Country Report: China (December 2013)

The escalating tensions with Japan have featured strongly in China’s traditional and online media in the past two months, but especially in recent weeks. China’s announcement of a new Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) to be established over the East China Sea sparked a strong response from Japan and the United States, which led to further harsh remarks from China. Prime Minister Abe’s criticism of China’s air defense zone at a recent summit with Southeast Asia was called “malicious” by China’s state media, such as Huanqiu shibao and Renmin ribao. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman’s comment about Japan’s attempts against China being “doomed” circulated widely on-line and was reprinted by most media outlets. Much commentary on the issue carried nationalistic fervor, highlighting China’s relative strength and Japan’s fault in exacerbating the conflict. “US and Japan are in panic: China’s ‘mysterious’ military force is too scary,” read one of the titles in the commentary section of Huanqiu shibao. Arguments were also put forward about Japan using the China threat to bolster its military capabilities, with references being made to its aggression against China during the Second World War.

The discussions of the ADIZ on China’s micro-blogs were framed around the issue of national sovereignty, with many netizens perceiving it as a justifiable and a welcome development. Editorials in Party journals similarly praised the establishment of the zone as a necessary and a timely decision. A Qiushi editorial written by Zhang Lili, the head of China’s diplomatic research unit at the Foreign Affairs Academy, argued that the ADIZ could be interpreted in three ways. First, it is a manifestation of China’s strengthening air defense capability. Since the establishment of the PRC, China’s air defense capacity has been limited to the airspace directly above its land and territorial waters. The establishment of this new zone, extending almost 100 kilometers outside of China’s borders is unprecedented and shows China’s readiness and capability to defend itself. The author further argues that the establishment of the ADIZ is completely necessary given the importance of China’s southeast coastal provinces for national development and stability. These provinces, renowned for their wealth and advanced cultural and technological development are most likely to face external threats and up until now had enjoyed weak security protection. Finally, the editorial stresses that the ADIZ is consistent with international law and practices of other global powers, including those in Asia. The editorial contrasts China’s air defense zone with that of Japan, pointing not only to the fact that Japan had established the zone 44 years prior to China, but also to the densely populated regions that China aims to protect, in contrast to tiny islands Japan is overseeing. The author strays away from the most contentious argument that China’s ADIZ is directly linked to the Diaoyu Island dispute, but rather attempts to present this policy as an ordinary security measure on behalf of the Chinese party-state.

Given the US defiance of the ADIZ by both publicly expressing its stance and by sending B-52 bombers over the disputed islands, tensions have also flared up between China and the United States. Chinese media, however, have largely reported on the B-52 event by quoting foreign media reports and avoided strong opinions. On November 28 a CCTV report on this issue framed the US actions as provocative and a signal of the US support of Japan in the dispute. The report concluded with strong remarks from the Foreign Ministry about China’s resolve to maintain the ADIZ, stressing its capacity to defend its sovereignty. The official interviewed by the CCTV, however, refrained from making aggressive remarks about the United States, and focused on defending the Chinese position. Micro-blogging sites contained many nationalistic commentaries pointed at the United States and blaming it for meddling in the conflict.

A CCTV hour-long special viewed in Singapore on December 13 offered rather comprehensive coverage of the ADIZ controversy, including commentary on Vice President Biden’s visits to Japan, China, and South Korea in the first week of the month. Redolent of the Cold War, it demonized Japan, made even more conspicuous by simultaneous airing of a documentary focused on a period in the war against Japan. There was no ambiguity that Japan is reviving its past militarism and is bent on containment of China. The United States did not fare much better in the narrative. While references to differences between the two gave the impression that Japan is more extreme, US intentions are similarly seen as malign. Personal responsibility for the most dangerous tendencies is placed on the shoulders of Abe Shinzo, reflected in reputed gaps between his approach and Biden’s. Although academic experts are interviewed on some points, the tone of the documentary leaves no room for reasoned debate based on arguments from both sides or any effort to grasp the reasoning of the other side. Viewers learn that China’s behavior is normal and unprovocative, while Japan’s is linked to militarism and has no basis in evidence related to sovereignty or to realist defensive behavior. The tone in this somber documentary appears to justify further assertive action to teach Japan and, presumably, the United States that their groundless extremism will be met by a severe rebuff.

