China Global Security Tracker Nr. 2
- Through his military reforms and his reshuffle of the Central Military Commission during the 19th Party Congress, Xi has strengthened his control over China’s armed forces.
- Civil-military integration remains a top priority, with the goal of turning the PLA into a modern, world-class military.
- China is stepping up its efforts to act as a mediator in international conflicts, especially in countries that are central to the Belt and Road Initiative.
- China’s force projection activities continue to revolve around peacekeeping and counter-piracy operations, but Beijing is also increasingly focused on building up China’s cyber and space capabilities.
- China attempts to shape debates on international norms, from non-proliferation to cyberspace management, with mixed results so far.
1. Focus Topic: Xi tightens grip on Central Military Commission
“The Party’s goal of building a strong military in the new era is to build the people’s forces into world-class forces that obey the Party’s command, can fight and win, and maintain excellent conduct.” These words, part of Xi Jinping’s speech to the 19th Communist Party Congress on 18 October 2017, marked a clear shift in tone regarding China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Back in 2012 at the 18th Party Congress, Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao spoke only of “building a strong national defense and powerful armed forces that are commensurate with China's international standing.” In contrast, Xi placed the focus of his remarks on the PLA fighting and winning wars under close CCP scrutiny. While the Party Secretary’s report usually does not include policy changes, it does define the government’s priorities and goals for the next five years. Therefore, Xi’s words indicate a clear shift in the PLA’s mandate, from capacity building to political loyalty and the ability to win wars.
Xi’s speech shows that in his view strengthening the Party’s leadership is a precondition for building a powerful PLA. And Xi has spent the last three years trying to make this happen: he has recentralized military power and put the CCP firmly in control of the PLA. Since 2015, Xi has also consolidated his own power over the armed forces by reestablishing the “CMC chairman responsibility system” in which he – as chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) – is in charge of the PLA, and by diluting the power of the other CMC members, breaking up its four powerful general departments into 15 smaller ones.
By the beginning of 2017, many observers assumed that Xi’s next move would be to reshuffle the CMC leadership during the Party Congress to strengthen his control even further. The best way to do this, many argued, would be to expand the CMC to prevent individual members from building up too much power and questioning Xi’s authority (a lesson learned from the Hu/Wen era when Hu Jintao had only limited control over the PLA). Xi, however, did exactly the opposite: he shrunk the commission yet still managed to strengthen his own authority.
The run-up to the Party Congress: reshuffle on the horizon
Xi hinted at his plans to reshuffle the 11-member CMC early on. For example, the commanders of the four military services, the commanders of three out of five command theaters (Northern, Southern and Central), and the heads of most of the CMC departments1 were all replaced in 2017, prior to the Congress. While some of these changes were expected, due to the advanced age of some of the commanders, many others broke with traditional promotion patterns and procedures. Most striking were the August replacements of two CMC members, Fang Fenghui (Chief of the Joint Staff Department) and Zhang Yang (Director of the Political Department). Both of them had been members of the CMC and the Party Central Committee since the 17th Party Congress in 2007 and were still young enough to continue for another term. But after their replacement, both Fang and Zhang vanished amid rumors that they were under investigation for corruption – the first clear sign of major changes to come.
The list of military delegates to the Party Congress, released in September, was another sign of the upcoming changes. Out of the 303 names on the list, about 90 per cent were first-time delegates, making this the largest ever turnover in the history of the PRC. This is significant because military-linked Central Committee members (and therefore CMC members) are usually selected from this list. Fang Fenghui and Zhang Yang failed to make the list, a fact that seemed to confirm that they were under investigation. After the Party Congress, in mid-November, Zhang Yang committed suicide while under house arrest, and the report of his death provided some more details on why he had fallen from grace: he had apparently been linked to the disgraced CMC vice-chairmen Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong and was suspected of “serious disciplinary violations,” Party-speak for corruption.
Besides these two replacements, another five members of the CMC were due to retire, since they had reached the unofficial retirement age of 68. This meant that out of the 11 members of the CMC, 7 positions would be open, leaving plenty of space for Xi to maneuver and tighten his grip on the CMC and the armed forces.
A new CMC: clear priorities for the PLA of the future
By the time of the 19th Party Congress, it was clear that a major reshuffle was about to take place, only the future structure of the CMC was still unclear. And here Xi surprised everyone. Contrary to expectations, he did not expand the Commission. Instead he unveiled a smaller CMC with only seven members instead of the previous eleven.
