Lowy Institute
6 of 7 This post is part of a debate on China's Unpredictable Maritime Security Actors

I am grateful to several people for commenting on my Lowy Institute Report China's Unpredictable Maritime Security Actors. To date I have received detailed and substantive feedback in over 40 emails, more than I usually do after publishing. In addition, The Interpreter has published posts by Bonnie Glaser, Julian Snelder, Jingchao Peng and Michael McDevitt. Ryan Martinson wrote a detailed critique of the report for The Diplomat.

I will here comment on the posts by Glaser, Peng and McDevitt (I hope to later respond to Martinson separately). It appears that my differences with Glaser and Peng boil down to terminology. In fact, many comments I have received focus on my use of 'grand plan' and 'grand strategy'. It is evident that I should have from the outset defined the terms.

In the report I write that there is no evidence of a central government-approved 'grand plan' that mandates different actors coercing other claimants in a tailored way towards a mutual goal. The report's executive summary states the same thing but uses the term 'grand strategy'.

Glaser and Peng both acknowledge that bureaucratic competition and lack of coordination among various maritime security actors contribute to tension and uncertainty in the South China Sea, but they question my argument about the lack of a grand strategy. From my point of view they – and others who have sent feedback privately – have misunderstood my text.

Of course I am to blame if I have failed to convey my meaning. I can only repeat that I have not found evidence of a central government-approved grand plan or Xi Jinping-approved grand strategy which spells out, step-by-step, how various actors should behave, using coercion or any other method, to reach a clearly defined goal.

I have not stated that Xi Jinping's long-term and overall goal – if he could decide the course of history single-handedly – is not for China to dominate the South China Sea. So I agree with Glaser's concluding sentence: 'Strengthening China's control over the South China Sea is part of (Xi's) "China Dream" of rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.' I also endorse Peng's argument that 'Beijing's overall strategic objective is to advance Beijing's control of the ocean to the best of its capacity.' The expression 'overall strategic objective' best captures Xi's intention, in my view. I didn't use that term in my report or discuss what China's strategic intentions are because that is the focus of my next report in the MacArthur Foundation-funded research project, a co-authored piece with Rory Medcalf.

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In fact, I recently said at the 14th Stockholm China Forum that in the long run, and if China is not deterred, and if its rise continues (three conditions), China can be expected to persistently, reef-by-reef and shoal-by-shoal, strengthen its position in the South China Sea until one day in the distant future its dominance will simply be a fact. (Chinese colleagues dismiss my concern that at that point China would dictate the terms of resource extraction, saying that from a position of strength China will negotiate with others on co-developing resources. I have my doubts.)

Back to the lack of a grand plan or strategy: barring the confusion over terminology, I stand by my argument that, at this point in history, vaguely formulated guidelines from the central government are what lower levels of government and innumerable other non-government maritime security actors have to go by when they decide on concrete actions and policies. Xi has shown the direction (his 'overall strategic objective'), but he has not spelled out specific guidelines about how stability must be maintained while at the same time safeguarding sovereignty. This gives many kinds of actors with many kinds of agendas quite substantial maneuver room to decide on the course of action and the kind of policies to pursue. For reasons I lay out in the report, there are both political and financial motivations for various actors to staunchly advocate protecting maritime rights and strengthen 'rights consciousness'. Hence, China's actions in the maritime domain will continue to be unsystematic and organic, and not part of a well thought-out 'grand strategy.'

I do want to emphasise, however, that the word 'chaos' or 'chaotic' does not appear anywhere in the report. I do not view Chinese maritime security decision-making as chaotic.

This brings me to an observation made by Michael McDevitt. On the basis of Xi's willingness to make politically 'courageous' moves in his anti-corruption campaign, McDevitt questions my argument that Xi and other top leaders find it difficult to publicly disagree with officials or entities that announce or execute counterproductive stances associated with 'safeguarding China's sovereignty'. This is an important and possibly a valid point, which I have contemplated while watching one senior official after another being investigated. Nevertheless, on the basis of discussions this past September and November in Beijing about the anti-corruption drive, I came to the conclusion that there are different dynamics at play. The 'rights consciousness' movement (which Xi himself has spurred on) is so strong that it does at least to a degree deter Xi from going against the tide on matters involving sovereignty. Obviously, time will tell if I am mistaken.

