Earlier this week, media reports suggested that China had placed a new emphasis on preparing for war in response to recent events in the region, including the disputes in the South China Sea and the “pivot” in U.S. policy from the Middle East to Asia. According to the AFP, “Hu Jintao…urged the navy to prepare for military combat amid growing regional tensions over maritime disputes and a U.S. campaign to assert itself as a Pacific power.”
The AFP report, however, contained two significant errors. First, the report stated that Hu’s remarks were delivered at a meeting of the Central Military Commission (CMC), suggesting they were part of a major policy speech. In fact, as reported in the PLA’s own newspaper (Chinese, English), the Jiefangjun Bao, Hu made the remarks when he and other members of the CMC met with party delegates from the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). Second, the report mistranslated a key term, junshi douzheng, as “military combat,” implying a new emphasis on preparations to fight a specific war.
Did Hu urge war? No.
To start, a literal and more accurate translation of junshi douzheng would be “military struggle” or, simply, “warfare.” In the phrase “preparations for military struggle,” the term refers to the characteristics of future wars that China may have to fight and the implications for the development of operational doctrine and training. It’s similar to the concept of operational readiness. Nevertheless, it does not refer to a desire to go war, much less preparations for specific combat operations.
By using this phrase, Hu was highlighting the importance of continued naval modernization to ensure that the PLAN would be prepared to fight in conflicts in the future, a goal shared by all military organizations. The U.S. military, for example, uses similar language to describe its force development goals. The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review described the objectives of America’s defense strategy as follows: “prevail in today’s wars, prevent and deter conflict, prepare to defeat adversaries and succeed in a wide range of contingencies, and preserve and enhance the All-Volunteer Force.”
More generally, the phrase “preparations for military struggle” is a standard, boilerplate formula used in Chinese military writings and speeches by Chinese leaders on military affairs. As shown in the chart below, the phrase appears frequently in articles in the print edition of the Jiefangjun Bao, the PLA’s official newspaper (though, interestingly, its use has been decreasing since 2005).
In addition, the AFP report missed the broader context in which this routine phrase was used. In particular, Hu urged the PLAN to deepen preparations for military struggle within the broader context of “closely focusing on the main theme of national defense and army-building.” The term “army-building” (jundui jianshe) refers to long-term force development goals, including personnel policies and force structure. Indeed, as shown in the chart below, these two phrases are often used together in Chinese statements, as they reflect different aspects of the PLA’s current modernization effort. For instance, in a September 2011 speech to researchers from the Academy of Military Science, CMC Vice Chairman General Guo Boxiong called on researchers “to meet the needs of army building and preparations for military struggle.”
Finally, the timing of Hu’s remarks to the PLAN delegates was probably a coincidence and not linked with the defense talks with the United States or events in the South China Sea in the past year. Members of the CMC routinely meet with deputies from various parts of the PLA and use the language of army building and preparations for military struggle in their remarks. This particular meeting occurred alongside an army-wide conference on weapons development that was probably scheduled months in advance, and may explain why the entire CMC met with the PLAN group.
In sum, Hu’s statement didn’t reflect a change in policy or a new emphasis on preparing for war. His routine statement received more attention than it warranted.
M. Taylor Fravel is an Associate Professor of Political Science and member of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He can be followed @fravel.