South China Sea Disputes cont.

Chinese Coastguard vessels in the South China Sea

As discussed in an earlier post, the issue of territorial conflict in the South China Sea between China and its neighbors hasn’t solved itself; again animosity has been prompted by neighboring nations taking affront at Chinese fishing ships working and traveling through contested waters and the naturalized waters of various states. Most recently the Sino-Phillipines wrestling match over the Huangyan Islands/Panatag Shoal as they are known in China and the Philippines has witnessed angry and violent rhetoric and twin cases of dueling Chinese and Philippine public protests.

The issue, much like recent Chinese conflicts with Vietnam, Japan and South Korea arose when Chinese fishing boat captains  challenged coastguard vessels in non- Chinese or contested waters. In this situation a group of boats were seeking shelter from a storm (according the the CPC) when the Philippine coastguard found them and upon and inspection of their cargo attempted to arrest the fishermen on board for the taking of endangered species from the islands. The Chinese fishermen resisted and radioed for help, this then led to a stand off as more Chinese and Philippine coastguard and fishing ships arrived at the scene. Although the chance for further conflict has died down now, the CPC media is still responding strongly to the incident, but is mostly riled up about the Philippine’s territorial claim to the islands. In response to this issue the media has called for a permanent base on the island, has decried the US’s involvement and their enabling of the Philippines, threatened a military response to any Philippine escalation and has crowed over the how much damage China’s reaction has done to the Philippine economy. In spite of this, the CPC has also attempted to paint itself as the honest and good natured victim.

A short China Daily article written in May this year asked for the opinion of various Chinese policy wonks on the topic; their response was relatively uniform; Hong Guo Quan, a writer and director for the CCTV Military Channel said China should hoist “the national flag, establish… the monument of sovereignty, build… military bases, or… a fishery base on the island”. He went on to state that the Islands should pose as an example for “breaking the deadlock”, in all of the South China Sea disputes. Cao Xinglong a Chinese lawyer, stated that China must “win worldwide sympathy” via the use of diplomatic and economic ‘deterrents’ only, while Hu Xijin Editor-in-chief at Global Times very bluntly went a step further in stating “If the Philippines become too provocative and break(s) the peace, they can expect a punch in the face”. These views were not chosen for their differing in opinion; in effect they all make the same point; the CPC will not strike first, knows the Philippines cannot either, but it is willing to escalate the situation in other ways; namely by building a permanent testament to China’s claim on the island and through economic measures.

A China Daily article on the issue written on May 28th summarized the details of Beijing’s stance against the Philippines; stating that the issue is really about the Philippine president “trying to shift attention from his country’s domestic woes”. Further elaborating on this narrative of China’s position, the same article made the case for China’s claim to the islands. Noting that they had been “China’s undisputable territory for centuries”, they went on to argue that the Philippines “did not officially  lay rival claim over it until 1997”. However, in reality and outside of China, this claim is easily disputed; the Philippines placed a flag pole and lighthouse on the island in 1965, furthermore Spanish and American maritime maps from the 18th century back up the Philippine claim. Whereas the first concrete Chinese claim on the Islands was made back in 1935. In its defence of their claim on the islands, China seems aware of its position and the international skepticism towards it, and has rejected the Philippine’s repeated requests to take the dispute to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. Nonetheless it is very ready to back up its claims with belligerence, People’s Daily states that “China’s determination to defend its territorial  sovereignty will not be hindered by the “China threat theory”, and that “any country that carries out vexatious acts is doomed to be hit hard no matter if it is weak,  no matter how pitiful it pretends to be”.

The reason for this conflict surfacing now, rather than 70 years ago when the dispute began is that as far back as the 1930’s neither China nor the Philippines (which was not yet outside American, protectorate status) had the resources to secure the islands, neither did they have much reason to, the islands, and in-fact all of the contested waters in the South China Sea weren’t worth much.  China’s coastal fishery stocks are now almost depleted; directly leading to the increase in conflicts between Chinese fishermen and their neighbors. At the same time, huge oil finds are being speculated for in the region; the result is that now Chinese fishing boats and research ships from a plethora of nations are being seen in areas they haven’t before, leading to an increase in confrontations. Increases in mainland pollution and unsustainable fishing practices, as well as the high price of oil and increases in Asian demand for it implies that the issue is only set to get worse as an increasing affluent Asian population seeks out resources.