Finally, I do not claim that China's maritime actors can behave in any way they choose. Xi's guidelines box them in. As I have written in The Australian, it is entirely possible that Xi approves of most (or all) of the actions taken in China's name. My point is that Xi is not deciding on myriad actions; numerous maritime actors are.

Photo by Flickr user Global Panorama.

1 of 7 This post is part of a debate on China's Unpredictable Maritime Security Actors

'China will work with other countries to further promote a harmonious maritime order.' Even after years of studying the maritime tensions on China's periphery, I had to check that I had not misread the 9 December Xinhua dispatch quoting Liu Jieyi, China's Ambassador to the UN.

These reassuring words come on the heels of a position paper issued just two days earlier by China regarding the Philippines' appeal to international arbitration over South China Sea disputes. The position paper not only dismisses the grounds for the Filipino appeal; it also forcefully states that the arbitration case will not 'shake China's resolve and determination to safeguard its sovereignty and relevant maritime rights and interests.'

This dual-track approach of China to the tensions in its near seas has become the norm. China constantly sends mixed signals. On the one hand, China assures the outside world of its intentions to promote a peaceful settlement of maritime disputes. On the other hand, China upsets its neighbours by provocative actions in disputed areas. These include new land reclamation projects, light houses, piers, fishing bases, rescue centres, tourist attractions and resource exploration.

Part and parcel of this dual-track approach is messaging. A ferocious propaganda war rages over the disputes in the East and South China Seas.

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As I argue in a new Lowy Institute Report about China's maritime security actors, each government with a claim tries to manipulate perceptions, apply psychological pressure and publicise 'legal' arguments to assert its claims to resources and territory. A key aim is to convince domestic and foreign audiences that rival claimants are acting unlawfully. Governments are aware that 'Twenty-first century warfare — where hearts, minds and opinion are, perhaps, more important than kinetic force projection — is guided by a new and vital dimension, namely the belief that whose story wins may be more important than whose army wins.'

In this regard Vietnam and the Philippines – though at a disadvantage militarily – have proven to be a good match for China diplomatically and on the propaganda front. The Philippines put Beijing on the defensive in 2013 by filing a case against China at an arbitration tribunal in The Hague (China's 9 December position paper was a response to this case). Manila seeks a ruling to confirm its right under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea to exploit the waters in its Exclusive Economic Zone, which China contests because it has a counter-claim to maritime rights in parts of those waters.

Vietnam, in turn, caused China a loss of face in May this year by its all-out effort to shame Beijing internationally after China's HYSY 981 oil rig was parked near the disputed Paracel Islands at a location about 120 miles off Vietnam's coast. Several Chinese interlocutors interviewed for the Lowy report, including government officials, were of the view that China miscalculated the strong resistance by the Vietnamese; and that was why the rig was withdrawn ahead of schedule. The interviewees also said that Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan have all been more skillful than China in garnering international support for their position.

The claim that some Asian governments have been on a 'blame and shame' campaign that demonises China as an arrogant and dangerous bully is partly accurate, although China does not do itself any favours with some of it actions. As I say in the conclusion of the Lowy report: 'The more outsiders perceive China as a bully, the more difficult it is for anyone to write objectively about the maritime disputes in China's vicinity.'

Photo courtesy of Reuters.


Media reports predict that Australia and Japan will sign a historic defence and security pact when Prime Minister Tony Abbott visits Japan this weekend. If this news is accurate, one must hope that Australia has prepared a major security-related deliverable for Abbott to propose to President Xi Jinping when he visits China some days later.

As I have argued in an Asan Forum piece, the most consequential foreign policy challenge the Abbott Government faces is how Australia manages its relations with China and Japan.

Not taking sides between China and Japan is pivotal for Australia if it wants to effectively protect and pursue its interests. Obviously, delicate balancing and innovative maneuvering are essential  to ensure beneficial relations with both Beijing and Tokyo. Thus, a security pact with Japan requires something of substance in the security realm with China. What could that be?

