China’s New Militancy

Recent Features

Features | Security | East Asia

China’s New Militancy

Chinese leaders’ repeated calls for the PLA to be ready to plan, fight, and win wars is an ominous sign.

“We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully—not because we are naïve about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear,” President Obama said in his second inaugural address

How exactly does the international community “engage” hostile states?  Take China, for instance. 

Xi Jinping, named Communist Party general secretary in November, reflects a new militancy.  On Tuesday, he delivered a hard-edged speech to the Politburo in which he effectively ruled out compromise on territorial and security issues.  His tough words were in keeping with the ever-more strident tones of his messages to the People’s Liberation Army about being ready to plan, fight, and win wars. Chinese leaders have traditionally addressed the army and urged improvement in general readiness, but, as veteran China watcher Willy Lam notes, Xi has put a special emphasis on it.  Moreover, his calls on preparing for conflict go well beyond those of his two predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. 

In the past, the military’s war talk contrasted with soothing words from senior civilian leaders.  Now, with Xi, the aggressive comments from flag officers are consistent with what he, as top leader, is saying.  Worse, as the Financial Times notes, Xi’s words of war are now “being bundled” with his rhetoric, which seems calculated to “fan nationalism.” 

In this environment, Chinese military officers can get away with advocating “short, sharp wars” and talking about the need to “strike first.”  Their boldness suggests, as some privately say, that General Secretary Xi is associating with generals and admirals who think war with the U.S. might be a good idea.

China looks like it is taking one of its periodic wrong turns.  Is it because Xi Jinping is a nationalist who wants to lead the country down a path of high profile force projection?  Or is he succumbing to pressures from elements inside a regime increasingly in disarray?

Most analysts think the People’s Army remains firmly under the control of Beijing’s civilian leaders.  Sources, for instance, are increasingly reporting that General Secretary Xi is personally directing Beijing’s provocative intrusions into Japanese water and airspace.  Moreover, Rand’s Scott Harold perceptively notes that Beijing’s civilian leaders can turn off the tough talk from military hawks when it is important for the Party to present a peaceful front, such as when Hu Jintao visited the U.S. in 2011.  “All of a sudden, bam, these guys got turned off,” Harold told Reuters, referring to the more talkative officers.

Nonetheless, there are increasing signs of a military breaking free of civilian control.  Last year, there were two sets of coup rumors that circulated around China, one in January and the other in March.  The stories may not be true, but that’s almost beside the point.  These rumors went viral in China not only because they were sensational but also because, for many Chinese citizens, they were credible.  They were credible because top leaders had conditioned the Chinese people over the last several years to believe the top brass had assumed a central role in Beijing politics. 

Hu Jintao, for instance, inadvertently gave credence to the rumors of the attempted military takeovers by repeatedly issuing public warnings, in the form of pointed reminders, that the People’s Liberation Army is subject to the absolute will of the Party.  Xi Jinping has also issued the same warnings during his short tenure as general secretary and as chairman of the Party’s Central Military Commission.  By now, there have been too many of these statements to think that the Party at this moment truly “controls the gun.”  

In fact, the generals and admirals have squabbling civilian leaders to thank for their growing influence.  Beginning about a decade ago, flag officers were drawn into the power struggle between the outgoing Jiang Zemin, who was then trying to linger in the limelight, and Hu Jintao, his successor.  Last year, we also witnessed top civilian leaders running to the military as they sought support in their various fights with each other.

For instance, when Bo Xilai, then-Chongqing Party secretary, sent his armed security officers to surround the American consulate in Chengdu last February, he went to Kunming to visit the headquarters of the 14th Group Army.  His father, Bo Yibo, had established that unit, and analysts naturally speculated that the younger Bo was appealing to its current officers to support his now-failed bid for promotion from the Party’s Politburo to the Politburo’s Standing Committee.

Moreover, in early April, former leader Jiang is rumored to have sat down with military officers before meeting with Hu Jintao and other members of the Standing Committee before stripping Bo of his Party positions.  When he later met with Hu and the Standing Committee, Jiang did so at the headquarters of the Central Military Commission in Beijing, a powerfully symbolic venue. 

And in an even more disturbing sign of the growing role of the military and the erosion of the standing of civilian leaders, “leftists” last year publicly called on the army to intervene in the nation’s politics. 

From all outward appearances, the military is already playing an expanded role in policy as well as politics.  Senior officers look like they are acting independently of civilian officials, but in any event, they are openly criticizing them and are making pronouncements on areas that were once the exclusive province of diplomats.

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