Throughout the decades, the Central Military Commission has undergone several reforms, with membership shrinking and expanding over time (e.g. during the 1930s and 1940s the CMC had over 20 members). But since the 1990s, membership had remained largely stable. Since then, members of the CMC normally included the directors of the PLA’s four general departments, plus the commanders of the military services and the Minister of Defense. But the new and streamlined CMC that Xi presented was different. Apart from himself as chairman, he presented two vice-chairmen and only four regular members: the directors of the Joint Staff Department and the Political Work Department, possibly the Minister of Defense, and, for the first time, the head of the CMC’s Discipline Inspection Commission (CDI). Neither the heads of the military services nor the directors of the other two former general departments were any longer members of the CMC.
This new line-up points to a few operational priorities for Xi and his government. Xu Qiliang, the first-ranked vice-chairman, is an Air Force general and occupies a position traditionally given to ground force generals. His appointment indicates an increased emphasis on jointness and inter-service cooperation. The second-ranked vice-chairman, Zhang Youxia, is one of the few PLA officers with combat experience; he served in the China-Vietnam War of 1979. This is significant considering Xi’s emphasis on building a military that is able to fight and win wars. Along with these two, Wei Fenghe is the only other CMC member who retained his seat, and he will most likely be confirmed as the new Minister of Defense and State Councilor during the 2018 National People’s Congress.
This leaves three new names in the new Commission: Li Zuocheng, Miao Hua and Zhang Shengmin. General Li Zuocheng served as the PLA Ground Force’s inaugural commander from 2015 to 2017 and is another veteran of the China-Vietnam War. Admiral Miao Hua was the PLA Navy’s (PLAN) Political Commissar (PC) from 2014 to 2017. His career path is unusual: Miao was a member of the PLA ground forces and was only transferred to the PLAN in December 2014 to become PC. Normally Navy PCs are promoted internally. His unusual move sparked speculation that Xi explicitly promoted a PLAN outsider to break up networks loyal to Guo Boxiong or Xu Caihou. Lastly, there is General Zhang Shengmin. His was the most unusual of all promotions to the CMC. As head of the CMC CDI, it is unclear whether Zhang held a military region leader grade, which usually is a prerequisite for the promotion to the CMC, according to the PLA’s official promotion ladder. His unorthodox elevation must therefore be seen as a sign that for Xi the anti-corruption campaign within the PLA is a top priority.
The new CMC clearly shows that Xi has promoted military officers who will help him achieve his priorities: strengthening political loyalty within the PLA and building up the ability to fight and win wars.
A tighter grip on the armed forces
While Xi’s move to downsize the CMC may seem counterintuitive, it has in fact helped him shore up the support of the CMC members. First, many of the newer CMC members owe their current position and influence to Xi, since he either promoted them or directly helicoptered them into the CMC. Li Zuocheng and Miao Hua, for example, were both promoted by Xi to the highest ranks of general and admiral, respectively, in 2015. And Zhang Shengmin skipped the traditional promotion path thanks to Xi. Second, many of the people in the new CMC have some past connection to Xi. Zhang Youxia’s father, for instance, served with Xi’s father during the civil war, and Miao Hua and Xi worked alongside each other in Fujian Province in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Finally, replacing older generals with younger officers also allowed Xi to disrupt entrenched factions and sideline officers who were promoted under Jiang Zemin or Hu Jintao and may have conflicting loyalties.
Calling all new members of the CMC Xi’s close allies may be taking it a step too far, yet most owe their career progression to Xi and he can therefore almost certainly rely on their support. This became clear when the CMC issued a statement in October, after the Party Congress, pledging loyalty to the Party and promising to follow the command of Xi Jinping “at any time and in any circumstance.” In contrast to some of his predecessors, Xi has thus demonstrated a remarkable ability to impose his control over China’s armed forces.
1 | Joint Staff Department, Political Work Department, Logistic Support Department, Equipment Development Department, Training and Administration Department and National Defense Mobilization Department.
2. Domestic developments
Foreign and security policy
- Xi Jinping calls for China to play a bigger role in the international arena. In his speech to the 19th Party Congress on October 18, Xi called for China to “move closer to center stage,” stating that China now “stands tall and firm in the East.” These statements represent a substantial change in tone from those of his predecessors and describe the new reality of China’s global foreign and security policy ambitions. Xi also emphasized the need to build a powerful, modern army that is ready for war and re-emphasized the need for the PLA to be loyal to the CCP.
- Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) gets new push and a potential new route. On October 24, after the 19th Party Congress, Xi’s signature foreign policy project was unexpectedly included in the CCP Constitution, giving it greater policy weight. Besides, between August and December there were further signs that China plans to expand the BRI to include the Arctic. In September the icebreaker Xuelong became the first Chinese vessel to cross the Arctic through the Northwest Passage. On November 1, Xi suggested that China and Russia should work together to jointly develop and utilize Arctic channels and build a “Polar Silk Road.”
- China extends power of security apparatus vis-à-vis foreign nationals. On December 6, the State Council released new definitions of behavior punishable under the 2014 Counter-Espionage Law. The new rules say that “hostile groups” include any groups that challenge the socialist system or the rule of the CCP. Foreign individuals who issue information that harms China’s national security or who distort facts can also be punished. Under the new rules, the government can block foreign individuals suspect of endangering national security from entering China and those inside the country can be prevented from leaving for a “fixed” period of time.
Force development and capabilities
- Civil-military integration remains a priority. Between August and December, the most important developments on this issue were:
- On August 23, the CMC’s Science and Technology Commission and the Ministry of Science and Technology jointly issued a plan outlining civil-military integration priorities for the period from 2017 to 2020. They include strengthening top-level design and planning, facilitating greater resource sharing between military and civilian institutions, and supporting the commercialization of military and civilian technologies.
- The CMC signed military equipment procurement agreements with 13 companies and agencies on September 19, after publishing bidding information on its procurement website in April. The PLA has also launched an app for military procurement and bidding that has been operational since August and which private firms can also access.
- The Central Commission for Integrated Military and Civilian Development held its second plenary meeting on September 22. At the meeting, Xi urged China’s defense industry to introduce reforms and boost innovation to better serve the needs of both the military and civilian sectors. The Commission also adopted a plan for the development of defense science, technology and industry during the 13th Five-Year Plan period (2017-2020).
- The PLA Air Force’s (PLAAF) logistics department signed an agreement in October to cooperate with five private companies to upgrade civil-military logistics integration. The five companies are SF Express, China Railway Express, China Postal Express & Logistics, Deppon Logistics and JD Logistics. They all will cooperate with the PLAAF to provide transportation and storage management services in the next five years.
- The CMC’s Logistics Support Department and the state-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC) signed a strategic cooperation agreement on November 24. Both parties agreed to jointly promote civil-military integration in the construction of PLA military facilities.
- On December 4, the State Council issued new Guidelines on Deepening Civil-Military Integration in the Defense Technology Industry. The guidelines stipulate that more private capital will be allowed in defense industry companies. The new rules also stress that civil-military integration in the national defense and technology industry should follow the principle of “being led by the state and operated by the market.”
- PAP placed under CMC control. State media reported on December 27 that the People’s Armed Police (PAP) would be brought under the sole control of the CMC from January 1, 2018. Previously, the PAP had reported both to the CMC and the State Council. This is another step in Xi’s ongoing efforts to strengthen his grip over China’s armed forces.
- PLAN’s South Sea Fleet gets new unit. In October it was announced that the Navy’s South Sea Fleet – based in the South China Sea – has set up China’s second marine rescue squadron. These squadrons are designed to minimize losses in the event of maritime accidents, especially when submarines are involved. The new unit may allow the PLA to deploy more submarines to the South China Sea region. The North Sea Fleet has had a similar unit since 2011.
- PLA unveils new equipment and capabilities.
- The PLA Navy (PLAN) commissioned its first Type 901 supply ship, which is Asia’s largest (September 1), and four Type 056A-class stealth corvettes (October 16, November 16 and 28). The PLAN also launched two new Type 054A Jiangkai-II class guided-missile stealth frigates (September 22 and December 16). In addition, state media reported that a new nuclear submarine had been turned over to the PLAN in September. China’s second aircraft carrier, in turn, completed outfitting by mid-November and is expected to go into full service in 2019. China also reportedly started building its third aircraft carrier in 2017 in Shanghai, although these reports have not been confirmed.
- The PLAAF commissioned the fourth-generation J-20 stealth fighter in September and declared the Yun-9 transport aircraft ready for combat in December, after training and exercises in the South China Sea. On December 24, the AG600, China’s first large amphibious aircraft, completed its maiden flight.
- The PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) conducted two tests of a new ballistic missile with a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV), the DF-17, on November 1 and 15. Hypersonic gliders fly low, presenting challenges to existing radar technology enabling missile defenses, such as South Korea-based THAAD.
- China’s defense industry giants announce new developments.
