17 June 2017

** China Expanding on All Fronts

China has a grand strategic plan and it’s no secret. For the last few years Chinese officials have been describing their economic and military expansion plan as Obor (One Belt, One Road). A new PR campaign for Obor describes it as a revival of the ancient “Silk Road” but that’s not accurate as the ancient Silk Road was only partially run by the Chinese. Most of it was operated by other major powers (Iranian, Indian and Arabs) and was largely put out of business after the 16 th century by European innovations in ship building and management of sea routes that presented a safer and cheaper way to move goods worldwide. Moreover, until the late 20 th century Chinese leaders never encouraged (and often banned) foreign trade. For most of Chinese history the leaders believed China had all it needed (largely true) and considered all non-Chinese and their products as inferior. The big change now is that China needs international trade and Obor is the Chinese plan to control as much of it as possible. This is essential for a prosperous economy because without that the communists are in big trouble. Obor means China owning or otherwise controlling as many of the new roads, railways, ports, pipelines and sea routes as possible. China is investing nearly $200 billion in Obor construction. This includes land routes through Central Asia to Europe and the Middle East, another through the Himalaya Mountains to the Indian Ocean (soon to be under new management if China has its way) and new land connections into Southeast Asia. The key to China’s new sea routes is asserting ownership of the South China Sea.

Another feature of Obor is that it offers business relationships that are more acceptable (than Western ones) to most of the nations Obor is investing in. The Chinese can, as they like to put it, be more flexible and respectful of local customs. In other words the Chinese don’t see bribes and corruption as a defect but an opportunity. This is great for the foreign political and business leaders but less so with most of the others and this is causing problems. Africans and Asians living near many Chinese foreign operations complain that China is the major investor in illegal extraction of raw materials and keeping local gangsters and corrupt politicians in business. The Chinese also violate local labor laws with impunity and often hire their own armed security personnel who will shoot to kill if threatened by angry workers or local residents. Keeping local tyrants in power serves Chinese interests when it comes to things like establishing new military bases or preventing other nations from doing so. Corrupt locals also make it easier to carry out espionage operations (locally or in nearby areas). Helping to keep unelected leaders in power also serves to maintain the legitimacy of the current Chinese government which is basically a communist police state and the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) wants to keep it that way. All this is nothing new. For example once China got its seat in the UN back (from Taiwan) in 1971 it has been notorious for encouraging and using corrupt practices in the UN. Many nations play along and as China became wealthier they were willing and able to buy whatever they needed inside the UN. The latest example of this is how Chinese pressure has caused the UN to withdraw investigators (responding to local complaints of serious crimes) looking too closely at Chinese owned operations in Africa.

China and Pakistan are heavily publicizing the revival of the Silk Road. In Pakistan the city of Peshawar, on the eastern end of the Khyber Pass, was a major gateway of the ancient Silk Road between China and the Middle East. But that version of the road went through the pass and into Afghanistan. The new Silk Road is not just Obor, in Pakistan it is officially called the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and is a complex piece of work. In 2013 China agreed to spend $18 billion to build a road from Gwadar and into northwest China. This will require drilling long tunnels through the Himalayan Mountains on the border (in Pakistani controlled Kashmir.) The road and a natural gas pipeline are part of the $46 billion CPEC project. This will make it much easier and cheaper to move people, data (via fiber optic cables) and goods between China and Pakistan. China also gets a 40 year lease on much of the port facilities at Gwadar, which India fears will serve as a base for Chinese warships. This is how China would like all of Obor to be but the rest of the world does not always cooperate.


Ever since the North Korean economic collapse in the 1990s (and a famine that killed over five percent of the population) China has been trying to avoid a collapse of the North Korean government, something that suddenly became a possibility in the 1990s. It was between 1989 and 1991 that all the communist governments of East Europe suddenly (at least to believers in communism) collapsed, including the Soviet Union in 1991. That led to the disintegration of the Russian empire and an end to four decades of generous economic aid to North Korea (and Cuba). Both these long-time Soviet clients were never the same after 1991 but North Korea is a major concern for China.

For over 500 years Koreans have tried to establish and sustain a “united Korea.” But with aggressive and powerful neighbors like China, Japan and, for the last few centuries Russia, it has been a struggle. There have been a few periods when all of modern Korea, and sometimes a bit more, were ruled by Korean aristocrats. The Koreans have proved to be tough and persistent despite their stronger and sort tempered neighbors constantly coming in and destroying Korean unity. The last unified Korea state lasted 13 years and disappeared in 1910 in the aftermath of a war between Japan and Russia which Japan won. Japanese rule was harsh and lasted until 1945 when Korea was again divided because Russia would not comply with a post-World War II agreement to remove the Japanese occupation forces and then leave. The United States did so but the Russians refused and created the current North Korean police state and equipped it lavishly with modern weapons with orders to invade and take over South Korea in 1950. The UN responded with uncharacteristic unity and resolve and authorized an international force to deal with the situation. Russia then persuaded the newly established communist government of China to invade and rescue the North Koreans from certain defeat three months after the initial invasion. Russia was technically not involved because Russia and the U.S. were the only ones with nuclear weapons and Russia knew it would come out second best in any nuclear war with the Americans because the Russian nuclear arsenal was more propaganda than reality. The secret deal Russia used to end the fighting involved assurances that they would continue financing a North Korean communist government and compensate communist China for its sacrifices in North Korea (where over half a million Chinese died). The Russian assurances ended with the Soviet Union dissolving in 1991.

Russia (as the Soviet Union) faithfully kept promises to North Korea but China felt it had been played by Russia and the two countries almost went to war with each other in the 1970s. China still considers Russia a longer-term problem (China has ancient claims on most of what is now the Russian Far East) but sees another mess in Korea as a more immediate problem. If the North Korean government collapses China takes it as a given that they will have to go in and maintain North Korea in order to avoid another united Korea with democracy and powerful allies in the West. While this is something most Koreans would prefer it is something China is willing to go to war over to prevent, or at least make some serious moves in that direction.

The new Korean threat to China goes beyond a united Korea. Even divided Korea has become a threat. The aggressive and heavily armed North Korea now openly threatens China. This is especially real if North Korea has nukes and ballistic missiles to deliver them. North Korea shows no signs of halting its efforts to develop a reliable nuclear weapon and a reliable ballistic missile to carry it. This, North Korea leaders believe, will solve their economic and political problems. So far in 2017 there have been eight ballistic missiles tests and preparations for another underground nuclear test. In 2016 there were 24 ballistic missiles tests and two nuclear tests. The first nuclear test occurred in 2013 and despite the fact that the test was not a complete success, the nuclear bomb program continued and the sixth nuclear test up there seems imminent.

For China South Korea is also a military threat, given it has more modern armed forces and defense industries that are even more advanced than anything China has. South Korea also has Western allies and recently installed an American THAAD anti-missile system that is there to protect South Korea from North Korean attack but has also proven to be a threat to China because THAAD can diminish Chinese missile effectiveness as well and gives South Korea a powerful radar system that enables the South Koreans to more carefully monitor aerial activity in North Korea and adjacent areas. Chinese public opinion generally supports the government, especially when it comes to North Korea, which is seen as ungrateful for the Chinese sacrifices to keep it going.

The Religious Threat

In the northwest Xinjiang province the government announced more new laws intended to curb separatist attitudes among the Moslems who dominate this region. The new rules mandate that all Moslem children (those under age 16) have their names changed if local government officials determine that the name is “too Moslem.” That would include names like Islam, Quran, Mecca, Jihad, Imam, Saddam, Hajj, Medina or Arafat. Children receive their national ID cards at age 16 and must now have “non-threatening” name. The government is also collecting DNA samples from all non-Han residents of Xinjiang.

The government has also been watching local (non-Han) members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and expelling those found to be Moslems. Technically, CCP members are not allowed to belong to any traditional religion (communism is not considered one despite the similarities) but enforcement is generally lax unless you belong to a group that is considered anti-Chinese. Islam qualifies although Christians are increasingly considered guilty of dangerous (to CCP rule) thoughts.

There is a growing list of things (like Islam and the Internet) that disturbs the communist government in China. The scariest trend is the increasing number of Communist Party members who are secretly (or openly) becoming religious and believers in capitalism. That is a trend among Chinese in general. Even religions (like Islam, Christianity and Falun Gong) that are increasingly persecuted, continue to grow. Communist true believers are still recovering from the 2001 decision to allow businessmen to become Communist Party members. Now, to see party members attending religious services and celebrating alternatives to socialism is, if nothing else, bad for morale at the highest levels of the party. But the CCP adapts to survive and earlier in 2017 that meant prohibiting the use of Islamic veils (that conceal the face) in public as well as “excessive” beards and other items worn or carried by conservative Moslems. There was no definition of what excessive was. It was also illegal to refuse to watch state run TV or listen to radio. Many conservative Moslems have TVs and radios but only use them for religious material. Individual towns and cities in Xinjiang have already enacted bans like this but now it is province-wide. This new Xinjiang provincial law basically bans practices seen as purely Islamic. In early April police began searching the homes of some Moslems, looking for the now forbidden items. That now includes anything that points to a CCP member being a Moslem.

The Taiwan Threat

Despite the obvious improvement in Chinese military capabilities compared to Taiwan, the Taiwanese have become more determined to maintain their independence. Taiwanese understand what the Chinese are doing now because it is considered an ancient and proven Chinese strategy of wearing down a weaker opponent and avoiding a risky battle or war while still getting your way. Until about a decade ago many Taiwanese were willing to consider union with China but the more Taiwanese became familiar with what is really going on in China, and especially Hong Kong, the more Taiwanese backed away from union with China. Hong Kong rejoined China in 1999 and after a few good years it has been downhill ever since. As Taiwan became less receptive to reunification China made threats and showed its displeasure in other ways, like discouraging Chinese tourists from visiting Taiwan. So far in 2017 year Chinese tourism has been down 50 percent (to about 150,000 a month). Many Taiwanese are fine with this because lots of Chinese tourists meant a lot of ill-mannered Chinese treating Taiwanese like inferiors. Compared to other tourists from Asia the Chinese were cheap and hard to deal with.

It was not supposed to work out like that. After 2008 China began making it easier for Chinese tourists to visit Taiwan and soon millions were doing so each year. Many Taiwanese saw this as another ploy to take over their island nation one way (economically) or another (militarily). In response to that Taiwan has been expanding and upgrading its armed forces. This annoys the Chinese leaders who are seen (by Chinese able to get around the Internet censors) as all talk and little more. To make matters worse Taiwan has publicly offered to assist China is moving to democracy. That is a popular idea with many Chinese, but the CCP leadership of China was not amused.

The Philippines Reconsiders

Chinese efforts to buy the cooperation of the Philippines in the South China Sea dispute have failed as Filipinos realized that there was little gain in the long run by giving in to Chinese demands. Although China became the largest trading partner with the Philippines this year most Filipinos did the math and realized the Chinese dictatorship could turn that around without warning. It now seemed that the Americans were a better long-term ally because the Americans have no old territorial claims in the neighborhood, are a democracy and have a long history of good behavior. All the other major Filipino trading partners (Singapore and South Korea) are also democracies. Moreover the Americans are the only Filipino “treaty ally” that is obliged to aid the Philippines if the islands are again attacked (as they were by the Japanese in 1941.) Meanwhile China is displeased with the increasingly frequent visits of American warships to the Philippines (for leave and maintenance) and the South China Seas (to challenge Chinese claims.) So far China has not been violent but with more and more Chinese warships, warplanes and troops showing up in the South China Sea there appears to be increased risk of someone opening fire. There are a growing number of “offenders” for the Chinese to shoot at. In addition to ships from the nearest countries (mainly Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan) there are the more powerful allies of these countries (mainly Japan and the United States). Now the Philippines is daring China to make an aggressive move at a time when China is busy with several similar situations from Africa to Korea and the Japanese islands.

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