Don’t you ever change

The Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore currently has an exhibition going on to do with the idea of the scholar in Chinese culture. (Long story short.)

Among the exhibits is this:

ACM Confucius crib sheet

Doesn’t look very interesting, does it?

ACM analects crib sheet

If that’s too small to read, here you go:

Crib sheet with the Analects of Confucius
China, 19th century
Ink on silk

In order to cheat on the Imperial examinations, the Analects (论语) have been written in tiny characters on both sides of this piece of silk, which could easily be smuggled into the exam room.

Bearing in mind the fact that Confucius was pretty much the origin of the Chinese obsession with the idea of scholarly virtue, and the exams themselves tended to feature a preponderance of questions on that same broad topic, the discovery that such a proof of subversion exists made me ridiculously happy.

 

Not being absent

Xi and Putin

“I’ll have what he’s having.”

A few days back it was related in the media that Chinese government-affiliated tabloid and rabble-rouser the Global Times had published an editorial saying:

China will look for past references on how Russia has taken action against Eastern European countries which have deployed the U.S.’s missile defense systems at their borders.

Link.

Woah, right?

Here it is, in black and white:

对于韩国,要明确表达我们反对部署萨德系统,如果韩国不听劝阻坚持部署,中国就有必要参考俄罗斯对东欧国家部署美国反导系统时所做的那些回应。

Link.

So that’s what Xi Jinping meant when he talked about “not being absent“.

When asked if this represented the Chinese government’s position, Hong Lei made vague, generic statements about THAAD being bad for regional stability.

Let’s Talk about Nukes (Baby)

Homer rides the bomb

There’s been so much interesting communication surrounding North Korea’s possible H-bomb test that I decided to save it all up and cover it in one long, rambling, semi-coherent post.

You’re welcome.

Firstly, was it an H-bomb? Probably, strictly speaking, not. It should have been far bigger if it really was an H-bomb, whereas in fact, this test appears to have been slightly smaller than the previous one. There’s a good reason that most countries prefer to test their H-bombs at sea.

According to analysts, this was not the only WMD-related bit of trickery on display either. It seems that recent videos of submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) launches may have been strategically edited to make them look more impressive than was, in fact, the case.

In short order, the 24-hour rolling Chinese whispers media turned this into North Korea “faking video footage” and then into “North Korea ‘Hydrogen bomb’ test was FAKED using footage of old Scud missile launch, experts claim“.

Meh. These are journalists writing to a deadline. You can’t reasonably expect them to understand that a nuclear bomb is a different thing from a missile (crash course: the latter can potentially be used to transport the former), and that North Korea tested both in quick succession.

However, while we’re on the subject of maximising the intimidation factor of possibly underwhelming weapons, this is worth listening to. Some guy has converted the seismic signatures of the North Korean nuclear tests into sound files, and they’re incredibly eerie to listen to. If you need reminding why this should scare the hell out of us, have a listen.

But why did North Korea choose to test its bomb now? Well, anti-regime news outlet, the Daily NK, reckons it was to give Kim Jong Un a legitimacy boost ahead of the forthcoming WPK Party Congress, and various other writers – plus Russiahave pointed out that North Korea really has very little to lose by continuing nuclear tests, what with no other country being prepared to go upside Kim’s head with anything more than token sanctions (we’ve covered the symbolic vocabulary of international sanctions here before). However, it seems to be Andrei Lankov who has really nailed it.

Not only does he point out that any from-scratch nuclear programme requires much testing as a matter of course, (any idiot can build a bomb – here you go – building a better bomb, however, requires huge amounts of test data), but he notes:

The diplomatic damage could be easily have been neutralized, had the North Korean diplomats been ordered to be less active last year. It would make much more sense to wait for the test which, as the North Korean government knew, was coming, to weather the predictable diplomatic storm and then start sending delegations across the globe with peaceful initiatives and sweet talks of cooperation and investment. Cynically speaking, a little nuclear test would probably help to advance the message of peace, love and aid. It is always advisable first look menacing and then talk sweet. But the North Koreans did exactly the opposite.

