itself where local people have long campaigned for the complete withdrawal of US forces.

Though Japan is firmly committed to the ‘one China’ policy that all countries with which Beijing has diplomatic ties must affirm, it continues to have close ties with the island. These ties are particularly evident in the field of business and Japan is Taiwan’s second largest trading partner with bilateral trade topping $70 billion in 2011. Japan also continues to have a close cultural relationship with the island, with Japanese pop music and television programs particularly popular. This successful ‘soft power’ irks the Chinese who see a continued threat to their claims of sovereignty from a power that has not only demonstrated a willingness to colonize in the past, but which also has a motivation for preventing or delaying the process of the ‘reunification’ of Taiwan and the mainland.

Bilateral Trade


Bilateral trade is the biggest area for optimism in the relationship, and it has been argued that the main factor in preventing open conflict from erupting has been the level of trade between the two. Japan has consistently been one of China’s biggest trading partners since early in the reform era, and has also been a source of significant inward FDI. In 2007 China became Japan’s biggest trading partner and, though Japan’s significance to China has declined relative to other major partners, the two remain closely interlinked. In 2010, bilateral trade reached $300 billion. Such interdependence was forged from a high level of complementarity between the two economies – China was in a position to provide plenty of cheap labor in return for investment and technological transfer at a time that Japanese firms found the need to expand and outsource away from Japan – in combination with a geographic proximity that allows relatively quick transport of both people and goods. In June 2012 direct trading between the RMB and the Yen began, bypassing the US dollar for the first time and making bilateral trade even easier. The trading relationship has remained robust through some of the most heated political disputes, and the relationship during the early 2000s, characterized by political spats over the history issue and popular anti-Japanese protests in China, came to be referred to as “zhengleng jingre” (cold politics, hot economics), though it could also be argued that such problems do impact on bilateral trade that could have been even more spectacular against the backdrop of smoother political ties. Notably, when China chose the partners for its high speed rail network it felt compelled to shun Japanese firms in response to domestic pressure from nationalists angered at Japan’s perceived continued provocations over the history issue. As a result, China’s network of high speed train network was put together by a combination of firms from France, Germany, Canada and China, among others. This represented a negative outcome for both sides, with the Japanese unable to cash in on Chinese investment in its infrastructure that has totaled $300 billion by 2012 and is expected to continue to rise as the network is expanded, while the Chinese ended up with a system that fell short of its original expectations and may have contributed to the fatal train crash in Wenzhou in 2011.

East Asian Regionalization

In recent years there has been some limited progress toward regional integration and institutionalization in East Asia. In some areas this has actually been a source of competition for influence between China and Japan such as in the development of ASEAN +1 and ASEAN +3, whereby the two countries have sought to engage with Southeast Asian countries in order to further their own interests rather than to develop frameworks for dealing directly with each other. However, the two countries’ involvement in the six-party talks over the North Korean nuclear issue that also included both of the Koreas, Russia, and the US, was a first step in the creation of a significant regional forum. Though not formally related to the six-party process which has now stalled, China and Japan, along with South Korea, now hold annual three-way summits, hosted on a rotational basis, that have begun to foster a much greater sense of understanding and cooperation between the three powers. While it is significant that South Korea is involved in this, it is the engagement of China and Japan that has the greatest potential for positive impact on the region going forward. However, the islands dispute between China and Japan (as well as another territorial dispute between Japan and South Korea) the erupted again in 2012 has stalled the process. The 2013 summit was indefinitely postponed and although never formally abandoned, there has not been a summit since 2012.

Future Trends

The Sino-Japanese relationship is, arguably, the most important bilateral relationship in shutterstock_3155944East Asia. Many tensions remain, particularly over the history issue and the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute. While the former of these problems has appeared to have been handled sensibly on both sides since the resignation of Koizumi, it remains a deeply-rooted issue that retains the potential to be the cause of significant mistrust and ill-feeling, something that was potently demonstrated by Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine in 2013. That mistrust of Japan’s apparent moves towards normalization of its military forces is played out in the arena of this historical ill-feeling underlines how important the interpretation of history is in the bilateral relationship, even when considering contemporary issues. The territorial dispute appears equally unlikely to be wholly resolved any time soon, with the positions of both countries entrenched and apparently irreconcilable. The trawler incident in 2010 demonstrated how easily this issue can come to the fore and become a major stumbling block in improving Sino-Japanese relations. Furthermore, the nationalization and subsequent flare-up of tensions from 2012 onwards has shown how dangerous this issue is. However, both sides have ordinarily demonstrated the political resolve to prevent either of these two issues from spilling over into open conflict, and a return to military warfare seems highly unlikely, even if it is no longer entirely unthinkable. The strength of the economic relationship, while declining in relative importance to China, continues to grow and remains both a motivation for, as well as a method of, mitigating the undoubted tensions that do exist between the two powers.

China’s Island Disputes – A lot at Stake

Introduction

By 中国海监总队/China Marine Surveillance (中国海监总队/China Marine Surveillance) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A Chinese surveillance ship and a Japan Coast Guard vessel at close quarters

Among the numerous causes of friction between China and its neighbors, the continued failure to resolve a series of territorial disputes remains one of the most pressing. Threatening to destabilize the entire region, the disputed islands bring China into potential conflict with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and, most worryingly for regional security, Japan. Though virtually all of the islands are uninhabited and largely uninhabitable, they carry with them issues of military strategic importance as well as access to a potential wealth of natural resources. China formerly had land-based territorial disputes with each of the fourteen countries with which it shares a border but has worked hard to resolve these in a peaceful and frequently generous manner, accepting less than 50% of the disputed area in most cases. The only exceptions to this were with Russia, in which each side settled for precisely half of the disputed territory, and India, with whom several disputes are outstanding, complicated by the Tibet issue. The contrast with the maritime disputes could not be starker with almost no progress towards resolution in any of the disputes since the foundation of the PRC in 1949 and with the Chinese position seemingly utterly intransigent. Indeed, developments in recent years have seen a more assertive Chinese position causing serious friction and concern for regional stability. This seemingly belligerent stubbornness is rooted in a complex web of motivations that includes strategic considerations, access to natural resources and fish stocks, the psychological importance of national unification and territorial integrity, and a genuine sense of historical ownership.

Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands

Senkaku islands location map (senkaku) http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Topographic15deg_N20E120.png Author: jackopoid

Map showing the location of the disputed islands

Perhaps China’s most talked about maritime dispute – certainly in recent times – is in the East China Sea, where it contends with Japan for the sovereignty of what it calls the Diaoyu islands, known to the Japanese as the Senkaku islands. The islands have occasionally been referred to in English as the Pinnacle Islands, but as this is a translation of the Japanese name it is normally not used unless expressing an opinion that the islands are Japanese territory. The rocky, uninhabited islands are located approximately 80 miles northeast of Taiwan and 250 miles west of Okinawa, an island over which there is no dispute and Japan’s most southerly prefecture.  The five islands in the group have a total combined area of just 2.7 square miles and do not have any infrastructure built on them. The dispute is complicated somewhat by Taiwan’s involvement, as it also claims the islands. However, this is not a challenge to China’s position as it considers the islands to be a part of the province of Taiwan, which is internationally recognized to be a part of China.