Considering this, the governments of South East Asia must feel great consternation and a very real sense of destabilization at the rise of China, despite its insistence towards a “peaceful rise”. Regardless of political alliances in the region, China sets its neighbors off balance and asks a lot of them regarding their foreign and domestic policies. Unfortunately the fact that China is willing to also be aggressive on issues like territorial disputes, human rights and diplomatic contact with the US only increases this dis-ease. In the South China Sea, Chinese coastguard vessels are still arresting Vietnamese fishermen for fishing in what they’ve known for generations as their maritime territory. In Korea, Taiwan and Japan, coastguard officers know that attempts to arrest illegal Chinese fishermen in their territories will result in vicious physical confrontations and indignant diplomatic confrontations with Beijing. For smaller nations like Brunei, the Philippines and Malaysia, they now know that holding on to the contested territories that China claims of them puts their economies at extreme risk.

China’s stance on the expanded issue of the South China Sea territorial disputes with Vietnam, Thailand, India, Taiwan, Korea and Japan, as well as the Philippines have been historically similar. The CPC has claimed that their neighbors were the aggressor and then has limited diplomatic relations or sought to punish them economically whilst maintaining a minimum credible force in the area to guard against further action. In the case of the Philippines there has been diplomatic intimidation, with the Philippines ambassador being summoned to explain himself, there is also a very real sense of disproportion in China’s response; the Philippine Navy’s only modern ships are Cold War-era US coastguard vessels. Economic sanctions took the guise of hidden trade restrictions, with the CPC citing “tightening quality controls” on Philippine fruit and purposefully slowing down inspection times, this action has ended up costing Philippine businesses $33.6 million dollars to date. At the same time the CPC has greatly discouraged Chinese tourism to the islands and has implied that Chinese nationals in the country could be attacked. Despite this the Chinese media has been wont to portray China as the one de-escalating the confrontation, Peoples Daily stated that China has adopted an attitude of restraint and has “created a peaceful atmosphere in the South China Sea”. The same article also claimed that China alone should “make rules for the development of the South China Sea area and even the whole Asia”.

The US Navy’s 7th, East Asian Fleet

There are no prizes for guessing who the CPC thinks the guilty party responsible for all of this trouble is; it is of course the United States who is claimed to be provoking their neighbors. A People’s Daily article, entitled “No storm can shake China’s composure”, stated grandly on the topic of the South China Sea that; “China has won the respect and understanding of most neighboring countries for its ability to control itself”. This statement is possibly meant to imply that China’s lack of military action against the Philippines, Vietnam, Korea, Taiwan and Japan is to be lauded as that of a very mature actor; it is a fallacy, China knows it cannot act for fear of US intervention. The article went on to state that the Chinese nation’s “restrained, calm and constructive attitude” has now been taken advantage of by actors encouraged by the US. The previously mentioned China Daily Article from May summarises Beijing’s sentiment perfectly; “with the United States as the puppeteer behind the scenes,Vietnam and the Philippines have chosen to rebuff China’s friendly intentions”. In this statement we see the real quarrel China has with the US, although they have stated they will not get involved, the US Navy doesn’t need to in order to stifle Chinese military activities. The US has forced China to take a more convoluted and less sure path to victory in the South China Sea. It has also allowed the Vietnamese, Taiwanese, Koreans and Philippines (and later if they choose to the Malays and Brunei’s as well) to contest China regarding their own territorial claims, and on a more equal playing field too. The same article states it bluntly; “the Philippines has been emboldened to run amuk… because it thinks it has the military might of the US behind it”. The fault is anyone’s but the US’s however, China’s behavior has obviously been anything but even-handed, and their flat-out refusal to seek mediation at the UN only discredits their “undisputable sovereignty” over the entire Sea further. The West is not trying to “create conflicts between China and its  neighboring countries”, as People’s daily bluntly states, the conflicts already existed and the West is trying to moderate them.

It is China’s behavior in South East Asia that has opened the door for the US’s warm re-entry into the region, despite its bullish behaviors in the past, the US can now play the ‘good guy’ and will win the battle for hearts and minds.

CPC alternatives to censorship

Overn the last decade internet use has spiked in China, from just over half a million users in the mid to late 90’s to over 500 million  now. This huge multitude of people online has no doubt caused Beijing a great deal of anxiety. As a source of public dissent and promulgation of unsanctioned ideas the internet is a real threat to their hegemony. Because of this China has seen a number of solutions to fix the problem of ‘internet freedom’ over the years; in 1997 the CPC first started to regulate the use of the internet, the next year the ‘Golden Shield’ (Great Firewall) project was conceived and completed in 2006/2008. While in 2009 the ‘Green Dam” programme, which called for the mandatory inclusion of surveillance microchips in all new computers almost passed into law.