- On August 11 and October 18, respectively, China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC) successfully tested a new domestically-made diesel engine to replace the current French-made engines used by most PLAN vessels, and a permanent magnet motor for submarines to improve the mute performance of China’s vessels.
- On November 3, China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC) launched a new domestically-made mega dredger that will be put into service in the first half of 2018, for use potentially in the South China Sea.
- In November, Norinco Group claimed to have finished building the world’s fastest amphibious assault vehicle, which will in the future enter service with the PLAN.
3. Security diplomacy
- CMC members meet defense officials from multiple countries, mostly along the Belt and Road. Between August and December, CMC members and their deputies met with defense officials of about 37 countries, most of which are part of China’s BRI. The CMC officials visited 13 countries; the other 24 nations sent delegations to Beijing.
- China participates in multilateral security meetings, cancels its own. In September and October, the CMC sent delegations to the Asia-Pacific Chiefs of Defense Force Conference in Victoria, Canada, the 11th ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting (ADMM), and the 4th ADMM-Plus Meeting in the Philippines. Beijing, however, canceled this year’s Xiangshan Forum, its response to the Singapore-based Shangri-La Forum. This decision was reportedly made due to upcoming leadership reshuffles, clashes with other events and a desire to downplay China’s military role and increase neighboring countries’ support for the BRI.
- Counter-terrorism remains top priority. Between August and December, Chinese officials had several exchanges with Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries to discuss transnational terrorism, highlighting Beijing’s concern with this issue:
- The 2nd High-level Military Leaders’ Meeting on Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination in Counterterrorism took place in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, on August 27. The defense ministers of China, Tajikistan, Pakistan and Afghanistan agreed to strengthen cooperation on anti-terrorism.
- On the sidelines of the Interpol General Assembly, held in Beijing from September 26-29, China and Qatar signed a security pact to combat terrorism. Media reports say the agreement focuses on the fight against terrorism and terror financing and aims to improve cooperation and coordination between the two countries.
- On November 7, the deputy foreign ministers of China, Afghanistan and Pakistan met in Beijing for the Trilateral Vice-Ministerial Consultation on Counter-Terrorism and Security. They agreed to step up cooperation to maintain stability in the region.
- China, Laos create new defense consultation mechanism. On September 15-16, China’s Defense Minister Chang Wanquan met his Laotian counterpart for the first China-Laos High-level Frontier Meeting. Both sides agreed to step up cooperation and conduct joint border patrols and joint anti-terrorism operations more regularly.
Military aid and training
- China continues to donate military equipment to countries of interest. In August, China donated two submarine chaser ships to the Namibian Navy and announced the donation of another two patrol ships to Madagascar. Namibia is an important destination for Chinese investments and a major source of uranium for China. However, a series of scandals involving Chinese nationals in the country have made many in Namibia question the relationship between Beijing and Windhoek. This donation by China could be a way to buy goodwill with the Namibian armed forces. Madagascar, for its part, agreed to deepen Belt and Road cooperation during a presidential visit to Beijing in March. The donation could be a reward for the BRI support. In September, Beijing also donated medical materials to the Military Police of Djibouti, the location of China’s first overseas military base. And in October the Chinese government sent a second batch of military equipment to the Philippine Armed Forces for the fight against terrorism. This last donation reflects Beijing’s deep concern with Islamic State-linked terrorism in the Asia-Pacific region.
- China offers military aid to the African Union. On September 28, China’s Ministry of Defense announced that Beijing was negotiating with the African Union the donation of 100 million USD in the next five years to support the African Standby Force and rapid response force. This aid package was announced by Xi Jinping during his speech at the 2015 UN General Assembly.
- PLA trains international UN peacekeepers and other military personnel. Between August and December Beijing conducted several training courses for foreign military personnel. These included courses in Beijing for UN military observers and international peacekeeping officers. In addition, the PLA Army Engineering University conducted a mine-sweeping training course for troops from Cambodia and Laos.
Port calls and joint exercises
- PLAN still on tour, visits BRI countries and Europe. The PLA’s “global friendship” tour that began on April 23 finished on October 15. By then, the three-ship fleet had visited 20 countries along the Maritime Silk Road. During these five months the PLAN did two other global tours: “Harmonious Mission 2017” by the Peace Ark hospital ship, and PLAN training ship Qi Jiguang’s first ocean-going mission, a two and a half-month voyage to Portugal, Italy, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Furthermore, China’s 26th counter-piracy escort taskforce called on strategically important ports on its way back from the Gulf of Aden. This time the taskforce was sent to northern Europe, with stopovers in Belgium, Denmark, the UK and France. To further demonstrate China’s interest in Europe, the PLAN ships that participated in the Joint Sea 2017 exercises with Russia in the Baltic Sea in July called on ports in Finland and Latvia on their way back to China.