Worse still, it seems to be a pattern, since we have seen this before. In 2011-12 North Koreans negotiated the so-called “Leap Day Agreement” with the U.S. (signed on February 29, hence the name). This agreement implied that North Korea would receive regular shipments of the U.S. aid in exchange for its willingness to refrain from nuclear tests and missile launches. From the North Korean point of view, this was a good agreement, since the American diplomats, often working against the mood which at the time prevailed in Washington, essentially agreed to pay Pyongyang for temporarily freezing its nuclear and missile program.

However, the 2012 Leap Day Agreement survived for merely a fortnight. In mid-March the North Korean government told the world that soon North Korea would launch a “satellite,” essentially testing long-range missile technology, and the agreement collapsed, leaving much bad feeling behind. Even now, four years later, all talks in the U.S. State Department about negotiating with the North are bound to be met with a reminder about the failure of the “Leap Day Agreement.” Essentially, this debacle made negotiations impossible for years to come.

Once again, had North Koreans back then decided to wait, and have a missile launch first, only to negotiate later, they would probably secure a great supply of free food for a promise (admittedly, rather shallow) not to do this again. So, it was an easily avertable problem. The only reason why it happened was the inability or unwillingness of the North Korean top leadership to coordinate the actions of the diplomats with the plans of its military-industrial complex. Had Kim Jong Un or somebody with sufficient power just bothered to order diplomats to remain quiet for some time, the 2012 debacle would not have happened.

Back then, the situation could be explained by the hectic nature of the power transition period: The negotiations and launch coincided with sudden demise of Kim Jong Il. However, this time, when similar mistake happened again, such excuses are rather difficult to make: Kim Jong Un is in control of his realm.

The conclusion is not very encouraging. It is possible that, at least in some cases, North Korea might resemble a ship without rudder – or, perhaps, a ship whose captain spends too much time entertaining his guests. This is dangerous in many regards, but let’s hope that Kim Jong Un and his advisers eventually learn from their mistakes.

Link.

(We’ve also covered the fact that North Korea’s various state organs increasingly seem to be working at cross-purposes, and speculated on the possibility of an autocracy without an autocrat before.)

This certainly seems consistent with North Korea’s post-test diplomacy, which has focused on the argument that the nuclear programme is a necessary defence against US threats. In one of his increasingly frequent interviews, Ambassador to London Hyon Hak Bong pointed out relatively mildly that “We develop nuclear weapons not to threaten the world with war but to protect our independence. We want peace, but our nation has been victimised for centuries by one invader and then another.”

Meanwhile, in an oddly touching follow-your-dreams piece in the Pyongyang Times, a local university student wrote about how the nuclear programme can be understood as a victory for juche (“self-development”).

In a rather more forthright declaration, KCNA announced that “strategic patience” had been “completely defeated” and cited Iraq and Libya as examples of the fate that awaits nations that don’t have a nuclear deterrent. And, well, the least you can say is that they’re not actually wrong…

Interestingly, China seemed to back this argument up via a Xinhua thinkpiece, which was more or less equally pissy with both sides, criticizing the US and the DPRK in roughly equal proportions.

South Korea, for its part, returned to a tried and tested riposte: blasting K-pop across the DMZ at ear-shattering volumes, this having been proven to drive the North Korean leadership into a steaming rage. This time around the hits include Apink’s “Just Let Us Love” and G-Friend’s “Me Gustas Tu”, which is rather sweet. North Korea responded by air-dropping flyers calling President Park a bitch.

The US response, by contrast, veered half-heartedly in several different directions before settling into pffft-let-the-next-guy-deal-with-it indifference.

The initial response, tweeted in the immediate aftermath is quite impressively disinterested:

Which is moderately interesting in itself. We’ve apparently reached a point at which the appropriate response to an H-bomb is ennui. Say what you like about modern civilisation, but we’ve come a long way since the 60s.

As one Twitter user commented:

With time it became apparent that something more was needed. The aforementioned additional sanctions were rolled out, to the eternal Soviet cynicism of Lankov:

In the next few weeks we will see a repeat of the same cycle we have seen so many times over the past 10 years.

The UN security council will have an urgent meeting that will introduce sanctions targeting North Korea. Such sanctions will allow politicians to explain to their voters that they are punishing a rogue regime in all ways imaginable – for instance, depriving the leadership of Hennessey cognac and Godiva chocolate. Credulous voters will agree and feel placated, but in actuality, such measures will make little if any difference.