The anti-US discourse was featured in Chinese media already prior to Biden’s visit to China. In mid-November a popular netizen’s essay, titled “You are nothing without your motherland,” circulated in Chinese media.1 The author blamed the United States for the collapse of the Soviet Union and warned about its attempt to use the Diaoyu Island dispute to meddle in China’s domestic affairs and to weaken the stronghold of the Chinese Communist Party. The essay further presented the dangers of the CCP’s collapse for common Chinese people and called on Chinese citizens to support Xi Jinping’s initiatives and not to buy into false rumors spread by the West. The author went as far as to link China’s domestic food scandals to the influence of “foreign agents,” namely the United States. Another popular editorial in Renmin ribao from November 1 urged the United States to start playing by the rules of the “global village” and to abandon its practice of exceptionalism in international relations.2 Behind the US adherence to exceptionalism, the author argues, is its arrogance and aggrandized self-importance. As the world keeps changing, the article goes on to argue, the United States also needs to adjust to the times and to play by the rules of the international community. While not alluding to the Japan dispute or giving specific examples of the US arrogance vis-a-vis China, the article struck a nationalistic tone, showcasing China’s desire to be treated as an “equal partner” in the relationship.

More extensive examination of Chinese publications, however, shows that there are also some more cautious voices on the China-Japan dispute, as well as with regard to the United States. A brief editorial in Qiushi, for instance, considered three scenarios for the future bilateral relationship between China and Japan: cooperation, competition, and direct confrontation. Despite the ongoing tensions, the article noted the more positive aspect of productive trade relations and human exchanges between the two neighbors. Due to the escalation of the Diaoyu Island dispute, however, the author notes that competition might become the dominant frame of the bilateral relationship, with possible escalation to intense confrontation in the short-term future. He further urged rational actions on both sides to prevent such a scenario from taking place.

Another recent editorial, titled “China and the US have more important agenda than the ADIZ,” by Shen Dingli, called for exercising long-term vision in constructing the US-China relationship. Stressing the progress made in the bilateral relationship following the Sunnylands summit, the author argues that the two nations need to overlook the recent tensions with regard to the ADIZ, and, instead, focus on long-term cooperation. Similar to other commentaries on this issue, the editorial argues that the ADIZ is justified under international law and is a natural step in China’s attempts to protect its sovereignty. Moreover, the author argues that the ADIZ is something China has learned from the United States, and therefore, the American leaders should show understanding of China’s decision and not let it stand in the way of a strong partnership. Another Qiushi editorial, “The US will not become Japan’s pawn,” argued that the recent opposing of the ADIZ by the United States should not be interpreted as direct support for Japan in the conflict, but merely as an effort to preempt escalation of the dispute between China and Japan. Given the stakes that the United States has in the stability of the Asia-Pacific region, the editorial argues that its reaction is not surprising and should not be treated as a significant break in the Sino-US relationship.

On the Korean Peninsula, the execution of Jang Song-Thaek, King Jong-un’s uncle and widely considered the leading pro-China North Korean official, was treated cautiously by the Chinese media. While some Western reports suggested that this step was a signal to China, Chinese media did not present any explicit signs of concern, and on the contrary, downplayed this event as insignificant for bilateral ties. Chinese media widely circulated a comment by the Foreign Ministry spokesman stressing that the execution is Pyongyang’s internal affair. An analysis published by Xinhua argued that trade relations between China and the DPRK would not change as a result of this event, noting that the economic relations between the two were firmly established under the previous leadership and that Jang Song-Thaek was merely a representative of the government, not a primary decision-maker. Chinese media reports further dismissed suggestions published in some South Korean and Western press linking recent Shenyang military exercises, which took place on December 4, to China’s heightened state of alert about North Korea. An opinion piece published on Sina weibo and reprinted in Renmin ribao argued that the most likely explanation of the close timing of the two events is mere coincidence. Even if there were a direct link between the two, the editorial argued, China would not preemptively attack North Korea because it would go against its principle of non-interference in North Korea’s internal affairs. China would only take military action when North Korean troops entered China’s territory. The author further argues that outside observers tend to overestimate China’s potential to influence North Korea, whereas China’s key priority in North Korea remains that of maintaining stability. China’s media further underplayed the potential tensions between the two by broadcasting an interview with a North Korean official on CCTV who assured viewers that the DPRK is still on track with economic development. The CCTV news clip included videos from open economic zones, such as the Chongjin Industrial Zone, and showcased images of modern North Korean citizens going about their lives in a normal manner.