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China – PLA’s Ascendancy in Propaganda Warfare

In an article titled “Military diplomacy deserves the nation’s peaceful development” (CCP Central Committee mouthpiece, Qiu Shi, Feb. 06, 2011), Maj. Gen. Zhu Chenghu, Dean of the Defence Affairs Institute of China’s National Defence University (NDU), officially unveiled the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) new role in the forefront of the country’s propaganda machinery.

China’s propaganda machinery is huge, spread across party and government departments. Propaganda is the life blood for the party’s ability to stay in power. Historically, the PLA was not involved deeply in propaganda except for the Political Commissars using it to keep the Party’s control over the armed forces firmly, and indoctrinate their minds on the Party’s dictates and nationalism on the battle field.

In 2008, President and Party General Secretary Hu Jintao, who is also the Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), began shifting the responsibility of strategic propaganda to the PLA. In 2010, the Party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, began reaffirming this shift even more publicly. This was in terms of revised regulations for political reform of the PLA. In September 2010, the People’s Daily reiterated Hu’s policy, stressing that the PLA should train its abilities to win “media warfare, psychological warfare and legal warfare”.

This did not mean Hu Jintao was downgrading the Party and government propaganda departments and their service. Far from it. In the foreign policy front they are reinventing and rejuvenating, and beginning to synergize with the PLA machinery.

It is well known that during Hu Jintao’s period of leadership the PLA became more empowered than even his predecessor Jiang Zemin’s time, though both espoused the PLA to bolster their respective positions. Both were Deng Xiaoping’s chosen successive leaders for China.

While Jiang Zemin tried to execute Deng’s policy of “hide your strength and bide your time”, Hu and his close advisors felt that with the growing economic and military power China was on the world stage to aggressively assert its position including with the US. Therefore, 2010 stands out as a post-Mao Zedong year when China stood up to challenge its neighbours and great powers and impose its face on the near abroad. Elements of this syndrome became visible from 2008, and India was a particular target. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was officially berated for visiting Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, an Indian sovereign territory run and administered by India, which China claims for strategic reasons.

Especially in 2010, the PLA propaganda went on an overdrive, countering neutral neighbours into weak enemies which had to look to the US for support. China’s arrogance and intemperate military postures in the South China Sea over the disputed Spratly Islands, provoking Japan over the Diayou (Senkaku in Japan) Islands, and pro-North Korean position when Pyongyang used military action against South Korea, could not help China’s image projection of peace, co-operation and stability. Analysing the fall outs, the PLA is apparently reworking its propaganda strategy. The central point of this recast strategy appears to be aimed at assuaging the US and Western Europe, but the basic platform remains firm and new areas are being added.

Primarily, Maj.Gen. Zhu Chenghu tried to weave a pattern of using military diplomacy, that is, expansion of military exchanges to eliminate “contradictions and conflicts between countries, nationalities and cultures to bring about an anti-war, anti-splittist and pro-unity military concept that opposes using of force or threat of using force, gunboat diplomacy and law of the jungles and promote open, just and peaceful military exchanges”.

This observation says a lot but obfuscates as much. It was the PLA which suspended exchanges/contacts with the US military after Washington cleared $5.4 billion military assistance in November 2009 to Taiwan. Having done that, it lost any leverage with the Pentagon to prevent and stall more such assistance to Taipei to arm itself against growing Chinese military threat. The US Defence Review of February this year also clearly spells out that the US will make greater efforts to shift its focus to the Asia Pacific Region (APR) and address the military rise of China in the region. The Japanese White Paper on Defence focuses on China’s military threat and the opaqueness of China’s military doctrine, and the Australian defence review late last year (2010) spoke on similar lines. Both countries basically concentrated on China’s threat to the APR which includes South East Asia (SEA) in the context of Chinese statements and actions over the last two years. But China is following the old Maoist strategy of “two steps forward, one step backward”, which countries in the region are no longer willing to buy. China perceived andamalgamation of powerful forces in the region to counter its domination and exploitation strategy in the region and wants to diffuse this situation.