Even if sanctions were to inflict damage on the North Korean economy – which has exceptionally low dependence on foreign trade – the only victims will be common North Koreans, who will just suffer more.

Of course, the top leadership might lose access to champagne, but in their eyes, this is a small price to pay for escaping the fates of Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein.

Link.

Also, one of the Guam-based B52s was given a bit of an airing, though Van Jackson pointed out that this gesture could well end up being misinterpreted:

What’s the point of perpetuating high-friction hostilities with North Korea if it just encourages North Korean provocations that chip away at the credibility of our extended deterrence commitment to South Korea? Do we actually intend to wage nuclear conflict in North Korea over a nuclear test or a small-scale act of violence along the DMZ? I don’t think so. It’s wholly incompatible with a history of risk averse policy on the Korean Peninsula, and that makes it inherently incredible.

But what if U.S. risk propensity really has changed? What if we are willing to get tough with North Korea the next time it engages in violence or does something more provocative than a nuclear test, despite a history that suggests the contrary? I’ve often advocated a more muscular approach to North Korea. If the United States is committed to firm retaliation and matching North Korean escalation move for move, the B-52 isn’t what’s going to convince North Korea of that.

One reason is that the B-52 is a routine signal that we’ve trotted out many times; it’s part of our history of backing down followed by muscle-flexing. There’s no way for North Korea to know that this time is different, which means we’re inviting a war by permitting North Korea to think we won’t retaliate even though we will. We want North Korea to interpret the B-52 as “We really mean it this time,” but they see it as “business as usual.”

Another reason the B-52 overflight fails to convey resolve is the very fact that it’s not really much of a signal at all. In Robert Jervis’s most underrated work, The Logic of Images in International Relations, he draws a crucial distinction between signals and indices:

“Signals are statements or actions…issued mainly to influence the receiver’s image of the sender…They do not contain inherent credibility…Indices are statements or actions that carry some inherent evidence that the image projected is correct because they are believed to be inextricably linked to the actor’s capabilities or intentions.”

Unless signals tie the hands of the sender through some reliable mechanism that forces it to commit, signal “receivers can be expected to at least partially discount them…” Add to this a Korea context in which U.S. nuclear signals have been part of a pattern of both hostility and irresoluteness, and you have a feckless symbol of U.S. and South Korean antipathy toward North Korea, not resolve.

Now I’ll grant that nuclear signaling with the B-52 does serve one constructive purpose: assurance of a South Korean ally that in recent years has grown to question the reliability and utility of the U.S. extended deterrence—that is, “nuclear umbrella”—commitment. The South Korean government clearly supported the B-52 deployment; it was, after all, escorted by South Korean fighters, which hasn’t always happened during past B-52 overflights.

But the B-52 is also problematic from an ally assurance perspective. Unless we plan to initiate a new program of constantly sending the B-52 to Korea—creating new indices, in effect—its deployment is too temporary to shift South Korean perceptions of U.S. reliability.

Link.

This was swiftly followed by a new OPLAN stating that in the event of war on the Korean Peninsula, the US will strike North Korean nuclear and missile bases.

US RoK oplan

Also, a plan for a joint US-RoK exercise simulating a nuclear attack on the North.

Unfortunately, all this good work was immediately undone when President Obama omitted to mention the nuclear test in his State of the Union Address. According to the White House this was to avoid giving North Korea “attention” (It being well-known that North Korea disappears if you don’t look directly at it. Always use a pinhole camera or special goggles.)

Naturally, this being Obama’s last SOTU, he wanted to end on a high note and not bring downer subjects like North Korea into the equation. The South Koreans did not see it that way, however, with the Chosun Ilbo producing a we’re-not-angry-just-disappointed op-ed entitled “Obama Speech Shows He Cares Little About N.Korea”.

Almost immediately, several opinion pieces came out hinting more or less openly that South Korea should acquire a deterrent of its own, despite this idea being so taboo that the Daily NK felt obliged to preface its own article with a trigger warning.

In the end, however, the South Korean government settled for dropping some pretty heavy hints about deploying the US-made THAAD missile defence system on its territory, an idea that China hates enough that the threat alone was apparently enough to convince it to throw its support behind additional UN sanctions.