These solutions all had their limitations; the 1997 regulations only gave China the framework of laws and their prosecution, not the methods for action, the Great Firewall can be circumvented by proxy servers, subverted ideologically through subtlety and sarcasm and served as a focus point for more criticism. Meanwhile, the Green Dam project was a disaster; it was unwieldy and ineffective in many of its parameters, obviously and poorly plagiarised, a potentially huge security risk and poorly disguised an ‘anti-pornography measure’, as such it was unpopular and was scrapped during the testing phase.

The subtleties of the internet seemed to stifle complete control, but at some point, shortly before Green Dam, Beijing stumbled upon the best answer so far and it had nothing to do with new coding or programmes. Beijing’s solution involved the adding of a social element to the equation. In 2004 the Publicity Department of Changsa city, seemingly of their own volition, hired China’s first ‘anonymous internet commentators’; a group whose job was to surreptitiously post positive comments and discredit complaints. Over the next three years this method proved so effective in stifling online dissent that it grew exponentially, organically spreading to different parts of the country and through the different channels of the CPC’s body politic. From every regional and city council to news sites, forums, chat rooms and social networking sites, CPC commentators are now commonly found on foreign news sites too.

An internet commentator conference broadcast on Chinese Television

Originally paid 0.50 Yuan a post, the writers are now popularly (and derisively) known as the “50 Cent Party”, and their goal, according to the head of Guangzhou’s City Inspectors Committee Li Yangui,  is to “track and analyze… public opinion, prevent the spread of undesirable information” and ultimately provide “positive guidance of public opinion”. Highlighting their importance to China’s internet policy, three years after the germination of the concept in 2007 Premier Hu Jintao called for the proliferation of this method at a major politburo conference. CPC support of this method undoubtedly lies in its ability to effectively direct online opinion towards any narrative end almost anonymously. This use of anonymity, rather than just deleting or blocking offensive material, serves to effectively remove the spectre of CPC heavy-handedness and tricks users into thinking the pro-party talking points they’re reading are the unbiased opinions of regular netizens. In a widely circulated, leaked communiqué that says much about the ‘scapegoating’ culture of the CPC, the stated true objective of the ‘50 Centers’ was revealed; to undermine the influence of “Taiwanese democracy”; as if China’s societal problems stemmed from anything Taiwan has done. Included in the supposed missive was also this incredible list of guidelines:

  1.   To the extent possible make America the target of criticism. Play down the existence of Taiwan.
  2. Do not directly confront [the idea of] democracy; rather, frame the argument in terms of “what kind of system can truly implement democracy.”
  3.  To the extent possible, choose various examples in Western countries of violence and unreasonable circumstances to explain how democracy is not well-suited to capitalism.
  4. Use America’s and other countries’ interference in international affairs to explain how Western democracy is actually an invasion of other countries and [how the West] is forcibly pushing [on other countries] Western values.
  5.  Use the bloody and tear-stained history of a [once] weak people [i.e., China] to stir up pro-Party and patriotic emotions.
  6. Increase the exposure that positive developments inside China receive; further accommodate the work of maintaining [social] stability.

Estimations by some experts range anywhere from tens to hundreds of thousands of full and part-time anonymous commentators working in China, according to local Chinese news media some large cities and regions openly employ hundreds of writers. On the other hand, some government and media sources deny the existence of paid commentators. In an interview with the Global Times, a former employee of the Public Security Bureau, Mrs Wang, implied that the 50 Cent Party was really an unorganised collection of pro-party citizens working outside of the state. Contradicting herself, Wang then went on to state that paid commentators are a real phenomenon; “It is necessary to have the commentators because sometimes truth may hurt social stability”.