- PLA participates in about 25 joint exercises and drills, mostly bilateral. From August to December, the PLAN participated mostly in non-combat, bilateral exercises and drills, with a focus on naval passage, communications, and joint search and rescue. However, Chinese forces did also hold larger, more combat-focused exercises. Most of these took place with trusted partners like Russia and Pakistan and involved air-to-air combat training as well as naval live-fire operations and counter-piracy. They also covered counter-terrorism and computer-based anti-missile drills.
- China participates in joint drill with ASEAN. In an apparent sign of reduced tensions in the South China Sea, China participated in a naval drill with ASEAN member states in October. On October 31, they held a large-scale joint rescue drill in the South China Sea, with about 1,000 participants aboard 20 ships. Reportedly, there are plans to conduct another drill in 2018.
Leadership in regional security frameworks
- China hosts the 2017 BRICS summit, with a focus on terrorism and the BRI. The 2017 summit in Xiamen (September 3-5), concluded with a joint statement clearly reflecting Chinese priorities, including strengthening cooperation on combatting terrorism, enhancing trade and developing ocean cooperation. Beijing sparked controversy by inviting five countries as observers (Egypt, Kenya, Tajikistan, Mexico and Thailand) under an approach it called “BRICS Plus.” While host countries can unilaterally invite other nations to the summit as observers, most often these are neighboring countries with an interest in the mechanism. China’s decision to invite five countries from all around the world under its BRICS Plus approach led to speculation that Beijing could try to expand the group to strengthen its position in BRICS.
- India and Pakistan attend their first SCO Summit. Between November 30 and December 1, heads of state of SCO member countries met in Sochi, Russia for their annual summit. India and Pakistan participated as full members for the first time after joining the SCO in June.
Conflict prevention and resolution
- Progress in China’s push for four-point Israel-Palestine peace plan. The plan, proposed by Xi Jinping in July, envisions the creation of two states along the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state. With Trump’s controversial recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and his decision to move the US embassy there, Beijing has found additional leeway to mediate in the conflict and push for its own solution. On December 21, a two-day symposium for representatives of Israel and Palestine began in Beijing, with delegations led by Abbas’ foreign relations adviser and the Deputy Speaker of the Knesset.
- China proposes three-step plan to solve Rohingya issue. After offering to mediate between Myanmar and Bangladesh in the past without much progress, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi proposed a three-step approach to solving the conflict on November 20 during the Asia Europe Foreign Ministers Meeting (ASEM) in Naypyitaw. The three steps involve a ceasefire, finding a solution for the return of refugees, and working towards a long-term solution based on poverty alleviation. A peaceful solution to the crisis is in China’s interest because both Myanmar and Bangladesh are important components of the BRI. Despite China’s continued support for Myanmar at the UN Security Council, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said that both Bangladesh and Myanmar have accepted the Chinese plan.
- China participates in effort to restart Afghan peace talks. Negotiators from Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and the US met in Oman on October 16 to try and revive talks with the Afghan Taliban. It is unclear whether Taliban representatives also attended the meeting. This four-nation Quadrilateral Coordination Group last met in Islamabad in early 2016.
- Beijing mediates in Afghanistan-Pakistan conflict. Beijing has stepped up efforts to broker peace in the longstanding conflict between Kabul and Islamabad. The 1st China-Afghanistan-Pakistan Foreign Ministers’ Dialogue took place on December 26 in Beijing. The three sides agreed to work together on issues ranging from counter-terrorism to connectivity, and also agreed to discuss the extension of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to Afghanistan.
- China tries to reduce tensions in the Asia-Pacific. On November 3 and 16, Beijing announced it had reached agreements with Vietnam and the Philippines, respectively, to manage disputes in the South China Sea through talks. Furthermore, China and ASEAN adopted a negotiating framework for a code of conduct in the South China Sea in August. Formal talks on the issue were announced on November 13. Meanwhile, Beijing and Tokyo reached an agreement on December 7 for a hotline to avoid accidental conflict in the East China Sea.