The Chinese internet reacts to North Korea’s nuclear test

nuclear test observers

I translated these posts from the Tiexue bbs (a site specialising in fenqing and armchair generals, plus a few genuine experts) for a news piece. They weren’t used in the end, so enjoy.

I was rushing for a deadline, so the translations are quick-and-dirty, and – to be perfectly frank – I don’t care sufficiently to rework them. The sense and the tone are there.

They come from this page and this one.

朝鲜半岛无核化及和平统一是中国一贯的主张并为之积极加强跟各方沟通,朝鲜核试有美国威胁的成分,更多的是美国为一己之私故意毁约和刺激朝鲜的结果,但朝鲜也违背了自己的承诺并给中国带来了影响。 据报道今天上午,位于中朝边界的延吉、珲春、长白县等地均有明显震感。延吉市民反映,当时桌椅摇晃持续几秒,有单位对室内人员进行了疏散。一高中操场地面出现裂纹,学生全部疏散,考试中断。这只是在核试时中国遭受到的影响,严格来说问题不是很大。大的问题有两个,一个是核武器的维护保养问题,如何确保安全不发生核泄露进而危及中国是中国方面要考虑的问题,朝鲜核设施离中朝边境太近,一旦出事有可能给中国带来危害。二是核设施及核武器的安全保卫,网上就有前几年某个国家派出特种兵偷袭朝鲜核设施被全歼的传言,不知真实与否,但无论平时还是战时,这些目标都是敌方侦察打击的重点目标,受到攻击会波及中国

“The denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula has always been China’s goal, and China has always tried to strengthen communications between the parties. While North Korea’s nuclear policy is somewhat influenced by the US threat, it’s more the result of the US’s selfish and deliberate breaches of faith, which have provoked the North Koreans, and this is the result. Nevertheless, North Korea has also violated its agreements with China, and its actions have had an effect on us. According to reports thsi morning, the explosion was felt in various places on the China-DPRK border: Yanji, Hunchun, Changbai and other places. In Yanji tables and chairs started shaking and people were evacuated from buildings. A school playground cracked, students were evacuated and exams were interrupted. China felt the effects of this nuclear test. Sure, strictly speaking it’s not a big problem, but there are two major issues. Firstly there’s the question of maintenance: we have to consider how we are to make sure that a radiation leak in North Korea doesn’t affect China. North Korea’s nuclear facilities are close to the border, so an accident could potentially harm China. Secondly, there’s the question of the security surrounding North Korea’s nuclear installations. According to internet rumors, a few years ago a commando raid was carried out on North Korea’s nuclear facilities. I don’t know whether this is true or not, but whether in peace of war, these are key targets for enemy reconnaissance, and any attacks on them will have a spillover effect in China.”

– Qiu Weixian

朝鲜拥有氢弹,是美日逼迫所致,小日本搬起铁锤砸自己的头。朝鲜的氢弹送不到美国,但送到东京却是易如反掌!

“If N. Korea has an H-bomb, it was forced into getting it by the US and the Japanese; the Japanese have created a rod for their own back here. North Korea couldn’t deliver a bomb to the US, but it could hit Tokyo!”

– “Bu Gan Dang”
基本上赞成楼主的观点,朝鲜拥核的根源在于朝鲜缺乏安全感。而这种这种不安全感其实是美国故意制造的。朝鲜为了安全,发展了核武。然而这并没有什么卵用,凭朝鲜的技术根本威胁不到美国。再者,朝鲜自身的问题也不是仅仅靠核弹能解决的。说句难听的话,朝鲜再怎么发展核武器,还能多过当年的前苏联,苏联不照样解体了吗

“I agree with the OP basically. The cause of North Korea getting this bomb is its feeling of insecurity. The US deliberately set out to foster this sense of insecurity. In order to feel secure, North Korea is developing nuclear weapons. However, the weapons certainly won’t be used, if only because North Korean technology isn’t advanced enough to threaten the US. Moreover, using a nuclear bomb won’t solve any of North Korea’s problems. It’s a harsh truth, but developing nuclear weapons won’t help North Korea any more than it helped the former Soviet Union to survive.”
– “25660208”
朝鲜没钱的时候吓唬一下中国。如果还不行,卖两个核弹给达赖和东突,又能换钱,又能借别人的手削弱中国。就算中国有2次核打击的能力,到时候找谁报仇?日本现在又有借口发展核武了,南海又成多事之秋了。南韩呢?现在可能要和日本抱团了!