In a Lowy Institute Analysis outlining key international priorities for the new Abbott Government last September, I suggested Canberra should establish a major regional training centre for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) in Darwin and invite China to be an active participant. A state-of-the-art HADR centre would both raise Australia's profile as a regional player and encourage China to increase its defence cooperation with the region.

As Rory Medcalf argues on The Interpreter today, as a result of Australia's coordination of the international search for Malaysia Airlines flight 370, Abbott has 'an exceptional opportunity to underscore Australia's determination to work with the major Asian powers against common challenges'.

Abbott's Beijing visit would be the ideal moment for the Prime Minister to announce Australia's intention to host a regional HADR centre, emphasising China's important role in it – or better yet, as a partner in the initiative.


In my concluding thoughts on a report compiling four workshop papers about tensions in the East China Sea, published by the Lowy Institute on 7 January, I note that it is impossible to predict the consequences of the vicious tit-for-tat cycle which Beijing and Tokyo have fallen into over the past 16 months.

Re-reading the papers by Jin Canrong, Noburo Yamaguchi and Bonnie Glaser reminded me of the step-by-step escalation in tensions between Tokyo and Beijing since the papers were presented at the June 2013 workshop. After Tokyo in September 2012 upset Beijing by purchasing three of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands from their private owner, China-Japan relations have become more fraught with each passing provocation:

  • China has continued to regularly dispatch patrols by law enforcement agency vessels and aircraft to assert its perceived sovereignty over what it calls the Diaoyu Islands. Japan, in turn, has persevered in countering the Chinese patrols with its Coast Guard vessels and by scrambling aircraft.
  • Japan has not budged in its insistence that there is no dispute over sovereignty of the islands, which in Japanese are called Senkaku; hence Tokyo sees no reason to discuss this issue with Beijing.
  • In November China announced a controversial Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ), which includes the disputed islands and also overlaps with Japan's and South Korea's ADIZ.
  • In December Prime Minister Shinzo Abe upped the ante by visiting the Yasukuni shrine (pictured), described by James Fallows as symbolising 'Imperial Japan's aggressive war cruelty'. Because it honours the souls of 14 Class-A war criminals and features a museum that whitewashes Japan's past aggressions, a visit to Yasukuni by a government leader is seen across Asia as proof that Japan is not sincere in its repentance of Japan's atrocities against civilians during World War II.

It seems that with each step, fewer days elapse before there is news of yet another provocation. On 8 January Japan scrambled a military jet in response to a Chinese government plane seen flying towards the disputed islands, the first such incident since China declared its ADIZ. That same day Japan announced the nationalisation of 280 remote islands in its exclusive economic zone. Though the locations of these 280 islands are not yet known and it is not clear whether they are contested, the move nonetheless will stoke suspicions in China (and South Korea) about Japan's pursuit of a more assertive security strategy in its region.

One can surmise that China will continue to increase pressure on Japan to recognise that sovereignty over the islands is indeed contested. Tokyo will presumably continue to push back, maintaining its position of having sole sovereignty over the islands.

The positions of the Beijing and Tokyo governments have hardened, and there is no circuit breaker in sight.


Many readers know the lines from the 19th century fable about Goldilocks and the three bears: 'not too hot, not too cold, just right.' Those lines come to mind when reading the mostly positive initial reports of the informal summit between presidents Obama and Xi. These two leaders needed to get it 'just right' if this summit and the opportunity for the two to get to know each other are to have any substantive effect on US-China relations.

Now and in the future, Obama needs to ensure that he is not perceived as having conceded too much to China. Xi must ensure that he is perceived as having gotten enough for China. It's a fine line to walk if both are to be viewed as winners.

Economic interdependence between the two countries is deep, and both acknowledge the need to cooperate with each other. Yet the fundamental strategic goals of Beijing and Washington are at odds. The US is the world's only superpower and wishes to preserve its dominant position. Beijing, the rising power, wants control over what it sees as its core interests in its periphery, especially the East China Sea and South China Sea.

Will a personal connection between Obama and Xi make a difference? It won't remove the tension in the two countries' strategic intent. But it could help iron out misunderstandings and contribute to problem-solving on pressing issues of mutual interest, like North Korea.

But it would be unrealistic to expect too much from one summit. Both leaders, especially Xi, are constrained by pressures from elites back home which have very diverse views of how to deal with the other.