History

The islands are known to have been used by Chinese fishermen during the Ming Dynasty as shelter during storms, but were never permanently inhabited and their use by the Chinese appears to have come to an end at some time during the Qing Dynasty. Japanese historians argue that the islands were historically a part of the Ryukyu Kingdom, a small chain of islands that included Okinawa which operated as a relatively independent state until the late eighteenth century. However, there is evidence that shows the Ryukyu Kingdom itself acknowledged the islands to be a part of the Chinese realm, though this is disputed by some. By the time the Ryukyus were annexed by Japan in 1879 there was no mention of the Senkakus. The islands were re-discovered by a Japanese businessman named Koga in 1884, after which the Japanese surveyed the islands over a ten year period, before fully incorporating them into Japanese administration in 1895.

Respective Positions

The Chinese position on the sovereignty of the islands has two bases: a historical claim; and a geographical claim. The historical claim refers to the first established use of the islands as outlined above. From this perspective, since the islands were first discovered and then used on a frequent basis by the Chinese as early as the 14th century, there can be no dispute as to the original sovereignty of the islands. Given their geographical location it is entirely logical that they would be a part of the province of Taiwan. However, this province was ceded to Japan in 1895 after the First Sino-Japanese War ended with the Treaty of Shimonoseki that awarded Taiwan to the Japanese “in perpetuity”. Taiwan remained a colony of Japan until its defeat in the Second World War in August 1945, at which point the Potsdam and Cairo Declarations – both accepted by Japan as conditions of its surrender – decreed that Japan should return Taiwan to Chinese sovereignty. As the Diaoyu Islands are considered to have historically been part of Taiwan, they should be included in this. The second basis of China’s claim is somewhat tenuous in international law and refers to the nature of the East Asian continental shelf. China claims that the shelf is part of Chinese territory and extends out into the East China Sea, incorporating the Diaoyu Islands. Though it is true that the continental shelf is exceptional in its extension, it is worth noting that such a claim has never been used by any other country in the world, and there is little to suggest that it has any basis in law.

The Japanese position on the islands is based on a claim of “continuous occupation or administration”. From the Japanese perspective the uninhabited and entirely undeveloped islands were rediscovered in 1884 by Koga, and an appropriate survey conducted over the following decade. They were then incorporated into Okinawa Prefecture as sovereign Japanese territory. After Japan’s surrender in August 1945, the islands remained under the administration of the occupying US forces, who maintained control of Okinawa until 1972, a fully twenty years after handing back control of the Japanese mainland. For the Japanese, the Senkaku Islands were restored to Japanese sovereignty at this point and had not been separated from Okinawa Prefecture at any time since 1895.

Though China never acknowledged Japanese claims over the islands, it never challenged US administration of them during the almost three decades following the end of the war, though this is complicated by the presence on Taiwan of US allies the Kuomintang (Guomindang, KMT). However, it is notable that serious diplomatic noises surrounding the sovereignty issue only emerged after a UN report was released in 1968 suggesting that significant reserves of oil and gas may lie under the water surrounding the islands. Despite these noises, when the PRC and Japan normalized relations in 1972 the matter was shelved, as it was in 1978 during negotiations over the Treaty of Peace and Friendship, with Deng Xiaoping confidently declaring that “the next generation will be wiser”. Since then, no significant negotiation has taken place over the issue, with the Japanese exercising de facto control of the islands through regular patrols by the Japanese Coast Guard.

Modern Day Controversies

By Wuyouyuan (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

A Chinese poster showing the islands with superimposed Chinese flags signifying sovereignty

In response to Chinese claims over the islands, the Japan Youth Federation – a right wing group nationalist group with links to serious organized crime that seeks to promote a positive Japanese national identity and downplay Japan’s wartime atrocities – landed on the largest of the islands and erected a lighthouse, the first structure ever built on the islands. This was done without the consent of the Japanese government and China strongly objected to it as a provocation. The lighthouse has continued to be a source of controversy as members of the group have returned to the island periodically to conduct “maintenance”, frequently at times of increased tension over the issue. At the same time as building the lighthouse the group sought to address the problem of the islands being uninhabited, by leaving two (Japanese) goats behind. This symbolic gesture has had unintended but serious consequences for the island’s ecosystem; the single pair of goats, without any natural predators, has bred to a total in excess of 300, devastating the vegetation and bringing the Senkaku mole – an evolutionary distinct mammal found only on the island – to the brink of extinction.

A diplomatic spat between China and Japan was sparked in 1996 when the Japan Youth Federation returned to the islands to conduct maintenance on its lighthouse. However, what is notable about the controversy – which occurred in the wake of the Taiwan Strait Crisis that appeared to bring the region to the brink of military conflict – is that it was not publicized in China until it had been resolved. The People’s Daily – the most widely circulated newspaper in China that also functions as the CCP’s mouthpiece – did not report on the issue, even in pieces that criticized Japan over other issues. There was a clear desire in China not to provoke the public over the issue, and the matter was dealt with relatively swiftly at the diplomatic level.

The issue continued to be one of several sources of tension between China and Japan throughout the rest of the 1990s and into the 2000s, without sparking serious incident. It remained a matter of dispute that was brought up during virtually every bilateral meeting and no solution has ever appeared close but neither side had sought to change the status quo. There were minor sources of irritation, including the arrest of a Chinese fisherman near the islands in 2004, but he was swiftly released without charge by the Japanese who sought to play down the significance of the incident.

However, in 2010, the matter returned to centre stage in Sino-Japanese tension. In September of that year a Chinese fishing boat was spotted in what Japan considers to be its waters. A patrolling Japan Coast Guard (JCG) ship ordered it to leave the waters immediately, but the fishing boat instead changed course to head directly towards the Japanese ship. Though the Chinese side later disputed this version of events a video taken from the JCG vessel that was later leaked by a disgruntled employee clearly showed that the fishing boat intentionally rammed into the Japanese boat twice. At this point the entire crew was arrested, sparking a major diplomatic dispute between the two countries.

Though the rest crew was released almost immediately, the captain of the boat was detained for a total of 17 days, on possible charges under Japanese law. The Chinese response was vociferous, both at the governmental and societal levels, with strongly worded diplomatic protests and apparently spontaneous street demonstrations against Japan. There were reports that China had suspended exports of rare earths to Japan in response, though academic analysis has later disputed this version of events. A group of Japanese businessmen were also arrested in the aftermath of the boat captain’s detention, on seemingly spurious charges that appeared to be a tit-for-tat retaliation. The diplomatic standoff finally came to an end when Japan apparently blinked first, with the Chief Prosecutor announcing the release of the captain without charge on the grounds of “Japan’s national interests”, something that caused a debate over the legality of his actions within Japan. While this brought an end to this chapter of the dispute, it served to bring the islands to the forefront of Sino-Japanese tensions.