“North Korea can use this to blackmail China. If we cooperate, they can threaten to sell bombs to the Dalai Lama and the Uighurs. Either China gives them the cash, or they give the bombs to someone to weaken us. So what if China has second strike capacity? Who would we attack in retalliation? Now Japan has an excuse to develop nuclear weapons. What with that and the South China Sea business, we’re living through interesting times. And what about South Korea? They might decide to team up with Japan.”

– Yinhe Yujia

He makes a good general point, but the image of the Dalai Lama brandishing nukes is just brilliant in every possible way. Like raging Gandhi in Civilization:

Gandhi nukes Civilization

朝鲜的核武能够威胁到日本韩国就足够了,而目前这种 情况下,美国为了避免日本发展核武,只能重新将东北亚作为重点了,。

“North Korea’s threat to South Korea and Japan should be enough; under current circumstances if the US wants to persuade Japan not to develop nuclear weapons it will have to re-focus on Northeast Asia.”

– “Shuidi Dalishi”

似乎看到了沙俄祸水东引的影子。朝要么爆炸的还是原子弹地雷,地下换地上,要么得到了沙俄技术援助,要么是沙俄的成品。如果说朝独立完成他没有那么大的电力和技术储备,更没有那个经济实力。而沙俄现在在东欧乌克兰和中东有着巨大的军事政治压力,有必要让朝核发酵,拉中国下水分担压力。所以这次的核试验有沙俄的参与八九不离十。毕竟现在中国是唯一脱离中东乱局的军事大国,中国军备不弱,中国不希望朝政权消失。综上,沙俄一定在朝核问题上扮演不光彩的角色。个人观点,欢迎文明讨论。

“Seems like Mother Russia is stirring up trouble in the Far East. Whether it’s explosions from nuclear bombs or landmines, underground or above ground, it’s the result of Russian technical assistance or Russian products. Alone, North Korea wouldn’t have the power, technology or money. Russia is under enormous military and political pressure in the Ukraine, Eastern Europe and the Midle East. Russia has to stir up the North Korean nuclear issue to drag China into things and share the heat, so this nuclear test pretty much must have involved Russian participation. After all, China is the only military power not bogged down in the Middle East, and China’s military is not weak. China does not want the North Korean regime to collapse. Basically, there’s no question that Russia played a disgraceful role in this. That’s just my opinion, I invite polite discussion.”

– “zx5181680000”

朝早已和我们离心离德,为何我们不能让我国多一些朝鲜族人呢?有时觉得你的观点特悲哀,什么都替三胖辩解。让朝领导人更替成我们的人也不是不可能的。

“North Korea has long been a source of discord among us, why can’t we get our country to take in more North Koreans? Sometimes opinions like your make me feel really sad; why make excuses for Fatty III? Causing regime change in North Korea would not be impossible.”

– zx5181680000

想当初,中国和越南是同志加兄弟的关系,可是后来还是交恶了,当初越南没有核武器,中国就算出兵惩罚越南,也不用担心越南的核报复,但是要是当初越南有了核武器该怎么办?现在朝鲜进行核试验,朝鲜的核武器根本不成熟,还不能造成太大的威胁,要是以后朝鲜成为第二个越南该怎么办?所以为了避免当初越南的悲剧重演,一是不能让朝鲜半岛统一;二是坚决反对朝鲜拥核.如果朝鲜实在过分, 中国可以全面制裁朝鲜;如果朝鲜敢威胁中国的国家安全,中国绝对敢于出兵灭掉金家,然后扶植一个听话的朝鲜领导人上台。

“Originally the relationship between China and Vietnam was like that between comrades and brothers, but then we became enemies. Vietnam didn’t have nuclear weapons, so China could send troops in to punish the Vietnamese without worrying about nuclear retaliation. What would we have done if Vietnam had had nuclear weapons? Now North Korea has carries out nuclear tests, their weapons program is still not mature and for the moment they’re not a big threat, but in the future they could become a second Vietnam. What should we do about North Korea? How to avoid a second Vietnam tragedy? Firstly, it is impossible to unify Korea, secondly, China should firmly oppose North Korea’s nuclear programs and apply sanctions if North Korea goes to far. If North Korea threatens China’s security, we should definitely send troops in to dispatch Kim and replace him with a more obedient leader.”