China would like to see the 'new kind of great power relationship' (the term Xi promotes to describe China-US relations) as being one between equals. Some Chinese commentators already insinuate that the summit did indeed cement that definition.

From Washington's viewpoint, this is not getting it 'just right'. The US remains the dominant, established power, while China is the rising power. Tensions between Washington and Beijing are bound to continue, whether or not Obama and Xi get along at the personal level.


Much has been made of the fact that the Chinese and American presidents are meeting in informal surroundings on Friday at the Sunnylands retreat, the former estate of Walter Annenberg in Rancho Mirage, California. Protocol will be kept to a minimum and the presidents will meet in short-sleeved shirts.

Chinese officials are usually extremely pedantic about protocol when senior leaders travel abroad, especially when the head of state visits the US. As Susan V Lawrence noted before Xi visited Washington, DC as vice-president in February 2012, Chinese officials want to ensure that the image projected back to domestic audiences is one of a Chinese leader who is able to 'hold his own with the US president and command international respect.'

This matters enormously because the images can be used within the Communist Party to demonstrate US respect for the leader, and thus boost his stature.

So, why has Xi agreed to this informal setting for his first visit to the US as China's president? Since becoming China's top leader last November, Xi has made it clear that he wants to distinguish himself from his predecessor, Hu Jintao. Hu was known for his stiff, cardboard-like persona. When Xi walked on to the stage for the first time as head of the Chinese Communist Party he was smiling and he gave a speech using ordinary language (without mentioning Marxism a single time). Xi espouses confidence and a jovial demeanour.

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Chinese officials' insistence on formality is in part a reflection of the formalistic rituals which were an inherent part of interaction in Chinese traditional and hierarchal society. But I have always interpreted the near-obsession of officials in modern China with protocol as a sign of Chinese insecurity. Despite China's rise, Beijing's leaders continuously seek respect from the West and the US in particular. If Xi is feeling more confident or, more importantly, wants to be perceived as confident and secure in his position, there's no reason to be so insistent on protocol or formality issues.

Will the informal setting make a difference? It could. The intention of the two-day retreat is for the presidents to get to know each other and start building personal trust. There is a bigger chance of this happening if they are not boxed in by formal procedures and protocol.

At least Xi won't suffer the fate of Hu Jintao, who on his first visit to the US as head of state in 2006 was heckled by a Falun Gong protester during the welcome ceremony on the south lawn of the White House. A little later he had to suffer the humiliation of the White House announcer confusing the official name of China with that of Taiwan (Republic of China) when introducing the national anthem.

Photo by Flickr user Antonio Villaraigrossa.


For a few hours this evening Australian time, media outlets from around the world will zoom in on Kiruna, Sweden's northernmost city of 18,000 inhabitants and host to the Arctic Council ministerial meeting. The foreign ministers of the eight Arctic Council member states – Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia and the US – will attend the two-hour meeting, held every other year.

It is a sign of the times that the most controversial issue on the agenda will be whether China will be granted permanent observer status.

China, along with six other countries and seven organisations also vying to become permanent observers, wants to ensure that it will receive an invitation to Arctic Council meetings in future. That is the only concrete benefit permanent observers have compared to ad hoc observers. Observers do not have voting rights nor are they allowed to address the ministerial meeting.

At the last two ministerial meetings a decision about accepting new permanent observers has been postponed due to a lack of consensus among member states. Why? No official wants to say it publicly, but unofficially Arctic watchers know that it is because Russia is wary of allowing China in to one of the last forums at which Russia is not overshadowed by its former 'little brother'.

Another complication is that Canada does not want the European Union, another permanent observer applicant, to be allowed in because of their differing stances on seal hunting.

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The Council meets behind closed doors and formal decisions are made through consensus. No voting takes place. Sticky issues like that of China's role are discussed in smaller groups of diplomats and ministers. China, an ad hoc observer since 2009, has lobbied hard to win support for its application. All five Nordic countries have publicly endorsed Beijing's application. Where Washington stands on the issue of permanent observers is unclear.