Despite the occasional denials, the existence of the 50 Cent Party  is considered a well known fact, and the proliferation of the concept seems to imply that it is successful and here to stay. The concept does have its detractors and debateable weaknesses however; Hu Yong in an article by The Global Times argues that the commentators, because they are anonymous, dilute the veracity of their personas and that their very existence only makes “the public more aware of them”. On platforms like Twitter, he says, their anonymity means that “they can’t work if nobody follows them” and if they weren’t anonymous and people knew they are ‘50 Centers’ no one would. He concludes by saying that the ‘50 Cent Party’ has actually damaged the practice of ‘opinion guidance’ in China; it now “carries the stigma of immorality… commentators were only doing it for the money.” Furthermore, awareness of the ‘50 cent’ concept has damaged the reputation of China internationally, suspiciously pro-CPC comments by anonymous commentators are now often met with derision on Western news sites. As Zhang Shengjun, a politics professor complained in an article on the Global Times; the 50 Cent tag “has become a baton waved towards all Chinese patriots”. These are the eventual and obvious consequences of being duplicitous, no one will trust you.

Meanwhile the Chinese people have to live with the worry that their government are distorting and manipulating the news even in the commentary sections of their favourite websites.

Mercenary Espionage and Chinese Deniability.

US Chamber of Commerce

Despite it happening at the business end of 2011, the hacking of the US Chamber of Commerce ( seemingly  by Chinese agents), shocking as it wasn’t in this information age, seemed as nostalgic and interesting an example as any of the diplomatic intrigue and excitement of the Cold War. In 2012 this comparison hardly needs more encouragement, as online at least and in the world of espionage, a war has been running between the US and China since the war in Kosovo. The narrative of China enacting nefarious schemes against US interests has gained mainstream acceptance in the West and vice versa in China. But just how true are the now countless, recent reports of Chinese state culpability in hacking attacks against the West, and are they indicative of conflicts to come and the PRC’s future policies?

Certainly China has a huge footprint in terms of web users (300 million netizens and rising) and is known to account for a relatively proportionate percentage of the net’s hacking activity, though little of this can be attributed to hackers with State support, let alone to the State itself. China vigorously denies all allegations of hacking and is perhaps a bigger victim of Chinese hackers than the US, but there are many very clear, recent examples of attacks on foreign nations that demonstrably are connected to China.

Recent attacks on the Chamber of Commerce, Google, the website for the Nobel Foundation, the offices of the Dalai Lama, the US’s armed drone fleet, US Meteorological satellites and other examples all have an undeniable Sino tang to them. They were certainly perpetrated either by the PRC or by pro-PRC groups with State protection or support. The evidence regarding the attack on the Chamber of Commerce, for example, points to perpetrators with an interest in the CoC officers assigned to Asian affairs, was traced back to Chinese IP addresses and resulted in the CoC network printing out error messages in Mandarin for a week. Likewise these attacks were well organised and informed, pointing at the very least to PRC coaching if not direct involvement. Similar attacks on Google and the Nobel Prize Foundation’s site can only really link; motive-wise, to the PRC, whereas the recent hacking of US satellites and the US drone fleet via infected versions of Adobe Reader could have only been achieved by China or Russia.

 By now the Americans are used to what the rise of Chinese net power means for them, but they still have no real way of ensuring against it. As Mr Chavern; the CoC Chief Operating manager said to Wall Street Journal reporters; “It’s nearly impossible to keep people out. The best thing you can do is have something that tells you when they get in”. Though they have no real defence against it, or perhaps underlining that fact, America’s relative impotence in this area sees them threatening war over it. In May of 2011 the Pentagon released a report stating that computer sabotage by another country could, in the right circumstances, constitute an act of war. None of the Pentagon’s tough ‘Cold War talk’ seems to mean anything to China though, as when it comes to aggressive acts of computer espionage, they more often than not resort to outsourcing to keep their hands clean.

Publicly China’s go-to team for Cyber-espionage matters is the ‘Blue Army’ a recently publicised elite taskforce drawn from an ‘exceptionally deep’ talent pool of civilian and military personnel. The Blue Army could probably account for most of the hacking activity attributed to the CPC, if only they didn’t spend most of their time defending China. But the CPC doesn’t need a state run force when it can turn to civilian groups to get the job done. In an interview with a former PLA general who gives the game away with an admission of guilt, he states that China’s online strength lies in the nation’s hacking culture; “It’s just like Ping Pong. We have more people playing it, so we are good at it.” The Blue Army, are for the most part a wholly defensive force (according to the CPC), and there is little direct evidence to question this, notably because most of the high profile attacks from China can been attributed to three civilian hacking syndicates: the Honker Union, GhostNet and the Red hacker Alliance.