– Xuehuagao

That last bit isn’t a mistranslation, by the way. The actual word used is 听话. If you came here looking for a glimpse into the future, that post is it.

How did the Chinese internet respond to the Paris attacks?

In a word: boringly, or I would have covered this sooner.Fluctuat nec Mergitur

“Pray for Paris”*, “Eiffel Tower closed indefinitely” and “Paris bombings and shootings” are trending on Weibo:

Weibo Pray for Paris

The other topics are 一年级·大学季  (a reality tv show), Xiong Dun (a cartoonist), Yang Mi (actress), Cecilia Boey (K-pop singer), Zhang Yuxi (actress/model), 明家三兄弟 (tv drama), and “France train derailment” – another story that came up on the same day but which has no connection to the terrorist attacks. (A lot of the comments are on the theme of misfortunes seldom arriving singly.)

The #PrayforParis and “Paris bombings and shootings” posts are mostly the same sort of sentiments as you can see on your own Facebook news feed, so there’s little point in translating them. Oh. And product placement. Always with the product placement.

What is moderately interesting is that Chinese netizens have tended to mention #PrayforParis within the wider context of everything else grim that’s currently going on (Middle East, earthquakes, refugees etc.), rather than devoting a single post to it, although it’s still worth noting that even in China it’s #PrayforParis that’s trending, not #PrayforBeirut.

Oh, and netizens are particularly interested in this guy:

guy saved by a bullet hitting his phone

… who claims he was saved when a bullet ricocheted off his phone rather than his head.

Incidentally, the Eiffel Tower thing is doing well because a great number of Chinese netizens have a trip there on their bucket list, and have been dismayed to learn that Europe’s incipient religious wars may screw up their travel plans.

But that’s enough of Weibo. Things get a bit more interesting when you move to the rather more insane world of online bulletin boards

On Tianya the threads appear to be being monopolised by people with a pre-existing interest in the oppression of Muslims – largely, it appears, because they apparently are Muslims and are mad as hell and not going to take it any more:

Chinese Muslim

Chinese Muslims

Those two posts both basically suggest that the French had it comng for oppressing segments of their society.

In fact, the Chinese government has a history of censoring news items about Muslims misbehaving. Not, as the English language experts like to tell us, because the Arab Spring may inspire the entire Chinese population to rise up en masse and kick out their evil communist rulers, but because China has a fractious Muslim population of its own and it doesn’t want them getting any ideas. (Yet another incidence of well-intentioned Westerners assuming that anyone fighting against an autocratic leader must – ex officio – be a lovely person.)

There are also a certain number of conspiracy theories involving Russia, all more or less incomprehensible:

blaming russia

That guy thinks the Russians knew this was going to happen in advance, possibly that they orchestrated it, but also – I think – that the US is controlling ISIS. As the reply states: “Wtf kind of logic is that?”

And so we turn finally to Tiexue.

Stuffed to the Plimsoll line with loons though it may be, Tiexue is actually an excellent resource for anyone interested in Chinese politics because most of its members are armchair generals of long standing, and are happy to give detailed opinions. Certainly, it skews right, but there are always enough counter-opinions to construct a semi-balanced viewpoint.

Unsurprisingly for a forum with a strong nationalist component, there is much less Muslim outrage here, and America largely replaces Russia in the conspiracy theorising. Indeed, the second most upvoted comment dismisses the whole thing as American imperialism without any further explanation:

Tiexue American imperialism

And another guy feels that the French deserve no sympathy because Charlie Hebdo ran a cartoon about the Russian plane crash:

angry on Tiexue

Though he is swiftly rebuked by a chap who reminds him that radical Islam is a threat in China too, and not to be taken lightly:

East Turkistan

*Incidentally, was there ever a wussier slogan coined than “Pray for Paris”? It’s essentially an admission of defeat. Why not skip straight to “thank you for not shooting our citizens”?

Good luck getting this stuff out of your head

China’s 13th Five Year Plan is coming up, and these guys have made a bewildering but horrifyingly catchy music video about it.

I think I speak for all of us here when I say: whatisthisidonteven.

