The process of remilitarization of politics and policy has gone so far that the People’s Liberation Army could soon become the most powerful faction in the Communist Party, if it is not already. The military has, from all accounts, retained its cohesiveness better than other Party factions, especially Xi’s amorphous Princeling group.
Xi Jinping appears to have no power base to speak of. Jiang Zemin has apparently packed the Standing Committee, the apex of political power in China, and Hu Jintao has picked the Party’s Central Military Commission. So where does that leave Xi? Normally, the general secretary’s faction ends up the most powerful, but his faction—if he has one—is clearly not. Therefore, it makes sense for him to rely on the military to consolidate a shaky position.
There is always constant bargaining when a new Chinese leader takes over, and this is especially true now because the ongoing transition did not start well. In this troubled time, we should not be surprised that the most hardline elements in Beijing look like they are free to say and do what they want.
And perhaps that’s why Chinese leaders talk war and employ bellicose tactics while they try to push China’s borders outward, taking on Japan, India, and all the nations bordering the South China Sea. At the same time, the Chinese navy is seeking to close off that critical body of water, which Beijing political leaders claim as an internal Chinese lake. State media has been hinting since the middle of 2011 that it is China’s “territorial waters.”
Beijing’s expansive territorial claims are perhaps the inevitable result of the Communist Party’s trajectory. As Pentagon consultant Edward Luttwak notes, “Militant nationalism is the only possible substitute for ex-communists who seek to retain power.” So it is natural that Xi Jinping is talking tough and that the military is assuming a frontal role in expanding territory and waters under China’s control.
In these circumstances, the international community is struggling to maintain good relations with Beijing. There is always a renewal of hope when a new Chinese leader shows up on the scene, but do not expect the optimism to last long. If Xi is as good as his word and there will be no compromise on important issues, as he indicated on Tuesday, then he leaves threatened nations little choice but to oppose his country’s expansive claims.
President Obama may think he will be able to craft a nuanced policy of engagement with China, but he will instead end up desperately reacting to a regime on the march.
Gordon G. Chang writes at Forbes.com. He is the author of ‘The Coming Collapse of China.’ Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang