The People’s Republic of China nomenklatura are famous for holding to the “party line,” the endless stream of slogans propagandists concoct to describe China’s policies. Under President Xi Jinping, however, there have appeared several small but significant shifts in this line. From its national outlook to its defense mission and international principles, China has for the past year reoriented and expanded its rhetorical game. Some might see this new spirit of maximalism as emerging from U.S. decline following the 2008 financial crisis. This was certainly a foretaste, but the current round is fueled by Xi’s belief in a China reborn, as well as his desire for adulation as its deliverer.
Much to Do
The first striking departure is a stake through the heart of Deng Xiaoping’s admonition to “keep a low profile” (taoguang yanghui, 韬光养晦). After the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre and the international community’s isolation of China, Deng’s strategy was to lay low to recover the support China needed to continue its economic development. Even at that nadir, Deng added the proviso that China should also “do some good” (yousuo zuowei, 有所作为).
For years, Western analysts have speculated on the moment China would abandon Deng’s dictum to reveal its unabashed great power status. Xi is making a strong case that the answer is now with his simple, emphatic declaration: “there is much we can do” (dayou kewei, 大有可为):
Currently, our country is in a historic period of strategic opportunity in which there is much we can do. Our development outlook is generally positive, but the path forward will not be smooth. The greater our accomplishments, the thinner the ice on which we walk and the more we must prepare for danger in times of peace. We cannot afford strategic or disruptive errors.
Long-time China analyst Bill Bishop translates the key phrase as simply a “very promising” period of opportunity, but its dictionary definition is “a situation with great potential for positive development which is therefore worth pursuing.” Importantly, it is too similar to Deng’s expression “do some good” to ignore the connection. One Communist Youth League member wrote a piece called “Doing Some Good in a Very Promising Period of Historic Opportunity,” concluding that “For this world we should also do some good, and do a lot of it (yousuo zuowei, dayou zuowei, 有所作为、大有所为).” The term clearly impressed the writer as a need to do significantly more than in the past. Xi’s repudiation of Deng’s classic motto shows China as confident great power ready to continue its rise, presumably to superpower status.
Transition from Local Military Defense to Global Operations
For several years, China’s operational defense concept has been winning “high technology local wars” (高技术局部战争). This meant the technical and tactical ability to gain localized superiority against one of China’s neighbors. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) likely saw this as including everything up to the invasion of Taiwan. A good example of this sort of war might be China’s 1979 punitive expedition into northern Vietnam, although the modern equivalent would rely more on hi-tech weaponry and less on masses of troops.
In a treatise published in December 2017 on China’s official military website, however, two Chinese military scholars laid out a very different program for the PLA Army (ground forces), describing much more ambitious operational concepts which appear applicable to the PLA as a whole. “Speed implementation of transformation from regional defense (区域防卫) to a defense of all-areas (全域作战)”:
Our Army carries out missions over broad regions of a complex character and, according to the demands of “three-dimensional attack and defense and all-areas mobilization (全域机动)” and must transform: (1) its force development methods from regional defense to all-areas mobilization; (2) its operational form from a flat line to multi-dimensional offense and defense; (3) operational space from limited and local to amorphous and multi-dimensional…
There are two facets in this shift to “all-areas” mobility, which point three describes. First, it is a shift away from “local wars.” No longer does China foresee its operations limited to a particular geographic area, e.g. northern Vietnam. The world’s growing interconnectedness is making it impossible to localize conflict in such a way. Second is the shift from “limited” war to one that is “amorphous,” meaning limited neither to a particular physical domain (e.g. land, sea, air) nor to a single conceptual domain (e.g. cyber, politics, diplomacy). Truly, it is an expansion on the idea of Unrestricted Warfare.
This is simply a theoretical article, not a policy. But the language is strikingly new and accords so well with Xi’s program, I suspect it presages similar efforts in the future. It also marks a fundamental change to the former operating concept of “winning informatized local wars,” implying the capacity to fight battles of a greater scale, more geographically dispersed, and more technically oriented than the small-scale, localized skirmishes previously envisioned.
China’s New Sphere
Most grandiose of all is Xi’s call for a “community of shared human destiny” (人类命运共同体). To be sure, this term has a distinguished pedigree, harkening back to the old Latin ideal of fatum, meaning fate or destiny as the driving force for a nation. In modern times, it has been employed repeatedly by international organizations. The European Community, for example, was founded on the idea of a “common destiny,” meaning a tight economic, political, and social bond between multiple countries based on shared values, a shared vision of future prosperity, and the determination to work toward it collectively.
But Beijing has yet to clarify upon which shared values its community might be built. Is it a moral community in which the equity of each nation is considered as impartially as possible? Or will it be a renewal of China’s suzerainty over tributary states far and near, purchased from leaders who sell their own people’s independence? Both systems are founded upon might, but only the latter is ruled by it.
Whatever Xi’s vision may be, the world should take careful note of China’s words. Unless the world very strictly holds Beijing to its promises of peaceful development and fairness, we are unlikely to receive either.
Ben Lowsen is a China strategist for the U.S. Air Force Checkmate strategic studies office. He tweets at @lowsen88. The views expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.