Japanese Nationalization

In 2012 a campaign Shintaro Ishihara, then the mayor of Tokyo and a right wing firebrand who had long campaigned for a tougher policy towards China, launch a campaign to nationalize the islands. The three largest islands had been in private ownership since Japan integrated them into its territory at the end of the eighteenth century. The family that held the rights to them had been keen to sell them on but was not willing to do so if there could be any threat to Japan’s sovereignty claims. As a result, Ishihara launched a bid to raise enough funds to buy the islands and vowed to take them under the umbrella of the Tokyo government. His plans also included the building of a harbor on the largest island, a move that would unquestionably have inflamed tensions with China and possibly have provoked a military response. When Ishihara’s campaign achieved its goal of raising sufficient funds, the national government decided it had no option but to move on the issue. The then-Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda announced that the national government would purchase the islands and quickly struck an agreement with the family that owned them. This move was, without doubt, driven by a desire to lessen the tension with China as Ishihara’s plan was deemed highly provocative. Under the national government’s ownership no development of the islands would occur and the status quo would effectively be maintained. Noda clearly hoped that this move would be recognized by the Chinese and the response would be proportionate.

By 中国海监总队/China Marine Surveillance (中国海监总队/China Marine Surveillance) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Anti-Japan protest in Beijing in 2012

However, the nationalization of the islands proved to be a particularly hot topic in China and the response from Chinese society was the most serious that has been seen in any international issue in living memory. A series of scathing diplomatic attacks from the government served as a backdrop to widespread anti-Japanese protests across China. In total, 85 cities on the mainland witnessed large protests with many of these becoming violent. Japanese businesses and citizens were harassed, with even the ambassador’s car coming under attack in Beijing. Calls for boycotts of Japanese produce – a common response from nationalistic Chinese whenever a dispute with Japan occurs – appeared to have a greater effect than ever; in one bizarre demonstration of support for this idea a man set fire to his own Honda car in the middle of a Shanghai street. The economic relationship was demonstrably affected, with Japanese firms temporarily closing factories in China and laying off tens of thousands of workers. Sino-Japanese trade had previously been thought to be almost immune to the repeated spats between the two countries, but annual trade dropped by 4% in 2012. Two-way tourism figures fared even worse, with Chinese visitors to Japan down 33% in October 2012 compared with the previous year while the numbers of Japanese visitors to China fell by two thirds in the second half of 2012.

Since the nationalization China has stepped up “surveillance” of the areas surrounding the islands. Where once an unwritten agreement not to enter Japan’s de facto contiguous zone around the islands had kept the prospect of conflict to a bare minimum, China has since regularly flouted this norm. Though the incursions are frequently “Marine Surveillance” vessels rather than military ships, the possibility of conflict has been raised to its highest level since the two countries normalized relations in 1972. This was brought into sharp focus in December 2012 when a Chinese “Maritime Surveillance” plane entered the airspace of the islands, leading to the Japanese scrambling jets in response. A further escalation of the dispute in January 2013 occurred when the Japanese claimed that a Chinese PLAN frigate (a navy warship) had locked its radar onto a Japanese ship in the waters, suggesting that the first shots were about to be fired. Though China subsequently denied the incident the fact that such ships are now in frequent and close contact has significantly raised the possibility of a miscalculation that might trigger actual armed conflict between the two powers. The seriousness of the situation is heightened by a declaration from Hilary Clinton in January 2013 that the US’ joint security treaty with Japan covers the islands, thus obliging it to defend Japan if attacked by China. This raises the possibility of direct conflict between China and the US for the first time since the Korean War and is a stark reminder to all involved of the gravity of the situation.

In October 2013 China declared an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) above the East China Sea, including directly above the islands. This requires aircraft entering the zone – which is separate from China’s territorial airspace – to identify themselves to the Chinese authorities, log a flight path and retain open communications for the duration of the period of time in the zone. Although the zone is not unique – several of China’s neighbors have similar zones, including Japan – the sudden declaration and the more stringent requirements imposed by China have made this a controversial move that is clearly linked to the islands dispute. Aircraft from both Japan and the US have so far ignored the rules without serious consequence but the potential for miscalculation has clearly been raised even further by this development.

South China Sea Disputes

In addition to China’s dispute with Japan in the East China Sea, it has competing claims with several countries of Southeast Asia for islands and maritime rights. China’s famous “nine dashed line” details its claim to virtually every single island and rock in the South China Sea, stretching to within 50 miles of the mainlands of Malaysia and the Philippines despite being more than a thousand miles from China’s mainland in several instances. There are two main groups of islands within this vast area of sea claimed by the PRC: the Paracel Islands, which is disputed with Vietnam; and the Spratly Islands, which are wholly claimed by China, and partly claimed by each of Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, and Vietnam, with Indonesia also claiming maritime rights in the area without actually staking a claim to any territory. Additionally, there are disputes with the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal and Macclesfield Bank. As with the East China Sea, each of the disputes is complicated by matching claims from Taiwan which are based on the same justifications as the PRC.

The Paracels

The location of the disputed and uninhabited Paracels and Spratlys

Known as Xisha Qundao (West Sand Islands) in Chinese and Hoàng Sa (Yellow Sand) in Vietnamese, the Paracel Islands are located approximately 200 miles south of Hainan Island (China’s most southerly province) and a similar distance east of central Vietnam. The group is made up of more than 30 islands, islets, reefs and sandbanks. Their significance lies mostly in access to significant fishing stocks, though it is thought that oil and gas deposits may also be present.

From a Vietnamese perspective, the islands have been sovereign territory since the 15th century, when harvesting of sea produce was conducted on the islands. This claim is supported by some historical evidence in the form of records kept by several of the Vietnamese dynasties that detail continues use of the islands throughout the following centuries. The islands were claimed by France in the mid-19th century after the colonization of Indochina, and this claim met with no objection from China, though it is reasonable to consider that China was in something of a situation of turmoil itself at this time facing the prospect of colonization itself for the first time in its history. The French reasserted their claim to the islands in 1930, this time meeting with resistance from what was then the Republic of China. The islands were annexed by Japan in 1939 as its military rolled across East Asia. Following Japan’s defeat in 1945, the status of the islands was left ambiguous by the post-War treaties, until Japan itself completed an agreement with Vietnam for the return of sovereignty over the islands 1952. Though this was complicated further by the partition of Vietnam two years later, the present-day reunified Vietnam considers this treaty to be valid and still in force, demonstrating its continued sovereignty over the islands.

China’s claims actually predate those of Vietnam, with record from the Song Dynasty suggesting that some Chinese habitation of the islands occurred during this time. The islands were also included in maps produced during later dynasties, including the Yuan and the Ming. Though the use of the islands appears to have subsided during the Qing Dynasty, no Chinese government ever renounced the claims and the Republic of China formally objected to the French colonial government of Indochina building a weather station on the largest of the islands in 1932. Additional evidence of China’s claim, perversely, comes from the Japanese invasion during the Second Sino-Japanese War, during which the Japanese foreign ministry demanded that France desist from activities on the islands on the basis that they were part of the administrative prefecture of Hainan Island, then under Japanese occupation. After Japan’s defeat, China considers sovereignty to have been returned to it under the terms of Japan’s surrender.

