Hot Rhetoric, Cold Calculation From China at Defense Dialogue

June 1, 2014 Updated: June 2, 2014

At the tail end of the Shangri-La international security dialogue in Singapore recently, a top Chinese military propagandist took the opportunity of having the last word, and roundly lambasted Japan, and the United States, for remarks they made which he said were “full of the smell of hegemonic ideology.”

While the United States sent Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and several top generals, and Japan sent Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and its foreign minister, China’s delegation did not contain its top defense officials. 

Instead, it was comprised of English-speaking academics and officials with experience in external propaganda, and was headed by Lt. Gen. Wang Guanzhong, a veteran of military propaganda and strategic messaging.

The prominent appearance of Wang—who for years served in the propaganda section of the General Staff Department and is currently “one of the PLA’s most talented political warfare strategists,” according to Chinese military analyst Mark Stokes—has brought into focus one of the chief strategic planks in China’s efforts to secure de facto sovereignty in the seas surrounding it: political warfare. 

Wang Guanzhong made his comments against the United States and Japan both as part of “unscripted remarks” (which were likely scripted) in his main speech, and also in lengthy interviews with Chinese press afterwards.

“Secretary Hagel’s speech is a speech full of threatening and intimidating language,” Wang said. It was also, to be sure, “a speech full of incitement and instigation.” It was also a speech full of “provocation” and “unconstructive attitudes.”

Referring to the consonance between the U.S. and Japanese positions, Wang said it seemed like they were “singing a duet,” and asked: “Just who is proactively stirring up incidents, provoking disputes, and inciting conflict?” 

His aggressive response was made to speeches given by Abe on May 30, and Hagel on May 31. Both countries gave fairly straightforward reiterations of their longstanding positions on maritime and territorial issues in the South and East China Seas.

Abe did not mention China by name, but Hagel’s speech was explicit in identifying Chinese behavior as a major source of tension, unrest, and potential conflict. This was not a new position for the United States to take, but did indicate a clearer articulation of U.S. views.

Wang did not appear to be focused on the details, or what may be considered the substance of Abe and Hagel’s remarks. He appeared to be more interested in a harsh and forceful rebuttal, and a re-declaration of the obvious rightness of China’s position.

“General Wang’s mission was to intimidate Japan and the United States from defending their interests by categorically denying that China has any level of fault for the high level of military tensions in the East and South China Seas,” said Richard D. Fisher, a senior fellow of East Asian military affairs at the International Assessment and Strategy Center.

Wang’s forceful pushback was quickly shared in media reports and online discussions around the world—which was very likely the point. 

Propaganda as Strategy

Wang was for six years a political warfare strategist in the propaganda section of the General Political Department of the PLA, which is responsible for its “liaison work,” also known as “political warfare,” according to a report by Project 2049, a security research group based in Virginia.

Political warfare is a set of strategies and techniques that seeks to influence the emotions, motives, and reasoning of foreign entities, the Project 2049 report explains.

These ideas and practices were developed by the communist insurgency over years of underground activities in fighting against the Nationalists, who ruled China, before the Party overthrew them and declared the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

“Political warfare employs strategic psychological operations as a means of leading international discourse and influencing policies of friends and foes alike,” the report says. For the Party, “enemy and liaison work were critical means of undermining enemy morale and building domestic and international support.” 

“Propaganda, carried out both during peacetime and in armed conflict, amplifies or attenuates the political effects of the military instrument of national power.”

In the present case, Wang appears to have adopted “coercive persuasion to weaken an opponent’s political will and compel a course of action favorable to one’s own interests,” according to the political warfare doctrine as explained by Project 2049.

The purpose is not to win a legal argument, according to Fisher, the defense analyst. China’s rejection of a process of international arbitration, being engaged in by the Philippines, demonstrates this. Instead, it is “to use very hostile rhetoric to intimidate Tokyo and Washington.” 

He added: “The shock effect is compounded by using the Shangri-La Dialogue, which has long been intended to promote comity and peaceful resolution.” The Shangri-La Dialogue is held annually in the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore, by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a security think tank based in London.

The ideal outcome for Chinese interests, according to Fisher, would be that policymakers in Asian countries conclude that “China is ‘crazy enough to kill people'” and then back off, allowing the Chinese military to effectively have the South China Sea as its own “lake.” There are a variety of military advantages obtained by locking Japan and the United States out of certain parts of those waters, Fisher said. 

“If China can simply scream at countries to surrender their interests it will do so,” Fisher said.

But whether that will be a winning strategy is quite unclear.

Territorial Disputes

Over the last several years, and over the course of the last six months in particular, China has sought to claim as de facto Chinese maritime territory a large part of the South China Sea, a body of water that extends deep down into South East Asia. It has also extended territorial claims to islands that have been administered by Japan for decades in the East China Sea. 

Analysts have described China’s tactics as “creating facts on the ground,” or “salami slicing,” in referring to the manner in which Chinese maritime vessels have rammed other countries’ ships, confiscated fish, roughed up fisherman, and generally acted as though the South China Sea already belongs to China.

In this view, other countries in the region are the ones intruding on Chinese waters. It was from this basis that Lt. Gen. Wang thrust at Japan and the United States. 

A downside to the approach, however, is that inflammatory actions and rhetoric may have the opposite effect. “China also runs a larger risk,” said Fisher, “that in projecting only hostility and absence of reason, it will enable Tokyo and Washington to rally smaller countries much faster toward common action.”