As a major power, China views as natural its participation in discussions about future Arctic governance structures. Chinese scholars have started to refer to China as a 'near-Arctic state' and an 'Arctic stakeholder' in an effort to emphasise that the melting ice will have a profound effect on countries that are not Arctic states. The effects of global warming on the Arctic environment will indeed affect agriculture in countries like China and potentially transform global shipping routes.

Then there are the energy and mineral resources under the Arctic seabed. Widely varying estimates of these deposits abound, as do exaggerated predictions of their accessibility. The identifiable resources are located within state borders or the universally agreed upon 200-nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone of the coastal states and thus not subject to dispute.

Only some years ago few people had ever even heard of the Arctic Council. It is not a formal international organisation with a firm legal charter. Rather, it is an intergovernmental forum, established in 1996, to enhance cooperation on environmental issues and the rights of indigenous peoples. To date, the Arctic Council has agreed on one binding accord, on search and rescue. Another one is expected to be announced in Kiruna.

The hype about China's permanent observer bid is far-fetched. It's not as if the Arctic Council has far-flung powers. Swedish Arctic Ambassador Gustaf Lind's comment at a gathering of Arctic experts last November is telling: one of the achievements of the Sweden's two-year Arctic Council chairmanship has been to ensure that document pages are now numbered.

The hype reflects two anxieties. Or, to quote Dr Kristian Kristensen of the University of Copenhagen, twin fears are feeding each other. China evokes anxiety because no one knows what kind of power China will evolve into over the coming decades. And there is uncertainty and anxiety about the consequences of the melting Arctic ice.

Rejecting China's desire to participate as an observer in discussions pertaining to the Arctic future is not a sensible approach. As I have argued, Arctic Council member states can both protect their own interests and support permanent observer status for China and others. By backing China's application, Arctic Council members would give up little in the way of direct influence on Arctic matters, while benefiting from substantial discussions with Beijing to better understand its Arctic intentions. Furthermore, engaging China more deeply in Arctic Council activities will encourage Beijing to pay serious attention to legitimate environmental concerns pertaining to shipping and possible resource exploration in the fragile Arctic environment.

Photo by Flickr user NASA Goddard Photo and Video.


The strategic partnership between Australia and China announced yesterday has been a long 24 months in the making. As with any initiative requiring the approval of senior Chinese leaders, there have been fits and starts along the way. Less than a month ago, when the countdown to Julia Gillard's departure to China had begun, the Prime Minister's Office was still in a state of suspense. There was no certainty that the Chinese hosts were prepared to make a commitment in time before Gillard's visit to China.

When Gillard visited China for the first time as Australian prime minister in April 2011, she mentioned in passing to her hosts the need for a more structured relationship. In March 2012 she sent a letter to then-President Hu Jintao proposing that the countries solidify their relations by committing to a regular high-level dialogue. DFAT Secretary Dennis Richardson was sent to Beijing in August 2012 to follow up on the proposal. All the while, senior Australian leaders and diplomats kept the issue alive in meetings with their Chinese counterparts. The Chinese did not reject the idea but were non-committal.

China's sluggish response was presumably a result of a general slowdown in decision-making amid the leadership transition in China.

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First, the new leaders of the Communist Party of China had to be decided at the Party Congress in November 2012. After that, the government realignment was negotiated, culminating in the National People's Congress (NPC) in early March. Consequently, the appointments of the new State Councilor in charge of foreign policy (Yang Jiechi) and China's new foreign minister (Wang Yi) were announced on 16 March.

Only after the conclusion of the NPC did the Australian foreign policy officials involved in the process start to breathe more freely: Gillard and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang spoke by phone and it was evident that China was ready to announce the establishment of the strategic partnership during Gillard's visit.

Until now, Australia's political relationship with China has been far less developed than its economic relationship. As I argued in a June 2012 Lowy Institute Policy Brief, Australia-China Ties: In Search of Political Trust, the lack of a senior-level dialogue that focuses on political and strategic issues as well as economic ties is detrimental to Australia's interests. Australian and Chinese leaders must have a platform to regularly discuss both bilateral and regional issues.