In 1974, while North Vietnam and South Vietnam were still engaged in war with each other for control of the two countries, the south fought a battle with China for the Paracel Islands. The battle was sparked by attempts from the South Vietnamese navy to expel Chinese fishing vessels from the surrounding waters, leading China to take military action in support of its fishing rights. After a brief naval battle and aerial bombardment, the Chinese forces launched an amphibious assault on several of the islands that it had not previously occupied, securing a decisive victory that established a permanent military presence on the islands. The battle lasted only a couple of days and Vietnamese casualties were relatively small, with around 50 deaths and a similar number of injuries, but the result was highly significant in the dispute over the islands as it established Chinese de facto control of the archipelago. A recurrence of military activity in 1988 left a further 70 Vietnamese dead, though this incident is frequently dismissed as nothing more than a ‘skirmish’.

The dispute remains unresolved has been at the root of sporadic incidences of diplomatic difficulties between the two countries, usually sparked by disagreements over fishing rights. These spats have become more commonplace since China established a symbolic administrative region that incorporated the Paracels in 2007. In 2010 China announced plans to develop tourism to the islands in a move that the Vietnamese condemned as a “serious violation” of its sovereignty. A potentially serious flashpoint occurred in June 2011 when a Vietnamese oil survey ship was apparently rammed by a Chinese patrol vessel in waters close to Vietnam, seemingly outside of what even China considers to be its waters. Chinese military vessels have also detained Vietnamese fishermen on numerous occasions in recent years. For example, in March 2012 a total of 21 fishermen were arrested by Chinese patrol boats, after a fleet of around 100 Vietnamese boats entered what China considers to be its waters surrounding the islands. Though they were released a few weeks later the reaction sparked angry and violent protest against China in Vietnam, notably in the capital, Hanoi. Though both governments have sought to develop friendlier ties in many other areas of their relationship in recent years, the islands dispute remains a constant thorn in bilateral ties and a conduit for ugly nationalist sentiment in both countries.

In May 2014 China moved an oil rig from a part of the sea that was undisputed into an area that Vietnam considers to be its territorial waters. This sparked an angry response from both state and society in Vietnam with violent anti-Chinese protests breaking out across the country, resulting in several serious injuries to Chinese workers and the evacuation of hundreds of foreign workers (including many non-Chinese caught up in the protests). Though no direct military confrontation has followed, the dispute has taken Sino-Vietnamese relations to their lowest point for decades.

The Spratlys

The Spratly Islands are a group of around 750 islands, islets, reefs and sand banks, totaling a little over one square mile of actually land but spread out across in excess of 100,000 square miles of the South China Sea. They are largely uninhabited but several countries have succeeded in establishing military presences on some of the islands in their respective claims. Thus, 45 of the islands are home to military forces from China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia. Brunei also claims one island but has not established a military presence on it. China refers to the islands as Nansha Qundao (South Sand Islands), and considers them to be part of the same symbolic administrative region as the Paracels. It is the only country (except for Taiwan, whose own claims overlap the PRC’s for historical reasons) to claim the entire archipelago, which includes islands that are within 50 miles of the mainlands of Malaysia and the Philippines but more than 1000 miles from China’s own mainland. The economic value of the island is questionable at best, with initial surveys suggesting that oil and gas may be present but in unknown quantities. However, from a strategic perspective, as well as for reasons of national pride and for access to fishing stocks, the islands retain a high level of importance to all parties in the dispute.

As with the Paracels, China’s claims rests on historical usage of the islands during dynastic times, stretching back to the Yuan Dynasty, while Vietnamese claims are also rooted in their own historical use and supported by the French colonization of the area that purported to include the archipelago in its empire. Claims from Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei are more geographical than historical, with each citing the proximity of uninhabited and undeveloped islands to their own undisputed sovereign territory as justification for their claims. The dispute is complicated by the lack of native populations and the previous colonization of several of the competing countries in the claims.

The dispute has remained unresolved and, particularly in recent years, has led to heightened tension with potential for military conflict in the region. Indeed, in May 2011 it was reported that vessels from the Chinese navy (PLAN) had fired upon several Vietnamese ships in the region, including two oil survey ships and at least one fishing boat. The incident contributed to a serious deterioration of ties between the two nations during that time and sparked further angry anti-China protests in major Vietnamese cities. Around the same time the Philippines government began to express concerns about China’s increased activity around the islands and openly warned the visiting Chinese Defense Minister, Liang Guanglie, that his country “risked sparking an arms race” in the region if it did not seek to ease tensions swiftly.

Scarborough Shoal and Macclesfield Bank

Macclesfield Bank: a tiny, uninhabitable ridge in the South China Sea

Outside of the Paracels and the Spratlys, the South China Sea is also home to Scarborough Shoal and Macclesfield Bank which are disputed between China and the Philippines. Both are significant for strategic reasons and for the implications that any acknowledged sovereignty claim might have on other disputes in the Spratly Islands.

Macclesfield Bank, known as Zhongsha Qundao (Central Sand Islands) is a completely submerged chain of reefs that does not qualify as territory under international law since it cannot be inhabited by human beings. Nevertheless, both the PRC and Taiwan claim it to be part of Chinese territory. The position of the Philippines government is less clear; in 2012 it objected to Chinese activity in the area but has never lodged a formal claim to sovereignty. In any case, since the atoll is entirely submerged it is not clear how such a claim would be made and what effect it could have.

Scarborough Shoal, known in Chinese as Nanyan Dao (South Cave Island) is actually a group of small islets or rocks, all uninhabited. Its sovereignty is disputed between China and the Philippine (as well as Taiwan) in the same way that the Spratly Islands are, though are considered geographically separate. Claims from all sides are somewhat patchy in their historical evidence, particularly as there is no evidence of inhabitation on any of the rocks at any point in history. Nevertheless, it remains a sore point in bilateral relations as both China and the Philippines seek access to fishing stocks and potentially other natural resources.

The dispute came to international attention in 2012 when eight Chinese fishing boats were apprehended by a Filipino naval vessel which accused the crews of illegally catching sharks and taking coral. China sent in two “Marine Surveillance” ships to block the Filipinos from taking further action and a standoff ensued, leading to heightened diplomatic tensions between the two countries and tit-for-tat protests in major cities. Strong winds ultimately led to the Philippines having to temporarily withdraw its presence, after which Chinese surveillance ships set up a naval blockade, preventing any further access to the shoal. Though no direct conflict occurred, the situation is ongoing with the blockade remaining in place to the chagrin of the Philippines.

Trends

It is quite clear that an expansion of China’s naval capabilities achieved through its rapid military modernization has allowed it to become more assertive in its various maritime disputes with its neighbors. It represents a significant departure from the policy that was pursued with regard to the various land disputes that China previously had with all of its neighbors, during which it sought to resolve them rapidly and generously, gaining much appreciation in doing so. This change of stance over the maritime disputes has had several implications for the region as a whole as well as for China itself.

Firstly, it has led to a worsening in bilateral ties with several of China’s neighbors. The most serious of these is the ongoing dispute with Japan that has taken Sino-Japanese relations to arguably their lowest point since the Second Sino-Japanese War. This has inflamed nationalist tensions on both side and had an impact on the economic relationship as well as threatening military conflict. The room for compromise on this issue is severely limited for both sides and it will remain a significant source of tension between the two regional powers. Similarly, the relationships with Vietnam and the Philippines have suffered and both of these countries have witnessed anti-China protests in recent years as a result of the maritime disputes.

Secondly, China’s adversaries in the region have sought to strengthen their ties with the US in order to further protect themselves against what they see as a more assertive China. This will provide a challenge for China as it has previously sought to mitigate US power in the region. What China believes to be US attempts to encircle it and limit Chinese growth can only be served by its neighbors developing closer ties with the US and this may, ultimately, be the most significant cost to China of its policy shift. Hilary Clinton’s declaration in September 2012 that the maintaining freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is a matter of “national interest” to the US was a stark illustration to China that its change in stance over the area has consequences in this regard.

Thirdly, Chinese ‘soft power’ in Southeast Asia has suffered greatly because of its stance over the South China Sea. Having previously worked hard to project an image of a responsible power in the region, such damage has quickly undone decades of policies aimed at convincing China’s neighbors that its rise would be peaceful and not threatening. It is not clear how this can be rectified if it continues with the same pattern of hard-line policies in this area.

Finally, despite these costs to China’s international position and various bilateral relationships, its strategic position has been strengthened in various parts of the South and East China Seas. It now controls, or has access to, several positions that previously it did not. From a purely traditional military point of view, this can be viewed as a success and a gain in the balance of power in the region. Whether this will compensate adequately for the increased attention that the US will now pay to the region, the damaged bilateral relationships, and China’s deteriorating image in the region, remains to be seen.

The Tibet Issue

Introduction

To many in the West, China’s continued rule in Tibet is often considered to be a foreign occupation, though few inside China accept this point of view. Tibet is of great psychological importance to China and to Chinese people in terms of national identity and the maintenance of Chinese national unity, as well as of enormous strategic importance with regard to China’s traditional national security and its access to water and other vital natural resources.

Geography

The Tibetan Plateau is the highest region on the planet, sometimes referred to as “the roof of the world”. With an average elevation of more than 4500 meters, it is an

inhospitable place to plant and animal life alike and frequently leaves unaccustomed visitors gasping for air. It is home to one half of the world’s highest mountains, including Mount Everest or Qomolangma as the Tibetans call it, with the peak forming the border with Nepal. Tibet is also the source of many of Asia’s major rivers, including China’s two biggest, the Yangtze and the Yellow River, as well as the Brahmaputra, the Salween, the Mekong, the Irrawaddi, the Arun, the Karnali, the Sutlej and the Indus. About 90% flows downstream to China, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. The sources of these rivers are the huge glaciers that exist in the Tibetan mountains, effectively forming enormous frozen reservoirs that are gradually released to flow down river. The constant flow of these rivers creates a stable source of water in regions which are otherwise dominated by monsoon rain falls. The Tibetan rivers are thus extremely important to sustaining life throughout South and Southeast Asia.

The territory of Tibet is large, with the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) spanning more than 1.2 million square kilometers. Historically, though, Tibet has often included the whole of Qinghai province, as well as the western sections of Sichuan, Gansu, and Yunnan, making it geographically almost the size of modern day India. These areas outside of the autonomous region maintain a strong Tibetan identity today and continue to be populated by mainly ethnic Tibetans. Indeed, many of the protests that have made the news in recent years have occurred outside of the autonomous region, predominantly in Sichuan. When the Dalai Lama speaks about Tibet, he’s referring to those parts of the plateau that were historically Tibetan and are primarily populated by Tibetans. When China refers to Tibet, it is normally referring solely to the TAR.

Demographics

Despite covering such a vast area Tibet’s population is relatively small. The harsh climate has dictated sparse population throughout its history and, even with advances of modern technology, this continues to be the case. The TAR has a population of just 3 million people, though the total Tibetan population of areas that have historically been within Tibet numbers around 6 million. Such small numbers in such huge areas make Tibet one of the most sparsely populated places on the planet, a striking contrast to the thronging cities of eastern China.

Unlike the other autonomous regions in China, Tibet has maintained its ethnic identity throughout the history of the PRC; whereas the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, the Hui in Ningxia, the Mongols in Inner Mongolia, and the Zhuang in Guangxi all now account for less than half of the population in their respective areas, Tibetans still represent 92% of the population in their own autonomous region. This is, however, changing rapidly. The opening of the world’s highest railway connecting Qinghai to Lhasa – an impressive engineering feat that takes trains across mountain passes over 5200 meters high – has enabled a much greater flow of people into, and out of, the TAR. Han Chinese currently make up around 6% of the population, but that number is beginning to rise as the Chinese government encourages Han migration into the areas by providing incentives such as housing, business, and pension benefits. Indeed, It is estimated that Han Chinese now make up 50% of the population of the capital city, Lhasa, and the Chinese government is heavily investing in the city’s infrastructure to raise the city to modern Chinese standards. Beijing says that the Han economic migrants have temporarily come to Tibet in order to help modernize the area. Some Tibetans fear that China will use demographics as a way to more thoroughly integrate the region into China. Visitors to Lhasa are keenly aware of the division with the city almost literally split into two areas, one almost entirely Tibetan and the other almost entirely Han.

Tibet remains overwhelmingly Buddhist, though the influence of Tibet’s native religion, Bon, can still be seen in some of the practices. Although the much of Tibetan monastic heritage was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, Tibet still remains home to many large and small Buddhist monasteries and temples, with Tibetans making pilgrimages at various times of the year to sites of importance. The Jokhang Temple in Lhasa is the centerpiece of Tibetan Buddhism. It attracts tens of thousands of pilgrims yearly, particularly during the winter months when some Tibetans from rural areas may walk hundreds of miles to pay homage by prostrating themselves around the perimeter.

The Tibetan Economy

China currently invests about $2.5 billion annually in the region, primarily in the form of shutterstock_77066617infrastructure projects. Farming, forestry, animal husbandry and fishery accounted for approximately 70% of the total gross output value in 2000. Because of its high altitude and mountainous conditions, the Tibetan growing season is short, and the main crops grown are barley, wheat, buckwheat, rye, potatoes and some fruits and vegetables. Sheep, cattle, goats, camels, yaks and horses are also raised within Tibet, with the yak being particularly well suited to Tibet’s harsh winter conditions. Most of the farming, animal husbandry and forestry is still done by hand or with animal labor. Increasingly, electric and hydro-power, mining, light industry and handicrafts also generating earnings for the region. Tibetan hats, jewellery, wooden items, clothing, quilts, fabrics and carpets are all important money earners, as is tourism, with most tourists staying in Lhasa, Shigatse, and the Mount Everest base camp, though the number of foreign tourists permitted to visit Tibet has been scaled back in recent years. Tibet also has large deposits of gold, copper, salt and radioactive ores, although its lack of infrastructure to date has meant that it has been difficult to extract these minerals. China’s huge investment in infrastructure should mean that mining will be a growing sector for Tibet in the future. Overall, China’s significant investment in the region has meant that many Tibetans have seen a rise in living standards. Annual per capita income, for instance, quadrupled to $1076 between 1986 and 2006, though there are claims that this benefit is felt primarily by Han Chinese migrants and not by the indigenous population. Unemployment remains high at approximately 10.3%, more than double the national urban rate.

