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China pushing its political narrative abroad

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Recent reports have emerged that Pakistan has finalized a deal to buy eight submarines from China, according to the country’s Minister for Defense Production Tanveer Hussain.

Speaking at the opening of a new exhibition center at the Defense Export Promotion Organization, he noted four submarines will be constructed in China and the remainder in Pakistan simultaneously under a transfer of technology agreement. Observers believe the boats will be based on the S-20, an export variant of the Type 041 (Yuan-class) diesel-electric submarine.

It is thought Pakistan will opt for air-independent propulsion (AIP) on its boats, technology that significantly extends their underwater endurance. Little detail is available about the performance of the S-20, although Hussain said a training facility would be established in Karachi, and the state-owned Karachi Shipyard and Engineering Works will be responsible for construction.

From 1995-2012, China placed into service 40 locally produced submarines, an average of 2.2 boats per year, according to a Congressional Research Service report issued by the USA in July. While the acoustic performance of Chinese submarines does not approach that of Russian and US submarines, its designs are obviously improving enough to attract a first export order.

Construction of Pakistan’s boats could commence by mid-2016. Pakistan will use its conventional submarines for sea-denial patrols, but may also create a nuclear deterrent against India thanks to submarine-launched versions of the Babur cruise missile equipped with a nuclear warhead.

Karachi’s eventual induction of new submarines shows the wisdom of the Indian Navy in investing in Boeing P-8I Neptune maritime patrol aircraft that have good anti-submarine warfare capabilities.

This sale of submarines is just one manifestation of a major Chinese push to export arms worldwide. In the same way, China is on pole position to supply submarines to Thailand, a country suffering from strained relations with the USA right now because of the military junta’s determination to remain in power indefinitely.

Thai media has been reporting this news since July, but no submarine contract has been signed yet. Thailand has previously acquired Chinese weapons such as tanks and frigates, but submarines would bring Sino-Thai cooperation to a whole new level. Doubtlessly, the USA is asserting pressure on Bangkok not to go ahead with this kind of purchase.

Last week, pictures also emerged of a Chinese-made CH-4B unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) in service with Iraq’s military. Such UCAVs, including the CH-3, CH-4 and the similar Wing Loong 1, are believed to be already serving with Egypt, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan and the UAE.

Other countries happy to rely on Chinese weapons include Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and various African states.

In fact, arms sales are just one aspect of a wider attempt by China to politically influence other nations and even the USA. Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, told a Washington DC conference last week, “The objective here is to shape how things are perceived.”

Beijing is not recalcitrant to even alter history to achieve its own ends, which some describe as blatant political warfare. This was evident when ANI attended the military parade in Beijing on 3 September. In President Xi Jinping’s speech, as well as state-sanctioned broadcasts of the grand spectacle, the glorious role of the communists was blown completely out of proportion.

History shows us that the nationalist Kuomintang, led by Chiang Kai-shek, bore the brunt of the fighting in WWII, with the communists actually hanging back in order to conserve its strength while the KMT exhausted itself against the Japanese. By attending the parade, one would have gained the revisionist notion that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) singlehandedly defeated Japan, with a little assistance from the Allies.

Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou was incensed enough to say, “In recent years, the question of who led the fight has become a focal issue domestically and internationally. “For a long time, the Communist Party of China has claimed credit, saying the communist armed forces were the leading force, ignoring the Republican government’s historical contribution of leading the nationwide military and civilian fight against Japan.” He pointed out, “There is only one historical truth.”

Another example of this propaganda campaign is China’s constant reference to Japan’s atrocious colonial and wartime past, a bone the government refuses to stop gnawing on. Indeed, it is somewhat ironic that China accuses Japan of ignoring its wartime past, all the while suffocating the truth about the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. In fact, China has been described as one of the greatest abusers of history in its attempt to legitimize its own role in building and governing the nation.

In addition, as Japan seeks to strengthen its military in the face of threats from a nuclear weapon-armed North Korea and an aggressive China in the East China Sea, Beijing routinely accuses it of remilitarization. Oddly enough, China spends far more than Japan on defense and its budget grows far more rapidly.

China invests heavily in this political campaign with the highest-level support of the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department and the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) General Political Department. The biggest targets for China are Taiwan, Japan and the USA. For the latter, Xi regularly refers to the “new model of major power relationship”, an attempt to put China on an equal footing with the USA in terms of global influence.

China has created a number of “soft power” institutions to promote Beijing’s narrative. One example is the Hong Kong-based China-United States Exchange Foundation (CUSEF). Founded in 2008, it states on its website that “the foundation is a non-government, non-profit entity and is privately funded”.

However, this is somewhat disingenuous for an organization chaired by Hong Kong’s former chief executive Tung Chee Wha. He was the first leader appointed by Beijing to lead the territory in 1997, before resigning because of popular discontent in 2005. He is known as a Beijing lackey, and maintains important political roles in the CCP (e.g. vice chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference). CUSEF is also advised by entities such as the PLA Academy of Military Science.

China has been carefully constructing its own political narrative on the South China Sea too, with President Barack Obama being far too slow and weak to dispute China’s version of national sovereignty in that strategically important region. It is rumored the US Navy is currently preparing to make stronger forays into the area to challenge Chinese claims over reclaimed islets, but such an action has come far too late.

As Taiwan closes upon presidential elections next year, pundits expect China to be active in shaping public opinion at home and abroad, promoting itself as the rightful successor to the nationalist government.

As well as the three aforementioned countries, Xi’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative will see China also focus on Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan already enjoy closer military relations with China and Pakistan. The aviation sector, in particular, is focusing on this initiative to expand its export business.

Andrei Chang, editor of Kanwa Asian Defense, wrote, “Lured by China’s One Belt, One Road initiative, it is very possible that Pakistan and China will expand their arms export market in Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) countries.” Incidentally, these countries are also rich in natural resources and energy, things China desperately wants for itself.