In a recent post, I introduced a new PRC book entitled ‘China Is Not Afraid — New Threats to National Security and Our Strategic Responses’, (中国不怕——国防安全新威胁与我们的战略应对). I suggested that the volume is part of a larger PLA strategy to invigorate and bolster the morale of domestic constituencies, both military and otherwise, as well as being intended to serve as a warning to any foreign powers which might seek to constrain or restrict China. It’s perhaps worthwhile further extending this analysis to two other PLA-inspired products, one a film and the other a newsagency article, to explore what sort of agenda these works are promoting.
The Chinese film Silent Contest (较量无声) was controversial as soon as it appeared on Chinese and global websites in October. By the end of that month, the film was being deleted from PRC websites without any official pronouncements as to the reasons for its appearance or disappearance. The film is still available in various iterations (video) on YouTube.
Highly polemical, and set against a rousing soundtrack, the film suggests that the United States is trying to subvert China through five avenues: (1) undermining China politically, (2) engaging in cultural infiltration, (3) warfare in terms of ideas, (4) the training of fifth column agents and (5) the fostering of opposition forces within China. The overall message is that the United States seeks not simply to dismember China but aims to find ways to take it under control. Frank Ching notes a strong anti-Hong Kong democrat aspect in the film, amid an implicit fear that a Hong Kong–Taiwan–US alliance could destabilize the PRC. The film’s intended audiences are certainly the domestic military and civilian constituencies, and it aims to be rousing and to induce indignity and anger. Reactions within China have varied (video), from the obviously supportive to the derisory.
The PLA was intimately involved in the making of the film. More specifically, the National Defence University, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, which is subordinate to the Ministry of State Security, participated in the production of the film earlier this year. Without doubt, it is a reaction to the US ‘pivot’ to Asia and the increased American engagement with the region since 2011, but obviously has deeper roots. With such a range of august national institutions being involved in the production of the film, it might be suggested that the rather extreme sentiments expressed therein are not restricted to some hawkish elements in the PLA.
A more troubling example of irredentism can be seen in an article which appeared on the website of the Chinese news agency Zhongguo Xinwenshe (Chinese, English translation here) in July this year. Entitled ‘Revealing the Six Wars China Must Fight in the Coming 50 Years’ (曝光中国在未来50年里必打的六场战争), the article is another manifestation of the hyper-nationalist attitude seen within some parts of the PLA. However, that an article of this nature was carried by a PRC national news agency suggests that it was approved at a very high level.
The six ‘inevitable’ wars suggested in the article’s title are presented in the chronological order in which they will take place:
- The war to unify Taiwan (2020–2025)
- The war to recover the various islands of the South China Sea (2025–2030)
- The war to recover southern Tibet (2035–2040)
- The war to recover Diaoyutai and the Ryukyus (2040–2045)
- The war to unify Outer Mongolia (2045–2050)
- The war to recover the territory seized by Russia (2055–2060)
Claims to Taiwan have been a part of PRC policy since 1949, and military action has never been ruled out, but a specific timetable for such action has never been suggested. In a remarkable coincidence, the Taiwan military has just announced that the PRC will have the military capacity to take Taiwan by 2020. In terms of a South China Sea war, little imagination is needed to see the current argy-bargy in the region extending into a military conflict. Regarding the third proposed war, China’s claims to the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh (PDF) have been a thorn in China-India relations for decades, but the extent of Chinese claims over Tibetan cultural areas in the Himalayas remains unspecified.
Claims to Diaoyutai/Senkaku have filled the press of late, so again little creative power is needed to see this situation descending into war. China’s very recent declaration of a ‘maritime air defense zone’ will also certainly exacerbate tensions. Regarding the Ryukyus (the Okinawa island chain), Chinese scholars were seeking the ‘return’ of these islands to China in the 1920s, so this certainly isn’t a new claim. Meanwhile, Chinese claims to what’s today the nation of Mongolia derive from Qing dynasty control of this region and again have been part of Chinese territorial claims since the Republic of China was established in 1912. The same is true of the Russian Far East territories, which many Chinese see as having been unjustly occupied by the Russians.
None of the above wars are endorsed by current PRC policies, and some Chinese claim that the article represents only the views of radical hyper-nationalists. However, the claims to territories which this article avers need to be ‘recovered’ through warfare are long-standing and are remarkably congruent with a 1938 map of ‘China’s shame’ authorised by the Ministry of the Interior of the Republican Government which shows the areas torn from China by imperialists—European and Japanese. (See map below) The ‘lost’ Chinese territories on this map include not only the Russian Far East, the Ryukyus, Taiwan and the South China Sea, but also Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, the Malay Peninsula and Singapore, Myanmar, Nepal, parts of Pakistan and most of Central Asia.
Observing how these explicit Chinese claims on territories well beyond the borders of present-day China extend back 70 or more years, and in reading some of the hyper-nationalist rhetoric such as the article cited, we might well excuse the populace of the areas subject to these historical claims from feeling quite as threatened and insecure as apparently do some people in the PRC.
Geoff Wade is a visiting fellow at the College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University.