The Historical Argument

The Tibetan empire reached its zenith around the 8th century CE with an empire that encompassed parts of Southeast Asia, Central Asia, northern India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and also parts of what are now the Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Yunnan, Gansu and Sichuan in China. During the Tang dynasty in around 640 CE the Chinese princess Wencheng was sent to Lhasa to marry the then Tibetan emperor Songtsan Gampo. Many Chinese academics credit this as the first sign of China’s suzerainty over Tibet, though many Tibetans claim the opposite: that this was a sign of Tibet’s power and independence since the Emperor only acquiesced in sending the princess under threat of force from Tibet (a claim which is not accepted by modern Chinese historians and was not recorded in the Chinese written Tang annals). Contemporaneously, an informal treaty was signed between the two countries in which the Tibetans claim that the Chinese recognized Tibet as equal to China. By 821 a formal peace treaty was agreed and signed between Tibet and China, known as the Tang-Tibetan Alliance, and the details of this were inscribed on a stone pillar outside of the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa in both Tibetan and Chinese. This pillar remains in place today.

The 13th century Mongol subjugation of Eurasia brought Tibet and China under one rule for the first time when both countries became subject nations under the Mongol empire. Having conquered China, Kublai Khan consolidated his rule by proclaiming himself the Emperor of the Yuan Dynasty. Despite the Yuan Dynasty being formed as a result of an invasion from an external force, Kublai Khan is considered in China to have been Chinese as he perpetuated China’s cultural heritage. That he was Mongolian is no barrier to this interpretation, as Mongolians are recognized as one of China’s official 56 ethnic groups. As a result, modern Chinese historians argue that it was during the Yuan Dynasty that Tibet formally became part of Chinese territory and has remained so ever since. In contrast, the opponents of this view maintain that China and Tibet were two independent countries subjugated by an outside force; in emphasis, they point out the Mongols ruled the two territories separately much in the same way that the British ruled its colonies independently, and that Tibetan life remained centered on monastic Buddhism rather than Chinese cultural norms. Tibet continued to move in and out of the Chinese sphere of influence throughout the Ming and Qing dynasties that followed the Yuan, leading up to the end of the 19th century.

The 13th Dalai Lama entered a rapidly changing international order when he assumed power from his regent in 1895, by which time both Tibet and the Qing were under pressure from predatory Japanese and European colonial powers. By 1890 the British were negotiating a treaty with the Qing to establish the border between Tibet and Sikkim, which the British sought to include within its Indian colony. Historically, the Himalayan kingdom of Sikkim had been viewed as a vassal tributary state by Tibet, yet the Tibetans were not consulted during the treaty negotiations. Mainly as a result of fear that Russia was making incursions into Tibet in order to establish a sphere of influence, Britain invaded Tibet in 1904 and the 13th Dalai Lama fled into exile. The British invasion of Tibet refocused Qing attention on the region, which had been distracted by challenges closer to home. By December 1904, Tibetan officials left in charge by the 13th Dalai Lama, capitulated to British terms in order to secure withdrawal of troops from Lhasa. In the resulting convention between Great Britain and Tibet, Tibet accepted London’s annexation of Sikkim and agreed not to conduct for relations with foreign states, including China. Tibet also had to pay war reparations.

During this time, the thirteenth Dalai Lama was trying to get Russia to engage on Tibet’s shutterstock_94573753 resizedbehalf, yet Russian help was not forthcoming. Ultimately it suited both the British and Russians that Tibet was neither an independent state nor a vassal of an enemy. London and Moscow concluded that it was in both their interests to recognize a purposely vague Chinese claim over Tibet, especially as the British realized that it would be too expensive to turn Tibet into a true British protectorate as it had done to Sikkim. As a result, some clauses of the 1904 Convention were rejected by the Foreign Office in London, and it negotiated two new treaties with the Qing and with Russia. In a 1906 treaty with the Qing, the government of Great Britain engaged not to annex Tibetan territory or to interfere in the administration of Tibet. The Qing undertook to prevent other foreign states from interfering with the territory or internal administration of Tibet. The British then signed a second 1907 accord with Russia in which the two states agreed to recognize the principle of Chinese suzerainty over Tibet, thus effectively denying that Tibet was an independent nation. Moreover, English legal and historical documents were beginning to equate China with all the territory of the Qing empire. At the same time, as those Han Chinese that sought to end imperial rule began to think what a Chinese nation would be once the Manchus were overthrown, they too began to define their borders by those drawn by the Manchus when they took power. The Chinese became fixated on the humiliation that they were experiencing at the hands of foreign powers so the defense of Chinese borders became a matter of national pride for the Chinese people. By 1912, a year after the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty and the formation of the Republic of China, San Yatsen declared China to be a multi-ethnic state composed of Manchus, Mongols, Tibetans, Han and Uyghurs among others. Promoting this diverse population was one of the ways that the young republic articulated that its aim was to consolidate its country upon the larger Qing borders.

Taking advantage of the chaos during the early days of the Republic of China, in 1912 the 13th Dalai Lama proclaimed Tibet’s complete independence, and a voluntary Tibetan army drove the remaining Chinese out of the Tibet. In 1913, the Dalai Lama returned from exile after an absence of eight years. Importantly, the Tibetan government also negotiated with British India over shared borders and an agreement was signed between British India and Tibet in 1912 which ceded Tibetan territory to colonial India. This is often cited as proof that Tibet acted with genuine independence as a nation state at this time, but it is the only example of Tibet ever acting as such in the modern international system. It is worth noting that Chinese authorities were included in these negotiations and the Chinese representative even initialed the final treaty. Though this is now downplayed by Beijing due to the complications of continued disputes with India over the modern border, it does raise a serious question over the ability of Tibet to act as a genuinely sovereign nation even during this sole example of it apparently doing so. Furthermore, Britain was in breach of its own Anglo-Russian Entente, signed in 1907, in which it had agreed that all matters surrounding Tibet would be dealt with through the authorities in Peking (Beijing) and that no negotiations would be conducted with Tibetan authorities. The chaos and confusion in China after the fall of the Qing left Tibet’s status relatively unaddressed. During this period, the 13th Dalai Lama passed away. Tibet’s 14th and current Dalai Lama was born on July 6, 1935, 18 months after the death of his predecessor.

Tibet under the PRC

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During the struggle against Japanese occupation and the civil war between the communists and the nationalists, it is reported that Mao Zedong pledged that the periphery regions of China, such as Tibet, Xinjiang, and Outer Mongolia, would be free to decide their own future. However, upon the establishment of the PRC in 1949, this policy was repudiated (with the exception of Mongolia, whose independence was accepted by the communists probably as a favor to their allies in the Soviet Union). By 1949, the Chinese were using its radio infrastructure to broadcast into Tibet its need to peacefully liberate the country. By October 1950, the PLA had entered Tibet’s eastern regions. After initially rejecting the idea of Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, the Dalai Lama signed the “17 point agreement” in 1951 after recognizing that it was not in Tibet’s interests to make an enemy of its giant neighbour against which it stood little chance of military success. The Chinese army had already inflicted defeats against Tibetan resistance and it was clear that the battle could not be won. The agreement accorded the Tibetans autonomy over their own affairs, recognized the position of the Dalai Lama and guaranteed freedom of religion in Tibet. It needs to be acknowledged that this both demonstrates that the PRC government recognized the ability of the Tibetan authorities to act on behalf of Tibet (otherwise they would not have conducted negotiations and signed an agreement with them) and also that several of the points in the agreement have been broken by the PRC authorities, in particular the promise not to interfere with the position of the Dalai Lama and the guarantee that local religion would be respected.