Gillard and her team, including Australia's Ambassador in Beijing Frances Adamson, deserve credit for providing that platform. An annual meeting between the respective prime ministers, as well as annual cabinet-level strategic dialogues focusing on foreign policy and economics, comprise an impressive package. It was no easy feat to gain traction within the Chinese bureaucracy so soon after the new Chinese Government was announced.

Photo courtesy of @JuliaGillard.


Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard achieved a diplomatic breakthrough in Beijing today when she and China's Premier Li Keqiang agreed that Australia and China will forge a strategic partnership. There will be an official announcement from Gillard and Premier Li in the next few hours. Consequently, the respective prime ministers will hold annual meetings and two Cabinet-level strategic dialogues will take place every year focusing on foreign policy and economics.

As I wrote in a June 2012 Lowy Institute Policy Brief, In Search of Political Trust: Australia-China Ties, Australia needs an annual structured high-level strategic and economic dialogue with China to ensure that Canberra's views are heard and taken seriously in Beijing. Australia must seek substantial political ties with China, the world's second largest economy and the country on which Australia's economic well-being is founded.

The decision to form a strategic partnership is significant. The announced partnership's architecture will facilitate regular high-level talks about both bilateral problems as well as regional issues. As I argued ten months ago, if political and strategic relations remain underdeveloped, it is conceivable that Canberra and Beijing will be unable to resolve problems within the economic relationship which inevitably emerge from time to time. Gillard has taken the first important step forward on the long march toward building political trust between the two countries.

I'll write more soon on the inside story of how this diplomatic breakthrough occurred.



Looking at the line-up of China's new leaders, two things stand out. First, Jiang Zemin, the 86-year old who was China's leader from 1989-2002, ought to be a very content man. Of the new seven-member Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), three owe political allegiance to Jiang, who almost literally returned from his grave to wield authority as Party elder in the selection of PSC members behind the scenes. (A year ago Jiang was reported to be dead or dying but obviously someone was jumping the gun.)

Outgoing leader Hu Jintao has only two allies in the new all-powerful group, the most important one being Li Keqiang, who will be the new Premier, and Liu Yunshan, who will presumably be in charge of propaganda. The new top leader, Xi Jinping (pictured), is neither directly a Jiang or Hu protégé but acceptable to both.

The remaining PSC member, Wang Qishan, who has been given the task of tackling corruption, is closer to Jiang than Hu, but reputed to be very much his own man. He could prove to be a key figure in the new leadership. Though Li Keqiang will formally be in charge of the economy, Wang can be expected to weigh in on major economic decisions. Wang is a historian by training but has been a influential economic leader in recent years.

The second observation is that China has been taken over by princelings. 'Princelings' is a colloquial Chinese political term for the sons and daughters of revolutionary Communist leaders. They are strongly resented by many Chinese because they are looked upon as having advanced their careers and amassed fortunes because of their privileged backgrounds. The fall of princeling Bo Xilai exposed the extent of corruption which surrounds the offspring of those who founded the People's Republic of China.

In addition to Xi Jinping, two of the PSC members are princelings, and Wang Qishan is reportedly the son of a high-level official and married to a princeling. Regardless of whether princelings are competent leaders, they do not evoke respect or confidence, especially among the younger generation of Chinese, who yearn to see their country reform into a more just and equitable society.

Both the opaque way in which the leaders of China were (yet again) selected behind closed doors and the outcome reflect how estranged the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party has become from the country's populace.

Photo by Flickr user Secretary of Defense.


While we wait for the announcement later today of who will govern China over the next five to ten years, it is worth digesting a few facts about China's new group of 205 most influential citizens.

These are the 195 men and 10 women selected on Wednesday as members of the new Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party before the closing of the 18th National Congress. Additionally, there is a group of 171 alternate members of the Central Committee, the so-called B-Group of the country's most prestigious citizens.

The number of women among Central Committee members dropped from 13 to 10, remarkable considering the tiny proportion of females chosen in 2007. China has sent its first female astronaut into space, but Communist Party politics remains basically a mens club. The present 24-member Politburo has one female member, Liu Yandong. Though she has been mentioned as a candidate for the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee, it is highly unlikely she will be among that group when it today marches on to the stage in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

Another discriminated group within the Chinese political domain is the business community. Not a single entrepreneur made it on to the Central Committee, even as an alternate member.