Law enforcement cooperation
- China lobbies for more extradition treaties. According to reports by The Australian in December, China has issued veiled threats to Australian Labor Party leaders to ratify the extradition treaty that stalled in March due to political opposition. Beijing is also pushing Canada to expand anti-corruption cooperation and sign an extradition treaty. Beijing argues that Canada is a preferred destination for Chinese officials accused of corruption. Both initiatives have born no fruit so far. Beijing’s efforts, however, were more successful in Indonesia. Jakarta announced on October 10 that it will expand an existing extradition treaty with China (signed in 2009). Under the treaty 143 Chinese and Taiwanese nationals were extradited to China in August, accused of extorting money from Chinese businessmen.
- Spain, New Zealand courts approve extradition of suspects to China. A New Zealand court rejected on August 31 an appeal from a South Korean-born man challenging Wellington’s decision to extradite him to China to face murder charges. And on December 15 and 22, a Spanish court granted China’s extradition request for 214 Taiwanese and Chinese nationals accused of belonging to a criminal gang that scammed people in China. Spain has an extradition treaty with China.
- China pushes own priorities during Interpol General Assembly. Interpol, currently headed by former Chinese Deputy Minister of Public Security Meng Hongwei, held its 86th General Assembly in Beijing from September 26-29. Beijing used the meeting to push for greater international cooperation in the fight against corruption and terrorism, two of Beijing’s security priorities. Minister of Public Security Guo Shengkun asked the organization to strengthen its defense against the threat of militants returning from abroad “to join groups like the East Turkistan Islamic Movement” – a separatist group founded by militant Uighurs.
- China and United States hold first US-China Law Enforcement and Cybersecurity Dialogue. On October 4, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions, US Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke and China’s Minister of Public Security Guo Shengkun, co-chaired the first round of this dialogue. Besides issues of repatriation and counter-narcotics, they also discussed cybersecurity cooperation and agreed to continue the implementation of the consensus reached by Xi and former US president Barack Obama in 2015.
4. Force projection
Military operations other than war
- China registers standby UN peacekeeping force. On September 22, China’s Ministry of Defense announced that it had completed the registration of an 8,000-strong standby UN peacekeeping force. This was one of the central pledges of Xi’s 2015 speech to the UN General Assembly.
- Beijing’s contributions to UN peacekeeping remain stable. Between August and December, China contributed personnel to ten UN peacekeeping missions, similar to the first half of the year. The total number of deployed personnel also remained largely stable, hovering between 2,500 and 2,650. The largest contingent of Chinese troops is still deployed in South Sudan, where China has extensive commercial interests.
- PLAN ships disperse suspected pirates. In two separate incidents in September and November, PLAN ships belonging to China’s 27th escort taskforce to the Gulf of Aden (which was sent to the Gulf in August and, in turn, replaced by the 28th task force in December) dispersed suspected pirate vessels targeting container ships registered in the UK and Malta in the first case, and Hong Kong and Italy in the latter.
Humanitarian assistance and disaster relief
- PLAN Peace Ark hospital ship on world tour. On July 27, the hospital ship began its five-month Harmonious Mission-2017 humanitarian world tour. This is the PLAN’s sixth such tour since the first one in 2010, and it took the Peace Ark to nine countries where Chinese troops provided free medical assistance to the local population. With port calls in Sri Lanka, Djibouti, Sierra Leone, Gabon, Republic of Congo, Angola, Mozambique, Tanzania and Timor-Leste, plus a technical stopover in Spain, this year’s mission – the flagship of the PLA’s naval diplomacy – has focused on developing countries in Africa and South-East Asia.
- PLA medical teams deploy abroad. From July 27 to August 6, the PLA’s so-called Peace Train medical team, composed of 90 medics, provided medical services to military personnel and civilians in Laos. On November 20, a PLA medical team set out for Mozambique on a two-month mission to work at local military hospitals on epidemic prevention and other medical services. Over the summer, another medical team, which had been based in Sierra Leone since June, contributed to disaster relief operations in Freetown after floods struck the capital on August 14.
Troop deployments and counter-terrorism
- China-India border tensions continue. Despite an agreement to end the border standoff at Doklam on August 28, Chinese soldiers have reportedly established a quasi-permanent presence in the area. In early October it was reported that about 1,000 Chinese soldiers remained in the region and were planning on staying there throughout the winter for the first time. Bilateral relations seemed to be improving, nevertheless, with high-level border talks taking place in Delhi in mid-November. Relations between Beijing and New Delhi, however, were strained again soon after, when an Indian drone invaded Chinese airspace before crashing, leading China to accuse India of infringing on China’s territorial sovereignty. Despite this, the 20th Special Representatives' Meeting on the China-India Boundary Questions took place on December 22 in New Delhi, with senior officials from both sides agreeing to “properly handle border issues”. In December Indian media also reported that Chinese personnel had crossed the border in Arunachal Pradesh’s Upper Siang district, a disputed area administered by India but claimed by Beijing. The incident was reportedly resolved quickly and without further incident.