These civililian groups, with CPC guidance, are more than capable of taking down most targets, whether that means hacking the offices of the Dalai Lama, taking down Google Asia or stealing from the lightly defended Chamber of Commerce website. Mostly these groups are made up of self-sufficient cells of hundreds and thousands of hackers who just like any other group, go after foreign targets for money or fame. But whether these groups obtain PRC assistance, occasionally work for the PRC or are a front is irrelevant, they have tacit impunity in China. The best of the hacking community, like with what happens to some arrested hackers in the West, are co-opted and some are even idolised as national heroes. The difference is that the US certainly doesn’t allow their hackers a free pass for attacking foreign nations and they certainly wouldn’t hand them the reins. In China outsourcing net attacks to these groups, whether through direct channels or not, is beneficial as a case of deniability, whereas in the West the opposite is true; it would be considered a huge liability.

Liability or not, for the meantime it does seem like it will be Chinese policy to hide behind, enable and outsource to these domestic groups, who while off the leash will launch many more (albeit sometimes clumsy) attacks on anti-PRC targets. Deniability trumps tact, but how this strategy would play out in a worst case scenario; with one or more Chinese groups taking it upon themselves to do real damage to the US or its allies?  The possible consequences make this strategy, if that is what it is, look reckless. Though it may be technically true, foreign nations will not buy claims of Chinese innocence if domestic hacker groups hiding under the grey areas of Chinese policing take it upon themselves to do something big out of turn. IT experts and governments worldwide all know about the relative freedom that some hackers operate under in China and this effectively de-fangs their effectiveness as a scapegoat. Rather than a baseless threat, this may be the point of the Pentagon’s warning in 2011; reign in the hackers, we are prepared to punish you for their behaviour.

Considering China’s vast internet security system deniability is no defence.

Fishing disputes; a proxy for territorial conflict.

The South China Sea

Over-fished and under-policed by a corrupt, negligent bureaucracy, China’s territorial fish stocks, after sustaining the worlds most populous nation for thousands of years, are now collapsed. Conversely the consequences of this development seem to be being felt by China’s coastal neighbours the strongest, as China’s 300,000 boat fishing fleet looks elsewhere for their catch. As China’s local waters yield less and less fish, Chinese fishing boats can now be seen trawling (sometimes illegally) across the oceans of the world; in the Mid to South Pacific in the East and around the coasts of Africa in West. Because of this and the large distances to new open fishing grounds, China’s huge fleet has also continuosly been caught illegally operating in the national and contested waters of its neighbours.

Though the CCP has admitted in some news releases to the development of legislation to solve the problem by reducing the national fishing fleet by a third, the reality of the situation is that China’s food demands are growing faster than they can be satiated. The CCP (like with its other industries) is unlikely to endanger its maritime food industry for the sake of conservation or East Asian diplomacy. Likewise on issues of upholding the sanctity of its neighbour’s territorial China has a long standing belligerent stance that is unlikely to change. However when its fleet provokes international headlines like in the recent stabbing of two Korean Coastguard members by a Chinese fishing captain, has China attempted to tone down the overly nationalistic responses of the past. Chinese worries about balancing its ambition against alienating its neighbours into greater collusion with a more engaged US are more meaningful as Beijing sees its superpower ambitions hemmed in by its wary ASEAN and North Eastern neighbours. Recent anti Chinese protests in friendly Vietnam, along with anger in the less diplomatically friendly nations of Korea, Japan and Taiwan are the results of China overextending itself, and considering America’s new interest in the region, it now seems that China is in desperate need of a new strategy.

Chinese fishermen resisting the Korean Coastguard

Unfortunately for the region as a whole, China is in a bind; it cannot easily climb down from previous nationalistic assertions over contested waters, nor can it easily reign in its fishing fleet, the members of which seem determined to act forcefully, even when they are caught illegally fishing in foreign waters. The result seems to be that Beijing, through its media, wants to straddle both a nationalistic stance and that of an innocent and rational actor until the issue dies down; so far it has been unconvincing.

On the issue of the conflict between the South Korean coastguard and illegal Chinese fishermen, especially regarding the recent murder of a member of that Coastguard service, China has only clumsily played the part of the good neighbour. Articles by the Global Times and Xinhua news began their PR responses poorly by challenging the truth of South Korean allegations, downplaying the murder as an “alleged stabbing” and then condemning the response of the angry Korean press and people as “overheated”, “out of control” and “irrational”.