Unsurprisingly, the new Central Committee includes all the men and women who have been tipped to be among candidates to be elevated today to the Politburo and all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee. Equally unsurprising is that real competition even for this larger group of leaders was extremely limited, with only 19 candidates eliminated from a list of 224 names on the basis of the secret ballot. More...


Daniel Bell, a Canadian who teaches political science at Tsinghua, one of China's most prestigious universities, has of late been rattling foreign China watchers with his commentary about alternatives to democracy in China.

Bell claims that because democracy is flawed as an ideal, China's political future is more likely to be determined by the Confucian tradition of 'humane authority'. He also criticises Westerners who judge political progress simply by asking whether China is becoming more democratic.

I share some of Bell's concerns about the dangers of thinking about China's political future as a linear path with the ultimate goal of multi-party parliamentarianism. I also agree with Bell about the need for cultural sensitivity when assessing developments in China (or any other country).

Now, however, Bell has taken his ideas a step too far.

In an opinion piece called 'In Defence of How China Picks its Leaders', written with Eric Li, a Shanghai-based American venture capitalist, Bell states that the Chinese political system 'comes close to the best formula for governing a large country: meritocracy at the top, democracy at the bottom, with room for experimentation in-between.' He also writes that the 'Chinese regime has developed the right formula for choosing political rulers that is consistent with China's culture and history and suitable to modern circumstances.'

If I did not know that Bell does indeed live in Beijing I would think he is locked up in an ivory tower on an isolated island.

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To state that 'the advantages of Chinese-style meritocracy are clear' is absurd. Certainly, Chinese officials are more competent and knowledgeable than before the reform period, when political correctness was the overriding criteria for a successful official. But China's Communist Party today rules a political system characterised by nepotism and patron-client ties, rampant corruption, and privileged citizens' outright contempt for the law.

In the more than twenty years I lived and worked in China I never had a conversation with a single Chinese who approved of the secretive manner in which the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party are chosen, nor of Communist Party officials being promoted based on their family background or support by powerful and corrupt mentors. Chinese citizens yearn to live in a political system governed by a rule of law and checks-and-balances that aim to provide transparency and accountability.

As for Bell's and Li's claims that in a big country, 'one person, one vote' is problematic, perhaps one could point them in the direction of Indonesia where – despite the ongoing problems of democratic transition – 62% of Indonesians said democracy was preferable to any other form of government, according to the 2012 Lowy Institute Indonesia Poll.

Photo by Flickr user Remko Tanis.


Yesterday I saw myself misquoted by Xinhua, China's official news agency: 

On the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue, China, as the host of the Six-Party Talks, has functioned as more than just a coordinator. Linda Jacobson, East Asia program director at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Australia, said China had played a responsible part both in facilitating talks and in solving emergencies, which was conducive to regional security.

I have not spoken with anyone from Xinhua for exactly one year. A year ago I attended an international seminar organised in Beijing by the Chinese Foreign Ministry's international relations institute about the Korean Peninsula. I agreed to be interviewed by a Xinhua reporter. I asked to see the quotes, and was shown them but later informed that my quotes would not be needed. In the quote which I checked and approved I said: 

Back in the period 2007-2009 China was looked upon as a constructive player in the 6-party talks BUT since the Choenan Incident in 2010 and Beijing's choice of reaction thereafter, China's credibility as a broker on the Korean Peninsula has come into question.

This is annoying. Xinhua's confected quote will be reproduced in literally dozens of newspapers and other news services worldwide. Xinhua News Agency is, after all, China's sole official news service, and used widely around the globe.

I'm not the only Lowy Institute scholar to be misquoted by China's media, and this incident serves as yet another example of how frustratingly difficult it is to convey one's thoughts to Chinese readers. Millions of Chinese citizens are keen to learn about foreigners' views, but the official media continues to either censor or intentionally misconstrue any stance which does not conform to what the propaganda officials have deemed as the correct interpretation.


The Chinese Government continues to keep its citizens and the rest of the world in the dark about the health and whereabouts of China's leader-in-waiting, Xi Jinping, who has not been seen in public since 1 September. Yet, wild rumours about Xi's possible fate seem to be overblown.