The Dalai Lama remained in Tibet after this agreement was signed and, according to his own account of the story, met with Mao Zedong in Beijing on more than one occasion. In March 1959, following three years of sporadic battles at the edges of Tibet between local paramilitaries and the PLA, the Dalai Lama officially repudiated the agreement citing breaches from the Chinese. What followed was an uprising from Tibetans against the increasing Chinese presence in Tibet, followed by a large military response from the Chinese and a bloody wave of repression. The Dalai Lama fled, on horseback, across the Himalaya into India where he later claimed asylum and established the ‘Tibetan government in exile’ in Dharamsala. It took a further three years to fully establish Chinese control over Tibet. The number of Tibetans killed has never been independently verified but the Tibetan government in exile claims the figure to be in excess of 86,000. It is also believed that the US was involved in inspiring the uprising by engaging in training some of the Tibetan paramilitaries, a practice that continued for several years after the uprising was crushed.

Prior to China’s ‘liberation’ or ‘occupation’ (what it is called depends on one’s own viewpoint) there is no doubt that life in Tibet was a long way from the idealistic vision of a harmonious, peace-loving, and free society that some in the West tend to paint it as. Life expectancy was just 36 and the overwhelming majority of the population was illiterate. A majority of Tibetans were hereditary serfs of varying statuses, allowing the elite – including the religious leaders – to live a luxurious life on the backs of a poor, uneducated society that was structurally condemned to remain in poverty through the following generations. In essence, this was precisely what the international communist movement sought to bring to an end. Tibet had no roads, poor sanitation, and no monetary system. Until the 1960s, there were virtually no vehicles of any kind, motorized or otherwise. Punishment for various crimes was barbaric, including amputation of limbs and eye-gouging.

However, whatever the rights and wrongs of the legal or moral claim that China may have over Tibet, there is no question that many Tibetans suffered both during the ‘liberation’ and after, particularly through forced collectivization and during the Cultural Revolution. In this latter period many temples were destroyed and monks forced to tend pigs, sometimes within the walls of their own religious institutions, a grievous insult. While it is important to keep such acts in context – the Cultural Revolution was a chaotic and unpleasant time for most people in China, regardless of ethnicity – it does not excuse such acts in the minds of Tibetans, and many continue to harbor ill feelings over this. Despite the orgy of destruction that ensued in the late 1960s, it is thought that the Potala Palace, the former winter home of the Dalai Lama and Tibet’s most famous symbol, was preserved at the behest of Zhou Enlai who recognized its significance.

The Dalai Lama has remained in exile since 1959 and has spearheaded a very public campaign for Tibetan autonomy, gaining much sympathy and support in Western countries and elsewhere, including in Japan. In 1989 another attempted uprising, marking the fortieth anniversary of Dalai’s flight from Tibet, was crushed on the orders of the then-Party Secretary of Tibet, Hu Jintao, who would later go on to become China’s president and supreme leader. During the incident around 400 Tibetans are believed to have been killed. This occurred just months before the Tiananmen Square incident but did not receive a similar level of coverage due to a lack of media presence on the plateau at the time. Later that year, the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his “consistent resistance to the use of violence in his people’s struggle to regain their liberty”. The award, and the celebrity endorsements that have continued to flow (the Hollywood actor Richard Gere is the most notable), have helped to keep the Dalai’s drive for “genuine autonomy” within the PRC in the headlines, at least in the West. He abandoned hopes of Tibetan statehood in 1979, though the PRC government continues to paint him as a “splittist” seeking to create a separate country, and maintains that Tibet can exist within the PRC to the chagrin of some of his followers who would prefer a cleaner separation.

The Panchen Lama, Tibet’s second most important spiritual leader who has the responsibility of identifying the reincarnated Dalai Lama after his death, was arrested shortly after being confirmed as the current Dalai’s accepted choice in 1995. Aged just six years old at the time, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima was considered to be the world’s youngest political prisoner by many in the Tibetan movement. Beijing subsequently appointed their own choice of Panchen Lama, Gyancain Norbu, a somewhat difficult position for the CCP to explain given its strictly atheist constitution. Beijing’s Panchen Lama has never been accepted by the Dalai Lama and the campaign for the release of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima continues. He is reported to still be alive and living in Beijing under virtual house arrest and with an assumed identity. This complicates any future succession the Dalai Lama. Under the system in place in Tibet for more than five centuries, the Panchen Lama has the responsibility to identify the reincarnated Dalai, something he clearly will not be able to do whilst under house arrest in Beijing. Any reincarnation identified by Beijing’s hand-picked Panchen is unlikely to garner support from grassroots Tibetans and will be probably be seen as simply a puppet of the Chinese. With this in mind, the current Dalai Lama – who, while in good health, is already in his late seventies – has suggested that his reincarnation might be found outside of Tibet.

In recent times, particularly since the death of Mao and the launch of the reform era in China, there has been a drive towards economic development in Tibet. This has included some of the aspects of Chinese rule that provoke controversy among Tibetans and pro-independence groups such as increased migration of Han Chinese. Most controversial has probably been the development of a railway line that now connects the Tibetan heartland to the rest of China, making it possible to take a train from Beijing all the way to Lhasa (an extension to Shigatse will open in 2014). While this railway represents a notable engineering feat – with passes as high as 5200 meters it is the highest railway in the world – concerns over damage to Tibet’s delicate ecosystem have not been allayed. Furthermore, the massive increase in internal tourism that has accompanied the launch of the train service threatens to erode Tibet’s unique culture even further, turning important historical and religious sites into Disneyland-esque tourist stops. While it is undeniable that this has brought economic benefits to the area, with an increase in GDP per capita of around 400% during the first decade of the 21st century, an astonishing growth rate even by China’s standards, accusations that this increase does not benefit the local population abound. The truth is difficult to ascertain as the Chinese government does not release relevant statistics and may not even keep them itself.

Over the last few years there has been an upsurge in political activity and protest in the TAR and the surrounding Tibetan areas. The most high profile of these was a series of protests in Lhasa in March 2008, marking the anniversary of the 1959 uprising but also timed to gain maximum international attention in the run up to the Beijing Olympics. Riots across Lhasa left hundreds wounded and a reported 18 dead, mostly Han Chinese. The response from the Chinese authorities was initially relatively low key, though Tibetan groups in exile later reported that upwards of 1500 people were arrested, with many allegations of torture being used to extract confessions. Since 2008 security in the TAR and surrounding areas has increased, making it substantially more difficult for foreigners to visit for tourism and almost impossible for journalists or academics to investigate some of the claims being made. In 2012, a series of self-immolations made the headlines both in China and abroad, leading to the Dalai Lama to appeal for Tibetans not to resort to such measures, though Beijing is resolute in its insistence that such acts are committed at his behest.