Still having not offered any more condolence than “If the… coast guard was truly stabbed… Chinese public opinion will not take the fisherman’s side”, an editorial from the Global Times then went on to belligerently attack the Korean response to the event. It began by challenging Korea’s jurisdictional right to arrest Chinese fishermen caught in their waters, offers excuses for an “unjustifiable defence” against the murder; ‘that perhaps the Coastguard provoked the attack’ and then called into question the fairness of Korea’s judiciary in bluntly implying that the fisherman could be treated poorly and may not be given a fair trial. Unbelievably the article then went on to sincerely state its disbelief at the Korean media’s continual attacks on China and warned against further Korean provocation. This despite the fact that this is not the first time a South Korean Coastguard member has been killed by Chinese fishermen (one was killed and six were injured in 2008) as the rate of apprehensions for illegal Chinese fishing boats increases (20% this year alone to 470!).

This clumsy churlishness from Beijing beggars belief and makes one think that either it’s a deliberate provocation or proof that China really has no clue how to constructively and sincerely solve disputes with foreign states. Now, more than two weeks after the incident, China has yet to apologise or offer any kind of condolence more than noting the “unfortunate” nature of the death and paying lip service to its obligation towards respecting the territorial integrity of its neighbours. For their part the Korean side is still demanding an apology, is considering arming their Coastguard and is increasing the fines for illegal fishermen.

Unsurprisingly Taiwan, Vietnam, Japan and the Philippines; all close Chinese maritime neighbours have experienced similar issues with bolshie Chinese fishermen recently and all have condemned, to varying degrees of boisterousness (none have had success) the CPC’s indifference. Taiwan, a nation with complicated ties to the mainland has not been engaged in violent conflict with fishermen or the Chinese Coastguard, but the large numbers of Illegal Chinese boats in Taiwanese waters have also resulted in a large increase in fines and promises to step up its policing measures. Likewise have Vietnam and the Philippines have had trouble with ever increasing numbers of Chinese fishermen in their territorial waters. On the flip side, Vietnam especially has had its own fishermen blatantly intimidated and harassed by patrolling Chinese Coastguard boats in contested (and sometimes their own) waters on the orders of the Chinese government in Hainan.

Issues with Chinese fishing boats and the Japanese however, perhaps in equal parts due to historic tensions and Japan’s significantly larger and more powerful Coastguard, have been much more incendiary than run ins between the Chinese fishing industry and other nations. Notably the Japanese have resolutely patrolled the oceans around their nation, including areas that China claims as its own, and has made prosecuting illegal fishermen a priority. With both the fishermen and Japanese Coastguard being as equally determined it is obviously no surprise that the increasing conflict generated by more boats and belligerent crewmen could lead to a serious incident. That incident came in 2010 when a Chinese fishing boat rammed a Japanese Coastguard vessel near the contested Diayou/Senkaku Islands, resulting in the arrest of the captain and a diplomatic fight which led to anti Japanese protests across China, trade sanctions, the downgrading of relations and eventually a Japanese back-down. What was originally a stubborn battle concerning differing versions of the conflict was eventually put to bed when a Japanese Coastguard member  released a video of the incident confirming the Japanese version of the story, but by then Japan had already backed down and the issue had ran its course. In Japanese waters however the war against illegal fishing is ongoing, the Japanese feel bullied by the Chinese who certainly manufactured the conflict and let down by their government; the issue could very easily relapse should either side wish it.

It seems regardless of whether a fight breaks out in contested waters, Chinese citizens are arrested or if foreign nationals are killed or injured that the impetus for conflict has been the attitude of Chinese fishing crews, encouraged by the CCP’s nationalistic responses. As such the two fundamental factors of the issue are China’s refusal to reign in its fleet and its wishy-washy responses to the confrontations that result; whereby incidents will be played down as “a normal fishery case” or inflated to impassioned diplomatic shut-downs seemingly at random.  China seems willing to play the conflict game to their benefit as situations warrant.  Chinese culpability is compounded in this case by its refusal to do anything about it, and means that the theory that this could be a strategy of Chinese escalation through ‘soft power’ cannot be ruled out. These disputes may be useful in compelling some neighbours to come to the negotiating table in a more compliant manner than would otherwise be the case, at the same time it allows China to size up the fighting spirit of its neighbours. Though China has in some cases tried to be diplomatic, the overwhelming amount of noise coming from Beijing on fisheries cases will not have been welcoming news to its neighbours, this could badly backfire. If China cannot find a more sincere and respectful way to address this issue in public then it is likely that the US will be able to increase the resolve of ASEAN nations in conjunction with its Korean and Japanese allies; tightening the noose around China even further.

