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.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
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.’