Nibbling Around the Edges: China’s Geopolitical Trauma in the 20th Century

Page 5

The Cold War: Mosquito Navies along the Sino-Vietnamese Coast

The veneration of the “coast guard” type naval model, if such it may be termed, runs even deeper, and extends more into the present in China and the E. China seas littoral than even in the early US case.

With the PRC now deploying (on the eve of deploying?) its second aircraft carrier, making that country unique among the “Eastern Seas” frontier nations (Japan, Taiwan, and S. Korea all depend on the US 7th Fleet’s carriers!), one would think that maritime law and order would by now have transferred fully to a regular naval responsibility.

Perhaps it has, but neither history nor current politics promise that a conventional naval deployment can be trusted or credited with making the seacoast(s) “safe” for China’s offshore interests. At least in non-PLA eyes, as the below protest (blog-posted) open letter reveals (2009;

“A First Step to Recovering The Lost Maritime Frontier [Territories]: Once Again (Re-) Arm the Seacoast [Fisherman’s] Militia”

“Our fishing [fleet] has been remorselessly subjected to harassment by foreign navies and pirates: fined, detained. arrested, and robbed. Between 2004 and 2007, South Korea arrested/detained a total of 20,896 of our fishermen, extracting “ransom” of 21.3 billion (Korean) won. The fisherman of the (E) China seas
have been “cheated” by the miniscule Japanese NSDF; of the S. China seas, pillaged by Vietnamese prates, and subjected to huge fines and detentions by the Philippines Navy. In the Spratly Islands, they have been chased and fined by the Malaysian Navy. Since their own navy has done nothing [to help], what better than that “instead of seeking from others, seek from ones own”. Our suggestion is that we re-establish the haishang minbing [maritime militia units] to guard our shores and protect our fishing fleet: this force can then become a strategic reserve for the recovery of our extensive lost seacoast territory”

What is striking in the above “suggestion”/petition is the panoramic scale of the paranoia: S. Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, even Malaysia – and the more or less (purely) symbolic inclusion (as ever, as ever) of the Spratlies, China’s current day semi-equivalent of the Kuriles, though with no precedent or prior exploitation of economic significance by any side. If the 1950s propaganda posters hint at anything, it is not the vulnerability of (an already retaken) Hainan, but at the uncertainty of where (and by whom) an assault might be directed. The binoculars, the eyes straining into the distance – as if radar had not been discovered, or scout aircraft could not fly.

Remembering the ’50s: The (Re-) Conquest and Defense of Hainan in Image


1242044306470haishang minbing02


(1) A fisher-militiaman armed with a K-47 (undated); (2) Painting of/inspired by Red Sisters’ Brigade (?) – Fisherman Wives defend the villages while their Husbands are away; (3) Coastal defense paramilitaries maintain the guard – again with automatic weapons!?

But then again, if one takes a longer historical view, “China” has since time out of mind suffered from “pirate” depredations – extending into deep riverine penetrations and even regime challenge. As recently (!) as the first half-century of the Manchu imperium, a freebooter of mixed overseas “Chinese” and Japanese ancestry, Zheng Chenggong (1624-1662)) had wrongfooted Manchu-allied forces along the “SE” coast as far north as the strategically vital Zhoushan archipelago (later on used by the British in 1841 to base a potential invading force); this was followed by the great feudatory rebellion(s) of 1674-81 which (also) were highly reliant on maritime adventurers from – who really knew where? – to keep Qing forces off balance. So intricately wormwooded into the local social fabric of SE Fujiang and NE Guangdong were these interlopers that the Imperial would-be rulers had to resort to a strategy highly reminiscent of Parma’s in 16th century Holland: purposeful depopulation and de-urbanization to chase Dutch (here Haklo/Hokkien) rebels away from their coastal points of rendezvous with their own and English (as it was still then) seaborne reinforcement and supply. Ironically or not, Dutch (EI co.) fleets were even active on the “pirate” side, history repeating itself across vast spaces of time and place.

Below Piracy and Maritime Politics: the “Sea Beggars” take the city of Brill from Alba (Spain) in 1572 by amphibious attack, the turning point in the Dutch Secession. Something similar was very close to eventuation in the S. Fujian coastal estuary, where Taiwan-based reverse-migrant leader Coxinga repeatedly staged raids that the Qing never found a way to resist, short of depopulation its hinterlands


Though the scale and solidity of the coastal permeation and potential for major amphibious coastal diminished after the horrors of the late 17th century,
it was replaced by a threat perhaps all the more serious for being harder to identify or predict: the link-back from (injudiously sponsored) colonial emigration into and then back from Taiwan onto the mainland in the form, not of a congeries of new or highly visible self-defending “heterodox” settlements – the equivalents of Sluys or Ostend, prized one by one away from continental authoritarianisms (Habsburg Catholicism/Inquisition), then (after a century of fighting) gaining independence for a secessionist state that could settle into and even drive a new regional liberalism, exactly what Taiwan has accomplished since 1949 – . A backflow instead as a matrix of underground black market networks that defied international diplomacy because they – well – didn’t exist, had no “fortresses”, could never become the likes of the Protestant-birthing Hanseatic ring of the Baltic, could not (in the 20th century) leverage Wilsonian fragmentarianism into ethno-linguistic separatism, and instead had to settle (if there was any choice…) for what is now known as a “Secret Society” polity.

Ironically, it is (or was) upon the foundations of this freewheeling (morally laissez-fair or worse) N Guangdong/S.C. Fujian underground that the earliest SEZs were built (Shenzhen, Amoy), as a kind of legal hostel-house for flight capital shuttling through these networks. And under their influence that the Singapore-bewitched Deng Xiaoping “admitted” into the Red Empire its first almost-independent, almost sovereign republic in Hong Kong – as if to forestall an inevitable capitalist coastal secession akin to that which cracked the Spanish hegemony in the 1570s. Doing what the Habsburgs took much too long to accept, retreating only after the 30 Years’ War and relentless religious bloodshed had worn them out. (An interval that also saw its playing out in E Asia, as the Dutch E India Co. replaced the Portuguese/Spanish in India then the Moluccas, trading spices not specie).

A shadow polity that seems still there, surfacing in the accidental discovery of slave-ship like deliveries of “contract coolies” to Chinatowns in the US, intra alia.

SE China coast illgeal societies

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s