China’s Petulance Makes for Unhealthy Relationships

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gilllard in China

On overseas trade and diplomatic trips Chinese leaders will always make a point of publicly citing the strengths and benefits of the trade relations between itself and the host country. This relationship is often framed by talk of mutual respect and friendship from both sides, as well as the characterising of the relationship as one of fairness and balance. In these cases China is cast as being prepared to “assist in the development” of the host nation as a “partner” rather than merely an investor.

This talk of “economic friendship”, specifically regarding the West, has recently looked tenuous and has in fact come to a head, mainly regarding developments on Chinese undervaluation of the Yuan against the US dollar. Regardless of the strength of trade relationships however, overtures of sincere Chinese friendship has been shown to come with demanding preconditions, sometimes involving the internal policy decisions of ‘friendly’ nations. In the way that China commits political overreach like this, it damages its reputation as a rational state and also risks alienating moderate actors in the West; it also belittles the concept of “Chinese friendship”, consigning it to nonsense.

Kadeer and the Dalai Lama

Specifically on issues of human rights has China recently made the loudest demands of its ‘friends’. In 2009 for example, the visit of a Ms. Rebiya Kadeer, a Chinese minority rights advocate to Australia was met with condemnation and the cancellation of a high level diplomatic exchange between the two nations. The conflict intensified when Beijing tried to stop the woman from speaking at the National Press Club in Canberra at the same time as it attempted to halt the screening of a film of the Muslim woman’s life at the Melbourne film festival (whose website was later the victim of a Chinese hacking).

Similarly, Norway’s people and internal affairs have also been harangued after the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Liu Xiaobo; a pro democracy campaigner in 2010. Furious with the incident, Beijing demanded an apology and through their ambassador, threatened damage to trade deals and relations with the small nation. To add to the vitriol, three weeks after the awards, the Nobel Prize website was also hacked. These Chinese threats and condemnations (like those to Australia), came regardless of the fact that the government had little to do with the events as they transpired. In both of these cases China’s behaviour was condemned by many Western commentators as bullying and a blatant attempt at interference in the domestic affairs of sovereign nations.

On the issue of international visits by the Dalai Lama, China also has a long record of voicing loud indignation, interfering in the internal affairs of sovereign nations and engaging in threatening behaviour. Recently, the Archbishop of South Africa angrily attacked the ANC government for what he argued was the ceding to Chinese demands to greatly delay the visitor Visa of the Dalai Lama. In the past, China has also attempted to interfere in Australian, French and American government meetings with the Tibetan political leader and it has threatened both the US and Australia with a worsening in relations and Nicholas Sarkozy personally, with trade sanctions against his country if he met with him.

Chinese consumers protests French businesses

More subtly, China has also used its monopoly over the media to mobilise consumer sentiment against the economic interests of foreign nations who it disagrees with. Notably during the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics, the state media ran angry stories on what it saw as French complicity in pro Tibetan rallies. The resulting public outcry led to angry rallies and a damaging consumer boycott of French goods, all of which were later publicly supported by the Chinese Foreign Minister and republished for effect in the Chinese news sphere.

In 2011 this behaviour reached, what is hopefully a watershed moment in Sino-Western relations, regarding Western legislation aimed at punishing lower Chinese industry standards and Yuan currency manipulation. On these issues China hit back by blatantly threatening both the US and EU with damaging trade wars both in its press and through diplomatic channels. Specifically regarding recent legislation to combat Chinese currency undervaluation in the US and an emissions trading scheme that would tax Chinese air carriers in Europe, China has made the ultimate faux pas of friendship; openly threatening to harm ones friends.

The aggression and indignation that China deals with its ‘trade friends’ when they exercise their right to self determination or defend their citizens right’s toward freedom of speech and expression is bad PR for a nation that is already mistrusted in the West. It implies a lack of respect for important Western moral institutions and in effect asks them to take up Chinese domestic policy as their foreign policy; namely that human rights come second to state power, all Chinese dissidents are terrorists and that China’s monetary controls are fair. The Chinese media is wont to complain week in and week out about Western distrust and disrespect of China, but their behaviour belies an inability or refusal toward tactful diplomacy in their dealings with the West. This stance, which is commonly interpreted as being disrespectful, runs the risk of reinforcing hard-line political sentiment in the West to mirror China’s own; potentially resulting in more brinksmanship and conflict.