In recent weeks, Western media has characterized Xi Jinping as a more assertive and forceful leader of China’s armed forces, including the People’s Liberation Army and People’s Armed Police. The Wall Street Journal, for example, described Xi as “as a strong military leader at home and embracing a more hawkish worldview.” Similarly, the New York Times described Xi “as a champion of the military, using the armed forces to cement his political authority and present a tough stance in growing territorial disputes with American allies in the Pacific region.”
Such characterizations, however, may be misplaced – or at least incomplete. Since becoming Chairman of the CCP’s Central Military Commission at the 18th Party Congress four months ago, the policies adopted under Xi reflect far more continuity with those of past leaders than is commonly perceived.
One general indicator of the relative priority of the military for China’s leaders is spending on defense. Although China’s official defense budget does not include all defense-related spending, there’s no evidence yet that Xi has been more inclined to favor the military. At the most recent National People’s Congress, China’s official defense budget was slated to increase by 10.7 percent in 2013. Although budget preparations likely started before Xi became CMC chair, the figure nevertheless helps to assess whether Xi has been exerting any special influence. Under Hu Jintao’s chairmanship of the CMC (2004-2012), China’s defense budget, on average, increased 15 percent per year. When Jiang Zemin was CMC chair (1989-2004), it increased more than 16 percent per year on average. Under both leaders, China’s defense budget as a share of the government budget has been declining steadily, indicating that the military was not being favored over other government spending areas.
Instead, if anything, the 2013 defense budget reflects continuity in China’s defense policies. The percentage increase for the 2013 defense budget roughly equals the rate of GDP growth plus inflation for 2012, and is slightly lower than the rates of growth in 2011 and 2012 (reflecting the slight downturn in China’s GDP). The growth of the defense budget is consistent with Beijing’s official policy “that defense development should be both subordinated to and in the service of the country's overall economic development, and that the former should be coordinated with the latter.” Thus, the military budget, roughly in line with the growth of China's GDP and inflation, has not diverted massive funding away from important civilian projects necessary for maintaining economic development.
Xi’s statements on military affairs have attracted a great deal of attention. In the post-Deng era, all new leaders have moved early to distinguish their command over China’s armed forces from their predecessors. The easiest way to do so is by articulating new formulations (tifa) for what are often the same or very similar general policies. Previously, for example, in December 1990, Jiang Zemin announced his “Five Sentences” that the PLA should be “politically qualified, militarily competent, have a good work style, strict discipline and adequate logistics support.” Likewise, shortly after becoming CMC chair in 2004, Hu Jintao called on the PLA to fulfill its “historic missions in the new phase of the new century.” Although the historic missions called on the PLA to develop the capability to carry out non-combat operations such as peacekeeping and disaster relief, they were premised on “strengthening the ability to win local wars under modern conditions as the core.” Now after becoming CMC chair, Xi has used a new formulation of building a “strong army” (and PAP) that “obeys the party’s commands, is capable of winning wars, and has a good work style.”