Maj. Gen. Zhu hints at the west to refrain from supporting the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan movement, Xinjiang’s Uighur separatists as well as desist from supplying new weapons and systems to Taiwan.

In fact, some Chinese think tank experts have recently faulted the anti-China South East Asian developments on China’s aggressive behavior in 2010. Some others also questioned Beijing’s support to the North Korean regime which was doing more harm than good to China’s international profile.

At the same time, Zhu admitted that while all nations in the world were engaged in military modernization it was only China that was facing criticism. He described it as lack of trust of China and prescribes efforts to bring the nation out of the “China threat” phenomenon.

Zhu repeated in different ways that China’s military diplomacy continued as ever to prevent war and act against acts of undermining regional and world peace, and argued China needed military power to achieve all these. At the same time he made the case that unequal military power led to frictions, while balance of power ensured peace and stability. In this context it was pleaded but not mentioned specifically that the US and EU military sanctions imposed on China after the 1989 Tienanmen square massacre of student protesters, be lifted.

China’s military power initially grew when Chinese scientists and engineers working in some of the top facilities in the West responded to Mao’s call and returned home to serve the motherland. Since then, it has been a long road of acquisition of high technology from abroad, mostly through espionage and reverse engineering of purchased or differently acquired equipment. In recent years both the West and Russia have become sensitive, and such options may be narrowing for China. Hence, the imperative need for overt co-operation, the quest is put in a typical Chinese way – if you do not give us we may create trouble.

At the same time, Military Operations Other Than War (MOOTW) is not lost sight of. Sources of China’s energy needs are spread in some rather unstable parts of the world – Iran, Middle East and West Asia, and African countries. Sea routes are also threatened by non-traditional sources little piracy. Apart from security of energy and raw materials, there is also the question of security of assets and personnel overseas. These cannot be protected through sheer military power projection and, hence, co-operation is necessary.

China’s military diplomacy functions basically at three broad levels. Zhu stressed on co-operation for security of assets and personnel, and joint exercises to learn from other countries especially the US to gain superior knowledge over a wide spectrum from honing battle field strategic skills to testing their weapons. A third aspect of military diplomacy not widely discussed by Chinese officials that of creating unofficial allies among small countries through arms sales at friendship prices. Many of the small countries especially in Africa are dictatorial regimes. They do not require sophisticated modern arms. They are satisfied with arms with which they can suppress their people. Such military diplomacy has helped China garner support in the United Nations, especially at the UN Human Rights Commission.

An equally important aspect of arms sales at favourable prices supported by economic diplomacy and political support helped China in the past is to create an anti-India environment in South Asia with Pakistan as the pivot. Although currently the Chinese encirclement and containment of India is not that strong, Beijing’s efforts, however, continue.

For the first time, the PLA indicated it was prepared to execute legal warfare described as “combat capability” of military diplomacy in “resolving conflict of interest in territorial, maritime, deep seas, airspace and space matters by closely integrating strategies with legal battles”. Thus armed, it hopes to try and turn international opinion in China’s favour.

This message covers a wide range of issues. First, all countries with which China has territorial disputes whether land, maritime, undersea resources – should be prepared for a new Chinese strategy. This would include countries like India, Bhutan, claimants to the Spratly group of islands in the South China Sea, the territory of South China Sea itself as free international waters, Japan and South Korea.

It is evident China is going to enact domestic laws in due course which would be applied to its territorial claims. More so-called historical evidence would be created for the laws to work on. But there is absolutely no evidence to suggest China will not use military option. If fact, its quest for strong military power to maintain regional peace and stability translates into a power that none would dare challenge.

There is a conflict between the China and the US on what exactly is China’s territorial Sea. The US does not accept 200 miles from the coast argument as China’s exclusive territorial waters into which foreign vessels cannot enter without Beijing’s permission. This has led to confrontation between US and Chinese Navy ships in the past. Similarly, China is seeking to extend airspace as sovereign airspace, details of which is expected to come out soon.

Of concern is Maj. Gen. Zhu’s mention of securing space. In the late 1990s there was one brief mention of securing space over China (which includes over territorial waters as well) that this writer had noticed. That was all. Indications are that the concept is beginning to be examined seriously.

Maj. Gen. Zhu Chenghu’s policy article was followed up with a well considered article (China Daily, Feb. 16) by Rear Admiral Yang Yi, a former Director of the Institute of Strategic Studies of the PLA. Yang Yi was a major US baiter throughout 2010, and he even threatened the US with a retaliatory strike over the Taiwan issue. He was the leader of China military’s aggressive propaganda brigade. In this article, however, he appears to have made a U-turn dictated by the top policy mandarins to emphasise China will “never pose a threat to the US” and China will “never use military force to bully others”. Yang also said that the Asia Pacific Region “was large enough for both Chinese and US forces”. He lamented that US was targeting China and proposed building mutual trust through military diplomacy. This line started evolving from late 2010, and especially following President Hu’s US visit this year.

It appears that the Chinese, especially President Hu Jintao who heads the party and the PLA, has realized that they took on the US prematurely. Neither its economic power nor its military strength matches that of the US. Having come out of Iraq and preparing to exit Afghanistan, Washington was more free to pay attention to the Asia Pacific Region. Beijing and its CMC headed by Hu have studied that the defence policies of Japan and Australia exposed in the last few months are concentrated on the China threat. And such threat is not only military but spread over other areas. Australia’s Rio Tinto mining officials were jailed in China, and the root cause was Rio Tinto preventing a Chinese takeover bid. Then, in the midst of China-Japan confrontation over an accident in the seas near the disputed Diaoyou/Senkaku islands, China blocked rare earth mineral export to Japan. This landed China, and rightly so, in the ball park of a powerful nation that is willing to use underhand methods to secure its own advantage and as a rampaging power in a reflection of Emperor Qin Shi Huang Di. But China may get away because it offers enormous economic opportunities to the developed countries, especially to the US and the European Union.

Starting from State Counselor for Foreign Affairs (Cabinet Minister for Foreign Affairs) Dai Bingquo’s foreign policy statement late last year (2010), China signaled peace to the US. Through this weave of foreign policy there is a suggestion to neutralize the US through various appeasements and concentrate on smaller perceived enemies which includes India. In the Indian Ocean region China is particularly concerned about India and an India-US co-operation to counter China along with Japan and Australia.

The Chinese leadership across the board have come to realize that the new global world is increasingly getting closely knitted, and springing surprises could invite retaliation that they cannot easily contain. A gradual exposition of its policies would sink in with the outside world, and reactions thereof could be dealt with adjustments.

What is amazing, however, is Maj. Gen. Zhu’s unstated exposition. China is planning to build a bamboo cylinder from the bottom of the seas to the space as its sovereign territory. The base of the cylinder encompasses all territories that China perceives and wants to acquire as its sovereign ownership. Beyond the base of this cylinder are territories occupied by its allies, like Pakistan, which Beijing will help to consolidate.

This is no hallucinogenic perspective. For India, China’s issuance of stapled paper visas to Indian Kashmiris, those from Arunachal Pradesh, and Chinese military personnel assisting in infrastructure construction in the Gilgit-Baltistan region (or Pakistan occupied Northern Areas) are developments to consider seriously. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s assurance to Indian officials during his January 2011 visit that China will seriously consider the visa issue was an instance of characteristic Chinese “deception”. From India, Wen went to Pakistan and assured them that there was no change in China’s India policy where Pakistan was concerned.

While China actively considers India as a strategic adversary, there are equally perturbed over active adversaries in its near abroad like Japan.

Can China be persuaded to relinquish its historical Central Kingdom attitude and work with the rest of the world in peace and development? That is a million dollar question.

(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent analyst based in New

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