If Xi was gravely ill or had encountered political problems, which would call into question his anointment as head of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) at the upcoming Party Congress, senior leaders would not be traveling and the leadership would be convening in Beijing. That is standard CCP practice at a time of crisis. Yet Hu Jintao did not cut short his trip to Vladivostok for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum; another senior leader, Wu Bangguo, traveled to Iran; and a third high-ranking official has visited Sichuan this week.

Emails from Chinese friends report that there is no sign of heightened security in Beijing, another sign that Chinese leaders are not bracing for a political crisis.

I recall that in 1993 then-Premier Li Peng was not seen in public for seven weeks, leading to similar gossip and rumours of an impending political crisis. In those days, this all took place via word-of-mouth. There was no internet and no Weibo (a Chinese version of Twitter except that the Chinese Government tries to censor Weibo). Today, more than 300 million Chinese have social media accounts. Xi's mysterious disappearance is a hot topic.

The ongoing Xi debacle is one further sign that the contradictions of China's political system are reaching a crescendo. Senior CCP officials, especially those in charge of propaganda and communication, are completely out of touch with reality and the aspirations of Chinese citizens. China is today a vibrant, multi-faceted society in which people discuss, probe, and have opinions. But the Communist Party leadership clings to its rigid and secretive ways, and plays deaf. In the words of the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, 'We have told everybody everything.'

Photo by Flickr user Antonio Villaigrosa.


Chinese strategic thinkers, who previously did not pay much attention to far-off Australia, now want to know more about the 'Darwin decision'. Was it directed at China, they ask? And how does the 'Darwin decision' figure in US strategic plans to re-balance in Asia?

Today, 'Darwin' is nearly a synonym for 'Australia' in the vocabulary of Chinese strategists. It has put Australia on the radar of Chinese security analysts in a way it was not before Barack Obama's visit in November 2011.

Media attention has focused on the announcement that US Marines will be based in Darwin for parts of the year to train with the Australian Defence Force. However, Canberra and Washington also agreed that the US would be granted greater access to Australian bases, particularly airfields (for US jet fighters and B-52 bombers); would be allowed to preposition fuel, ammunition and spare parts; and would develop plans with Australia to increase the use of Western Australia's Stirling naval base by US vessels.

On the basis of three visits to Beijing this year, I do not think China's security establishment is convinced that 'this is not about China'.

Since the Obama-Gillard visit, Darwin has been the scene of another high level meeting, the Australia-Indonesia leaders summit in early July. As Peter Hartcher notes, Darwin was the meeting place of choice for Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY). Of course, by choosing Darwin, SBY saved on flight time, but could there also have been symbolism in choice of host city?

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Hartcher suggests it was tacit signal of SBY's approval of Washington's commitment to a continued US presence in Southeast Asia. Immediately after the 'Darwin decision' was announced, Indonesia's Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said that the US deployment plan risked creating a 'vicious circle of tension and mistrust in the region' unless its purpose was made transparent. Hartcher implies that, by his presence in Darwin, SBY was subtly distancing himself from the criticism made by his Foreign Minister.

Darwin needs to be demystified. So why not start by a symbolic step and have the next meeting between the Australian prime minister and visiting senior Chinese leader in Darwin?

In a recent Lowy Institute Policy Brief, I recommended that China be invited to participate in the planned humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) joint exercises off Darwin involving Australia, the US and Indonesia. The PLA might initially refuse, and even if it accepted, it would probably first send merely a handful of observers. But the invitation would send a signal to Beijing: the 'Darwin decision' was not (all) about China. Darwin could be made into a regional HADR base for bilateral and multilateral exercises including with the PLA. It could also be used more often as a venue for summits focusing on regional security.

Visiting VIPs would get a feel for Australia's multi-ethnic population in this city of 127,000 inhabitants. The present Lord Mayor of Darwin is Katrina Fong Lim, a fourth-generation Chinese Australian. Her father, Alex Fong Lim, was Australia's first Lord Mayor of ethnic Chinese descent and was awarded the Order of Australia in 1986 for his services. His grandparents arrived in the Northern Territory from China during the 1880s.

Australia should use the Darwin aura to its advantage.

Photo by Flickr user Julia Gillard.