China’s Traditional and non-Traditional Strategic Considerations

Tibet provides a buffer region between the Chinese heartland and both India and Pakistan, two nuclear powers. While neither of these two countries poses an apparent and immediate threat to China (they are normally more focused on each other) this is a consideration that any strategist would make. In particular China’s relationship with India has been problematic and the two fought a border war in 1962, and have a continued dispute over territory. A sparsely populated region such as Tibet is an ideal way to keep tensions at a minimum between two such nations. Allowing any form of independence to Tibet risks creating a kind of power vacuum that might be filled with Indian influence. From the point of view of national self-defense, no government in the world would countenance this if it did not have to.

Access to water resources will be crucial to China in the coming decades as it seeks to continue its rapid economic growth and improvement in living standards. China has less than half the per capita average of available water resources and large areas of the country suffer from serious drought on an almost annual basis. For this reason, the large rivers that flow through China are essential to the survival and prosperity of its people. Several of China’s largest and most important rivers have their sources in Tibet, including both the Yangtse and the Yellow River which, combined, provide water supplies for more than 500 million people. The Tibetan Plateau is the greatest store of fresh water outside of the North and South Poles. Although not explicitly acknowledged by the Chinese government in any discussion of the question of sovereignty over Tibet, it is clear that this remains a significant consideration for policy-makers when addressing the issue. The control of these river sources is an important advantage that no country would give up willingly, particularly one that is in such a precarious position with regard to its water supplies.

The Psychological Importance of Tibet

Knowing China’s modern history is crucial for understanding its perspective on many contemporary issues. Moreover, comprehending the Chinese interpretation of that history is the key to unlocking much of the Chinese view of the so-called “Tibet issue”. China’s view of itself as a victim of various powerful nations that took advantage of it while it was fragile, and sought to keep it weak by breaking it up, is a powerful lesson both for those in government and for the citizens of modern China. This “century of humiliation” was (in the Chinese narrative) brought to an end by the Communist victory in the civil war in 1949 but the scars remained in the form of Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan. What is viewed in China as the rightful “return to the motherland” of the first two went some way towards redressing this and the continued desire to “reunify” with Taiwan demonstrates its continued role. Given that nearly all Chinese start from the view that Tibet is part of China, efforts to remove it from the unity of the PRC are viewed through this lens, and foreigners who involve themselves in the issue are ordinarily seen as trying, once more, to “split” China. This is a particularly potent storyline during a period of time in which China’s power is clearly rising and fears from outside are evident.

The View from the West

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Tibet is frequently presented as an almost-mythical “land of snows”, populated by peace-loving religious people who live a simple (indeed, backward) life. The mythical Shangri-La is widely believed to be in Tibet (it has officially been designated as Zhongdian in northwest Yunnan but this is purely for tourism purposes). Tibetan people are portrayed as being deeply religious and almost entirely homogenous in their devout commitment to their religion and its leading figure, the Dalai Lama, as well as to the path of peace that he passionately advocates. In many ways Western depictions of Tibet and its people are simplistic, romantic, and occasionally patronizing.

When Tibet comes into the consciousness of Westerners it is often through the activities of high profile groups such as the International Campaign for TibetTibet House and Free Tibet, all of which are based in major Western cities such as New York, Brussels and Berlin. Richard Gere’s role in several of these groups has raised the profile further and reached audiences that do not ordinarily pay a great deal of attention to international political issues. The involvement of celebrities has sometimes been frivolous; the British rock band, Oasis, was denied visas to play concerts in Beijing and Shanghai in 2009 because of the involvement of Noel Gallagher, the band’s guitarist and lyricist, in a ‘Free Tibet’ concert twelve years previously despite Gallagher’s own confession that he had no recollection of the event and no interest in the movement. Condemnation of human rights abuses in Tibet frequently comes from senior figures in the US political scene as well as from independent NGOs across the Western world, lending such reports an air of credibility despite the difficulty in corroborating many of the individual stories that constitute the reports. The explanations offered by these groups for China’s continued presence and interest in Tibet focus entirely on the economic benefit that China can gain from the region. Free Tibet, for example, cites only the vast reserves of minerals and the sources of much of China’s water supply as its motivation, making China’s motives appear entirely selfish and materially-based.

The most visible manifestation of this feeling in the West came in 2008 with the protests Sam DCruz / Shutterstock.com surrounding the Olympic torch relay, particularly in European cities such as Paris and London. Large crowds of people displayed banners and waved Tibetan flags while some attempted to extinguish the Olympic flame. This was in direct response to the reports of riots in and around the Tibetan Autonomous Region in March of that year. The riots were misreported by some parts of the media in the West (this was not helped by the Chinese authorities preventing many outlets from entering the territory) and so it is not fully understood that many of those that died were Han Chinese, killed or burned alive by Tibetan rioters. These acts, if carried out in a US domestic context, would have been labelled as terrorism. This reporting caused anger among many Chinese who cannot understand where the Western bias comes from and consider it to be simply “anti-Chinese”.

No country in the international system recognizes Tibet as an independent nation and all who have diplomatic relations with Beijing acknowledge Chinese sovereignty over the region (indeed, even those few countries that maintain diplomatic relations with Taipei instead consider it to be part of the Republic of China). The last country to fall into line and recognize Tibet formally as part of the PRC was the UK, which did so in 2008, blaming a bureaucratic oversight for not having done so previously. Even the Dalai Lama himself no longer calls for independence, but for “genuine autonomy” within the People’s Republic.

The Future of Tibet

The Tibet question is one that has shown no sign of simply going away. The Dalai Lama’s successful internationalization of the issue has made it infinitely more complex for the Chinese leadership to handle but their legitimate and rational security concerns, combined with the crucial issue of maintaining territorial integrity of the Chinese nation, mean that the Dalai’s wish for genuine autonomy is unlikely to be granted. The Chinese government, despite its intermittent negotiations with representatives of the Dalai (the last of which took place in 2008 prior to the riots), shows no intention of shifting position and appears to be playing a waiting game, apparently believing that Tibetan resistance will subside after the death of the fourteenth Dalai Lama. Having captured the Panchen Lama and appointed their own, they consider themselves to be in charge of the future of that particular institution. However, the Dalai himself has raised the possibility that a future reincarnation of himself may be born outside of Tibet (previously believed impossible) which might allow for a continuance of a government in exile that maintains some level of loyalty from the Tibetan people. Furthermore, he has already announced that he intends the position to be one only of religious leader and that the head of the Tibetan government should be democratically elected. Even without this, there is no guarantee that the Chinese waiting game will pay off in the long run; there is some evidence, particularly in the wake of the 2008 protests and the recent spate of self-immolations, that Tibetan youth is becoming radicalized in the face of an apparently immovable Chinese position, and without the calming influence of their spiritual leader it is possible that further violence might erupt.

China continues to focus on the economic development of Tibet, hoping that continued economic prosperity will help Tibetans feel more integrated into China. China has invested heavily in Tibetan roads, housing, schools and electrical grids so that it may feel the benefits of being part of China. Yet proposals that carry with them the prospect of greater prosperity, such as the proposal to extend the railway from Lhasa further into Tibet, are also viewed with suspicion by some Tibetans who fear that they are just another tool for the Chinese military to ensure control over the region is maintained. To assuage these fears, China needs to pay more attention to the legitimate complaints of Tibetans who feel that their culture and history is being destroyed. This loss cannot be compensated with the kind of economic progress that has, so far, satiated other parts of Chinese society.