- PLA puts on show of force in East China Sea. On December 7, over 40 PLAN warships took part in a large-scale military exercise in the area, coinciding with the start of a massive US-South Korea joint exercise. Shortly after, on December 11, the PLAAF conducted drills near Taiwan, including “island encirclement” patrols over the island. Only a week later, on December 18, Chinese military aircraft conducted a long-range exercise flying for the first time over the Tsushima Strait, which links the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea.
- China opens Djibouti base. China formally opened its first overseas military base in Djibouti on August 1, the 90thanniversary of the founding of the PLA. The base is meant to support China’s counter-piracy naval operations in the Gulf of Aden, but no dock has yet been built. Chinese media reported in late September on plans to build a multi-purpose wharf to allow a naval flotilla to dock. PLA troops held two live-fire drills outside the base, on September 22 and November 24.
- Sri Lanka hands over Hambantota port to China. Under a 1.1 billion USD deal formally finalized on December 9, Chinese firms under the China Merchants Port Holdings SOE now hold a 70 percent stake in Hambantota port, a strategic stop in China’s BRI. The 99-year lease was reportedly agreed because Sri Lanka cannot repay Chinese loans that it took out to build the port in the first place. China insists that the port is for civilian use only and has denied reports that it plans to turn it into a dual-use port or an overseas military base in the Indian Ocean.
- China keeps building on disputed islands. Satellite imagery released by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies’ (CSIS) Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative on December 14 reveals that China has built more facilities on the Spratly and Paracel Islands, including a new high-frequency radar and tunnels that could be used for ammunition storage. A day later, China’s official news agency Xinhua reported that China plans to launch up to ten extra satellites over the next three years to be able to monitor the South China Sea around the clock.
Cyber and space capabilities
- China sends more satellites into space. Months after the failed launch of a Long March-5 rocket on July 2, China has returned to sending satellites into space. The first launch took place on September 29, when a Long March-2C rocket carried three Yaogan-30 satellites from a base in Sichuan. Beijing says that these earth-observing satellites are for civilian purposes only, but the Yaogan satellites are reportedly owned and operated by the PLA. Further Yaogan-30 and -31 satellites were launched on November 24, December 2 and 26. China also launched the first two BeiDou-3 satellites (November 5), which will expand coverage of the network to countries along the Belt and Road region. Beijing plans to launch 18 such satellites by the end of 2018.
- China launches satellites for other countries. Early on October 9, China launched a VRSS-2 remote sensing satellite for Venezuela to be used for disaster management and traffic control purposes. On December 10, Algeria’s first communications satellite was launched by China from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Sichuan by a Long March-3B rocket.
- China and United States announce BeiDou-GPS compatibility improvements. After three years of negotiations, the US and China signed a joint statement on December 4 on civil signal compatibility and interoperability between their respective GPS and BeiDou systems. Under the agreement, users will be able to receive BeiDou signals with GPS devices and vice versa.
- China unveils first civil-military cybersecurity innovation center. On December 26, China unveiled the country’s first ever such center, set up under the authority of the Central Commission for Integrated Military and Civilian Development. The center will focus on building cyber defense systems for military-related uses, and it will encourage SMEs to cooperate on R&D projects.
- Alleged Chinese hacking of Western companies continues. In October it was revealed that data about Australia’s F-35 stealth fighter and P-8 surveillance programs were stolen when a defense subcontractor was hacked with a tool often used by Chinese hackers. That same month, cybersecurity firm Cylance claimed to have found a remote access trojan with links to a Chinese hacking group in a Western aerospace company. And on November 27, US prosecutors charged three Chinese nationals affiliated with Chinese cybersecurity company Guangzhou Bo Yu Information Technology (Boyusec) with hacking into Siemens, Trimble Inc and Moody’s between 2011 and 2017 to steal business information. Boyusec, according to analysts, is said to be affiliated with the PLA’s Unit 61398. Trimble’s research into geolocation and Siemens’ research into guidance and navigation could be of interest to China’s military and may have been the targets of the hacks. According to the Wall Street Journal, Boyusec was disbanded in November.
