Speaking at China’s 19th Communist Party Congress, President Xi Jinping vowed to continue modernizing and expanding its armed forces, with the goal of completing modernization by 2035 and achieving a “world-class military by 2050 that can fight and win wars across all theaters.”
Xi was quoted to this effect in a laudatory Singapore Straits Times article on Wednesday, which praised him for implementing “significant structural reforms to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in his first term that had eluded his two predecessors.”
“Since becoming President and also Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) in 2012, Mr. Xi has trimmed and rebalanced the traditionally land-based PLA, restructured its top leadership to reduce their clout and centralize authority in himself. He even arrested two top generals who were vice-chairmen of the CMC for suspected corruption,” the ST continued.
The two generals in question are (or maybe were) General Fang Fenghui, more or less China’s version of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the military’s top political officer, General Zhang Yang. They were not exactly “arrested” as people in the West understand the term. They vanished about a month before the Party Congress began, Chinese media suddenly stopped talking about them, and replacements appeared at their desks one day without comment.
It is unclear if Fang and Zhang committed some particular “corruption” offense, were judged insufficiently loyal to Xi, or were simply too old to hold top spots in the military Xi is so determined to modernize. Both of them were distinguished officers in their sixties. Fang was previously seen as having good career prospects, and he even accompanied President Xi to visit President Donald Trump at his Florida resort in April.
Xi’s military reforms have included both trimming managerial fat from the People’s Liberation Army and putting the old warhorses out to pasture, replacing them with younger officers who tend to look very fondly upon Xi Jinping. His control of the military is viewed by some analysts as even tighter than that of Mao Zedong.
He is probably also less likely to use his military to kill large numbers of Chinese citizens, assuming they toe the line. Tight control of the military is certainly intimidating to Xi’s potential political adversaries, and his drive for modernization makes military contracts another instrument for him to control China’s economy.
The New York Times sees Xi as “a leader who believes China is on the cusp of greatness, but who worries about domestic security threats and maintaining ideological control.” From that perspective, his focus on the military can be seen as a way of infusing the rest of Chinese society with military discipline and obedience, not to mention convincing opponents that no physical challenge to his rule can even be contemplated. The Communist Party paper Global Times, which was unsurprisingly wowed by Xi’s marathon address, quoted a military analyst describing Xi’s military objective of deterring “domestic separatists and other forces who try to divide the country while warning any potential enemies outside.”
Also, Xi might see “world-class military” power as a natural accessory for any aspiring global colossus, a symbol of prestige, and tangible evidence of Chinese power to client states and diplomatic negotiating partners. In other words, he wants a high-tech modernized military because that is something hyperpowers simply must have, even if their guns largely remain holstered.
If China does end up in a serious fight, there is not much question about who they envision shooting at. Their modernization program leans heavily toward countering American weapon systems and projecting power into contested regions such as the South China Sea.
“We will speed up implementation of major projects, deepen reform of defense-related science, technology, and industry, achieve greater military-civilian integration, and build integrated national strategies and strategic capabilities. China’s dream of a strong national army will be realized,” Xi declared in his speech to the party congress.
A great deal of that agenda involves developing coordinated air, land, and sea forces on the American and European model. The New York Times observes that early in his lengthy report to the party congress—he spoke for 205 minutes!—Xi cited China’s military buildup in the South China Sea as a major achievement from his first five years in office. Later, he reflected that “a military is built to fight,” and said China’s military must “regard combat capability as the criterion to meet in all its work, and focus on how to win when it is called on.”
Xi topped that off by calling for Taiwan to be returned to mainland China’s control, stating that semi-autonomous areas like Hong Kong and Macau must keep “patriots” in top positions if they expect to keep their qualified independence, and vowing that “we will never allow anyone, any organization, or any political party, at any time or in any form, to separate any part of Chinese territory from China.”
Xi has been talking about building a “world-class military” for quite some time, although some previous deployments of the phrase seemed like coded references to his anti-corruption campaign, in which a great number of military officers were cracked down upon. He clearly does not intend to stop once he achieves a more honest military command or even one that is more politically loyal to him.
The Hindustan Times, which writes from one of the countries China might eventually challenge to something more serious than a rock fight in the mountains near Tibet, speculates that Xi’s drive for military modernization is an integral part of his effort to centralize power. The PLA was previously divided into a large number of regional commands, so a good deal of literal centralization is inherent to modernizing it. Xi essentially created yet another position for himself, among the dozen or so titles he already holds, that makes him a direct part of the joint battle command.
The Hindustan Times doesn’t like how the India-China contest is shaping up:
Not surprisingly, the changes will have an impact on an already lopsided India-China military balance. Indian defence reforms continue to be a work in progress and serious efforts still lag behind the requirements of the contemporary challenges and war-fighting. The three services continue to undercut one another in emphasising jointery and one-upmanship remains the norm. The political leadership remains shy of pushing through the much-needed defence reforms. While the growing material imbalance between China and India remains a problem, it pales in comparison to the structural and organisational changes that are needed to make Indian defence forces truly cutting edge. Indian polity’s obsession with Pakistan means that it continues to ignore the far-reaching changes taking place in China.
Hopefully, as Xi consolidates his power even further this week, Indian policy makers and defence planners can rise from their slumber to take on a China which is getting better by the day at mobilising its hard power to achieve its foreign policy and national security objectives.
Let us add the hope that American and European leaders look carefully at what Xi Jinping is doing, and what it implies, so we hear no more fanciful talk of shaping the future with “soft power” or spending “peace dividends” cashed out at the end of history. History clearly is not over yet for the Chinese president who sees himself eclipsing Mao in the Communist pantheon, and there is nothing soft about the power he intends to wield.