In recent months—and especially since last December—China has pursued an increasingly assertive foreign policy. At the same time, Chinese flag officers and colonels have been making provocative comments in public on topics normally considered the exclusive responsibility of the country’s civilian officials. For instance, this March, Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo staked out a position on the Arctic that was at variance with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
In addition, there's been a spate of unusually hostile public comments from military officers, especially on their desire to engage in combat with America. In February, for example, a Chinese colonel, Meng Xianging, promised a 'hand-to-hand fight with the US.' Meanwhile, Major-General Yang Yi that same month said China 'must punish the US…We must make them hurt.'
At one time, the military was organically linked to the Communist Party. It was the PLA that installed the Communists in Beijing, after all. Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, the first two leaders of the People’s Republic, were military officers. Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, their two successors, however, are civilians, and this has led to what Michael Kiselycznyk and Phillip Saunders call the 'bifurcation of civil and military elites.'
Jiang’s elevation to the top post, shortly after the Tienanmen massacre, marked the beginning of a period of rapid decline of military influence. His tenure witnessed progressively fewer generals and admirals holding posts in top Communist Party organs. For instance, no military officer has served on the Politburo Standing Committee, the apex of political power in China, since 1997. Although senior officers were all members of the Party and formed a potent political block during Jiang’s rule, they lacked the power their predecessors had in the Mao and Deng eras.
Then, the PLA made or broke China’s rulers. It was the army that restored order during the decade-long Cultural Revolution. After that, the top brass twice decided who would govern the People’s Republic. First, Marshal Ye Jianyang got rid of the ultra-leftist Gang of Four in October 1976 and eventually ensured the elevation of Deng Xiaoping. Second, the generals backed Deng and ordered their troops to take back the country from the crowd in Tienanmen Square during the Beijing Spring of 1989. These incidents reinforced the perception in society that the PLA was the final arbiter in China’s rough game of politics.
Since Tienanmen, the civilians have managed to avoid regime-threatening social unrest and so have not had to rely on the generals to keep themselves in power. Yet they haven't been entirely successful in avoiding splits among themselves. As a result, the top brass has gained influence in Beijing since the middle of this decade.
From the middle of 2004, Hu Jintao has courted senior generals for their support in his struggle with former supremo Jiang Zemin, who was trying to linger in the limelight. Hu’s tactics largely paid off. The military, for example, appears to have backed Hu’s somewhat successful effort in the run-up to 17th Party Congress, held in October 2007, to pick his own successor.
It was apparent that at the massive conclave, held once every five years, he managed to obtain the assistance of the more hard-line elements of the PLA in return for ever-larger increases in defence expenditures; promotions for hawkish officers, especially Gen. Chen Bingde, who became Chief of General Staff; and adoption of a more assertive posture toward other nations.
Yet some analysts deny there's been a shift of power in favour of flag officers, arguing that their outspokenness does not reflect a larger role for them in politics or policy. We are hearing more from China’s military officers, they argue, because they are more accessible, attending international conferences and participating in exchanges and exercises, so there are simply more opportunities to talk to them. Moreover, the commercialization of China’s media has led to the wide dissemination of sensationalist views and PLA officers have taken advantage of the change. Finally, China’s spectacular rise has given everyone in Beijing—not just the top brass—a new-found confidence. All this means that officers are now allowed to be more outspoken.
But although there's some truth to these assertions, it's evident that senior military officers are gaining power in the Chinese capital. First, their hawkish views are in fact becoming the policy of the country. Second, there are too many public reminders to the military that 'the Party controls the gun' to think this hasn't become an issue.
Third, splits in the run up to the 18th Party Congress, to be held in late 2012, appear to be once again giving leverage to the military as they did a half decade ago. As Hu and his rivals struggle over various matters—especially the slate of candidates to take over the country in 2012—the military is bound to consolidate its recent gains and seek even more control over the country’s finances and external policies.
Fourth, although Hu has said that increases in military spending should be commensurate with the growth of the economy, it appears the PLA’s budget hikes have outpaced economic growth in recent years.
The implications of the resulting remilitarization of China are clearly significant. For one thing, Beijing this spring, apparently goaded by the PLA, for the first time expanded its definition of 'core interests' to include its old—and baseless—claims over vast stretches of international water and airspace, including the continental shelves of five other nations—the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam.
Meanwhile, Chinese admirals have been demanding that the US Navy get out of the Yellow Sea and the rest of Asian waters. At the same time, Beijing insists nations in the region acknowledge Chinese supremacy—in recent months China has taken on the United States, Japan and the nations bordering the South China Sea in a series of disputes it has initiated.
The reality is that China’s ambitions know few bounds these days. 'China’s military spending is growing so fast that it has overtaken strategy,' said Huang Jing of Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew School of Public Policy to London’s Telegraph. 'The young officers are taking control of strategy and it is like young officers in Japan in the 1930s. They are thinking what they can do, not what they should do.'
That arrogance, unfortunately, is the result of the ongoing remilitarization of Chinese politics and policy.
Gordon G. Chang writes at Forbes.com. He is the author of ‘The Coming Collapse of China.’