5. Global security architecture
Influence in the UN
- China backs Myanmar at the UN Security Council. According to media reports, China and Russia blocked a draft UNSC resolution in September that was meant to condemn violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar. China did, however, agree to a UNSC statement issued on November 6 expressing “grave concern over reports of human rights violations and abuses in Rakhine State” – home to Myanmar’s Rohingya minority. This was the first time that the Security Council was able to take a stand on the Rohingya crisis
- China boycotts UNSC meeting on Venezuela. On November 13, China, along with Russia, Egypt and Bolivia, boycotted an informal public UNSC meeting on Venezuela organized by the United States. Beijing, a traditional supporter of Venezuela, has offered support for Nicolás Maduro’s government in the past, with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi saying in September that he believes the Venezuelan government and people can resolve their problems within a legal framework and maintain national stability. China’s support has remained unwavering in the midst of a national crisis in Venezuela, which has sparked major protests and violence.
- China changes tack on North Korea. China, a long-time supporter of Pyongyang, has backed three UNSC resolutions on North Korea in the past five months. Resolutions 2371, 2375 and 2397, adopted on August 5, September 11 and December 22, respectively, tightened sanctions on North Korea as a response to its July missile tests and its sixth nuclear test on September 3. In September Beijing also instructed Chinese banks to ban North Korean customers from opening new accounts and ordered all North Korean companies in China to close. This change of tack speaks to the deterioration of Beijing-Pyongyang ties.
- China’s THAAD issues, an unclear path. While China remains opposed to the deployment of the THAAD anti-missile system in South Korea, Beijing and Seoul finally agreed to mend relations in October. As part of the agreement, South Korean president Moon Jae-in visited Beijing from December 14 to 17 and called for closer economic and political ties. However, the two leaders failed to make a joint statement during the visit, an indication of lingering tensions. A day after Moon concluded his visit, Chinese military aircraft entered South Korea’s air defense identification zone. On December 20, the South Korean coast guard fired over 200 rounds at dozens of Chinese fishing boats that had entered South Korea’s exclusive economic zone.
- Iran deal has Chinese backing. On September 20, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi called for international support for the Iran nuclear deal and for all parties to “make the right political judgment” and create favorable conditions for the implementation of the agreement. These calls came amid fears that US President Donald Trump might withdraw from the deal. Beijing’s support for the agreement was voiced again after Trump decertified the deal on October 14.
- China asks OPCW to remove Japanese weapons. On November 28, China’s permanent representative to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Wu Ken, called for the destruction of all the Japanese chemical weapons that remain abandoned in China. According to the official news agency Xinhua, there could be up to 330,000 such weapons still buried in China. Wu also criticized Japan for failing to provide information on the burial places for the weapons and called on Tokyo to "bear the full responsibility for its failure to complete the destruction according to the timeline specified by the [1997 Chemical Weapons] Convention."
- Make the NPT universal, China urges. Chinese envoy to the UN, Wu Haitao, called on the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to strive for the universality of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) on November 10. The NPT regime, Wu said, faced daunting challenges because some states still haven’t acceded to the treaty. This was seen as a jab at India, one of the four states (besides North Korea, which withdrew from the NPT) that have never signed the treaty, along with Israel, Pakistan and South Sudan. Beijing has long opposed India’s membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) based on its refusal to sign the NPT.
Global cyber governance
- China defends cyber-sovereignty. At the Beijing-sponsored annual World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, held from December 3 to 5, China defended its idea of internet sovereignty, a concept that gives each country the right to manage its internet much like it manages its own territory. Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Huning gave a speech saying that “China stands ready to develop new rules and systems of internet governance to serve all parties and counteract current imbalances.” His words suggest that China is ready to help other countries establish internet management systems similar to the Chinese one, which includes heavy censorship.
- Track 1.5 US-China Cybersecurity Dialogue focuses on military cyber operations. In early November, another round of the Track 1.5 US-China Cybersecurity Dialogue, organized by CSIS and the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, took place. These meetings involve Chinese and American experts and government officials. On the agenda were topics such as military-to-military talks about military cyber operations and how to avoid miscalculation or miscommunication.
- China hosts second China-Japan-Korea Track 2 Cybersecurity Dialogue. This dialogue was jointly established in 2016 by Korea University, the China Institute of International Studies (CIIS) and Keio University in Japan. This second round was held in Beijing and included representatives from the Cyberspace Administration of China, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the National Computer Network Emergency Response Technical Team/ Coordination Center of China. All parties agreed to conduct research on cyberlaws, cybercrime, protection of key infrastructures, and the definitions of key technical terms.