Apparently it is a product of the 复兴路上工作室 (Road to Rejuvenation Studio), which has produced similar stuff in the past, though no-one one really knows anything much about them. However, at least one Chinese source seems to believe that Road to Rejuvenation is, in fact, CCTV itself, on the basis that Rejuvenation Road (复兴路) is a genuine street in Beijing where CCTV owns an office.

“We’ll decide whether you’re smug or not, you smug shit.”

Sansha Islands

After China declared that it was “not afraid to fight a war” in response to US exercises in the South China Sea, Gregory Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote a piece insisting that the US is not provoking China by sending a warship to sail past its fake islands:

In a statement issued Tuesday, the country’s Foreign Ministry warned that U.S. actions had “threatened China’s sovereignty and security interest, and has put the safety of personnel” in danger.

The statement was issued in response to the U.S. decision to dispatch the guided missile destroyer USS Lassen for several hours on a “freedom of navigation” operation near the disputed waters of Subi Reef, which has drawn international attention since China began constructing an artificial island there.

But although the Lassen was deliberately sent to within 12 nautical miles of the feature (12 miles being the hypothetical width of territorial sea around Subi), and despite China warning against the use of “gimmicks,” the U.S. decision should not be seen as a provocation or even deterrence.

Instead, this week’s move was part of a regular program of U.S. military activities around the globe intended to assert the rights of military and civilian vessels to operate anywhere allowed by international law.

The Pentagon oversees dozens of freedom of navigation operations every year targeting excessive maritime claims made by countries ranging from outright antagonists to some of the United States’ closest allies.

In 2014, the U.S. military used these operations to contest claims made by nearly all the countries surrounding the South China Sea, meaning not just China but also the Philippines — a treaty ally — and Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam.

This also isn’t the first time the U.S. Navy has engaged in freedom of navigation operations near Subi Reef — as recently as 2012, it did so in the Spratly Islands, of which Subi Reef is a part.

Indeed, as U.S. officials have insisted throughout the surprisingly public debate on whether to engage in such operations around Chinese-occupied features in the South China Sea, these activities by the Navy are not new, and they do not unfairly target Beijing.

Navy and Pentagon officials have been urging the Obama administration since early summer to green-light freedom of navigation operations around some of China’s features in the South China Sea, but the White House had been hesitant.

More cautious voices in the administration worried that a Chinese overreaction could provoke a crisis without offering much payoff, and they argued that engaging in such activities would reduce the possibility of finding a diplomatic solution to the rising tensions in the region.

But the apparent inability of President Barack Obama to make any headway on the South China Sea issue with his counterpart Xi Jinping during the Chinese leader’s visit to Washington in late September swung the argument in favor of those pushing for such operations.

Xi’s visit actually seems to have convinced many holdouts that there is no diplomatic solution given Beijing’s current intransigence (an extremely ambiguous statement from President Xi about China’s “intention” not to “militarize” the features it occupies notwithstanding).

Subi Reef was one of two likely candidates for the latest freedom of navigation operations in the Spratlys, the other being Mischief Reef.

Both have proven controversial because the Chinese-occupied features were indisputably underwater before Beijing launched its massive island-building campaign last year, and both are too far away from any potential island or rock to fall within another feature’s territorial sea.

The just-concluded operation was not a challenge to China’s claim to Subi Reef itself, but rather to what kind of waters and rights China thinks the reef grants it. It was a case study aimed at challenging the excessive and ambiguous claims that China makes throughout the disputed South China Sea more generally.

After the U.S. move, China responded that “if relevant parties insist on creating tensions in the region and making trouble out of nothing, it may force China to draw the conclusion that we need to strengthen and hasten the buildup of our relevant capabilities.” But despite the apparent seriousness of such warnings, escalating tensions are not inevitable.

How can conflict be avoided?

The best hope for a long-term peaceful solution in the South China Sea is to convince Beijing that it is undermining its own wider interests by maintaining unlawful claims in disputed waters.

Washington has consistently called on Chinese leaders and their counterparts throughout the region to bring their claims in these waters into conformity with international law, and these freedom of navigation operations should be seen as part of that goal.

And the responses from different parts of the Chinese government to the recent operation are telling. Beijing is effectively expressing anger over the Lassen’s operations near Subi, but it is struggling to come up with a legal rationale for its objections.

Of course, a one-off operation will not persuade Beijing to clarify its claims. In fact, that would actually undermine the United States’ position that these activities are normal and not provocative. That means that whatever the protestations from Beijing and others, this will no doubt be just the first of many freedom of navigation operations in and around the Spratly Islands.

The trouble is that provocation doesn’t work that way. There’s an old episode of Mock the Week where the team covers David Cameron’s pre-election declaration that he is “not smug”. David Mitchell replies with spluttering irritation: “We’ll decide whether you’re smug or not, you smug shit.”

Similarly in the case of provocation: I don’t get to decide whether or not my actions are provocative as far as you are concerned. I can claim that they weren’t intentionally provocative, or even that they were entirely licit and non-aggressive and that you shouldn’t be getting your knickers in such a twist, but that’s as far as it goes.

In response to this you might well say that China is behaving like a large, belligerent drunk in a bar, actively searching for an excuse to kick off. To which the answer, of course, is “Yes, that’s the privilege of large, belligerent drunks. The rest of us just have to find a way to live with it.”

Much like Russia’s recent actions in Ukraine, this is essentially a military means of transmitting a message – the primary purpose is to communicate to the rest of us that China is ready, willing and able to lose its shit in potentially devastating ways if crossed. There is no urgent strategic goal in either case. Certainly, armchair generals like to witter on about the importance of having naval access to the Mediterranean, but there are two problems with this theory: a) the Mediterranean is not exactly the geopolitical nexus it once was, grandpa, and b) in the event that the Russian did need a handy Black Sea port, they could happily roll in and take it whenever they felt like it (as recent events have amply demonstrated). It happened at the particular time not because of geographical strategic requirements, but of psychological ones: it was a good moment to make a gesture to intimidate everyone.

So, apparently, China has decided that it is going to be the one to assure freedom of the seas (albeit a limited version) within its own sphere of interest, and there’s not a great deal we can do about it.

But on the plus side, we do get to decide whether or not that’s provocative.

Don’t mention the war

The Japanese internet has been amusing itself lately with these photos of Prince Andrew, the Lord Mayor of London’s wife and some Arab guy apparently bored witless by Xi Jinping’s speech at the London Guildhall*.

Xi Jinping, Prince Andrew

Xi Jinping, Prince Andrew

To be fair, the speech was nearly half an hour long, which is a good strong dose, even for the most consenting of adults. It’s not surprising that at some point both Gillian Yarrow and Air Miles Andy would have let the facade slip a little.

What’s interesting is the spin put on it by the Japanese viral content aggregators at Buzz Media. Translated:

Visiting England, China’s President Xi Jinping addressed both Houses of Parliament for the first time on the 20th. [T.N. This is obviously incorrect, but we’re not looking at Pulitzer-class journalism here.]

He pointed out that both countries had fought against the “Japanese aggression” in World War Two.

Xi’s unrelenting criticism of Japan was not limited to that remark, coming as it did after the formal opening of the banquet during which he once against stressed “Japanese brutality” during the War.

The effect of China’s constantly harping on its anti-Japanese historical viewpoint can be seen in the following photographs…

For those of you who persist in caring about such trifles as facts, Buzz Media has, in fact, confused its speeches. Xi brought up Japan at the Buckingham Palace dinner, which did indeed take place on the 20th. The Guildhall event was on the 22nd. I have no idea whether he also brought it up at the latter dinner. (You surely don’t expect me to actually listen to the thing?)

The Buzz Media piece goes on to tease Xi about his apparent ignorance of the convention that one does not air one’s grievances at mealtimes. It also speculates that the fact that Prince Charles was not present was a subtle snub on the part of the British establishment (unkind wits may well suggest that a far greater snub would have been to oblige Xi to sit next to him, but there…), and quotes a twitter post listing other real or imagined slights towards Xi on the part of the British. Namely: the Queen kept her gloves on to shake hands (she always does this), and that they had him give an interview in front of a poorly screened toilet door (which, admittedly, is pretty funny).

It also compares pictures of the Pope addressing a packed house at the UN and of Xi addressing a large proportion of empty chairs.

*Yes. Guildhalls are a thing that we really have. No dragons, warlocks or dire wolves though, sadly.