PLA Navy, Recruiting and Strategic Communications

Recently – earlier this week in fact, the People’s Liberation Army (Navy), or PLAN, released a new recruiting video as part of a larger push begun in early August by the PLA for more recruits – and especially those with degrees.  Pushed to YouTube and other social media, it is at once slick and highlights the latest in the PLAN and PLANAF’s inventory (or at least the best CGI can bring):

Liaoning
Full length video here.

The video itself is broken into four defined segments – and here is where it gets interesting. The four segments: ‘Our Dream,’ ‘Call to Duty,’ ‘Honor of Gene'(sic), and ‘Seeking Blue Dream’ are also the only segments with English subtitles, save for the ending frames, and we will see why that is particularly intriguing and cautionary in a few.  I’ve taken the liberty to excise two of the segments – ‘Call to Duty’ and ‘Honor of Gene’ (let’s just agree to call it ‘Gene of Honor’… – SJS) for a little more detailed breakdown.

But first some background.

Our (remaining) stalwart readers will recall our calling attention some five years ago to the the importance of the South China Sea (and East China Sea too) and some particularly aggressive moves and statements made by the civilian Chinese researchers and explorers at the time.  Since then – especially in the past 4-6 months, the frenetic island building campaign by the Chinese in the Spratlys and elsewhere in the SCS has (finally) started to garner world attention.  While there are any number of articles, posts, etc. available on the web and elsewhere, the single best “go to” resource I have found and strongly recommend is the Center for Strategic & International Studies’ Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.  As described at their website:

The maritime environment in East Asia contains both promise and peril. The Indo-Pacific region is host to some of the world’s most important shipping lanes, facilitates huge volumes of regional trade, and boasts abundant natural resources. Competing territorial claims, incidents between neighboring countries, and increasing militarization, however, raise the possibility that an isolated event at sea could become a geopolitical catastrophe. This is all occurring against a backdrop of relative opaqueness. Geography makes it difficult to monitor events as they occur, and there is no public, reliable authority for information on maritime developments.

The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative seeks to change this. AMTI was conceived of and designed by CSIS. It is an interactive, regularly-updated source for information, analysis, and policy exchange on maritime security issues in Asia. AMTI aims to promote transparency in the Indo-Pacific to dissuade assertive behavior and conflict and generate opportunities for cooperation and confidence building. Because AMTI aims to provide an objective platform for exchange, AMTI and CSIS take no position on territorial or maritime claims. For consistency, all geographic locations are identified using the naming conventions of the United States Government as determined by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. – AMTI, 8 Aug 2015

Among the very useful resources at the site is the interactive timeline covering over 175 years of history in the Asian maritime domain.  For a relatively quick (ok, a good afternoon’s worth of time) survey of the history of the region is necessary to understand the complex relationships between overlapping claims, recognitions and the blood spilled over dashed lines on the chart.  Which brings me back to the topic at hand — the recruiting video.  See, while watching there were a couple of scenes that grabbed my attention for their placement within a recruiting video.  About 0:45 into the first clip below, following an extended sequence showing a fair bit of humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HADR) footage there is a cut to a sequence of islands – prominently featuring the Senkaku () Islands (Japan) or Diaoyu (钓鱼附属岛屿) Islands as they are called on mainland China:

Senkaku
Senkaku Islands

Additional imagery from what may well be the Paracel islands (in conflict with Vietnam) and Spratlys (in conflict with pretty much the rest of the SCS littoral) is followed by an orgy of ordnance from the modern day PLAN to underscore the point about capability and capacity of the PLAN.  But lest there be any doubt about China’s intent; be it prospective recruits with shaky patriotism or lesser nations and their hegemonic/interloper supporters, then the first few seconds of the second video should remove that doubt – at least that appears to be the intent.  Here is the key image:

JohnsonReef2

 

What are you viewing?  This is a reconstruction of the naval clash that took place on 14 Mar 1988 on Johnson Reef in the Spratlys between Vietnam and China.  Accounts will vary depending on if you follow the Chinese or Vietnamese version – but PLAN film footage that surfaced around 2009 seems to validate the Vietnamese version.  In summary:

The 1988 clash at Johnson Reef saw Chinese naval frigates sink two Vietnamese ships, leaving 64 sailors dead – some shot while standing on a reef – and remains a point of friction between the two nations. But its broader significance lies in the strategic nature of the operation.

The battle’s aftermath saw China take and secure its first six holdings in the Spratlys – fortifications that remain important today, with one at Fiery Cross reef housing an early warning radar. Fourteen years earlier the PLA navy had routed the South Vietnamese navy to complete its occupation of the Paracels to the north – islands being built up into a formidable military base.
– Source: SCMP, Mar 2013

Here is a screen capture of the mostly unarmed Vietnamese workers holding their position, waist deep in water on the reef, as Chinese marines approached to move them off.

JohnsonReef3

The video clip below (source) tells the rest of the story:

Sixty-four lightly and unarmed Vietnamese cut down and two transports sunk.  Hardly the heroic warship – to – warship slugfest the PLAN video made Johnson Reef out to be.  Indeed, this clip provides significant insight into the Chinese character and approach to conflict (and deterrence), especially when viewed in other engagements with India and Russia.  For those that think we can pull the Cold War playbook down off the bookshelf and use the same deterrence models – I would urge caution and a deeper study of what Kissinger called the Chinese “Offensive Deterrence” in his work, On China.

So – a recruiting video that (a) makes a case for China as a maritime nation (sequences 1 and 4) and reinforces its claims to disputed territory in the ECS/SCS via reconstructed (and retold) historical imagery interposed with images of a modern day PLAN’s range of capabilities.  I would argue it is indeed, less a recruiting video for more bodies and more a piece of educational video (“Why we need a navy”) directed at the larger domestic audience and a quiescently crafted piece of stratcom directed at China’s neighbors and you-know-who lurking over the horizon. An interesting exercise in messaging and filmaking when viewed in a vacuum – but China never does things in a vacuum.  On the 70th anniversary of the surrender of Japan, with attention of the world starting to focus in on the island building campaign in the SCS and direct pushback from the Philippines, Vietnam, Japan and possible regional cooperation to counter China’s push that is gaining US support and cooperation, one can, I believe, make a strong case that this is the opening fusilade of the social media and communications war to signal China’s intent and determination as the islands reach completion and IOC.

And about that end sequence…

endnote
“Sail on the broad sea and be brave and courageous”

Oh, BTW – anyone remember this from the 2007-2008 timeframe?  Has a familiar, er, tone about it…

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2 Comments

  1. NaCly Dog

    SJS,

    Thank you for these links. They will aid immeasurably in my talks with a local Chinese Communist student at the local University. These are a good starting point on geopolitics.

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