Ahead of the Spring Festival celebrations in China, President Xi Jinping conducted an online review of the combat preparedness of China’s armed forces. He instructed units of the air force and navy to remain vigilant and underscored the need to be ready for an emergency. Addressing soldiers at a border station in Xinjiang, he described them as exemplars of border defence. Xi also spoke to members of the Lièyīng (Falcon) squad, an elite commando force tasked with counterterrorism duties under the People’s Armed Police Force, making enquiries about their training. He urged the formations to improve their skills and vigorously perform their duties.
While there is regular interaction between members of the political executive in most countries and the military branches, the timing of Xi’s interaction with a cross-section of forces responsible for China’s internal and external security has been taken note of by military strategists. 2020 saw China’s worst conflict in decades with India that led to casualties on both sides. India and China remain engaged in a protracted confrontation in the icy Himalayas, with the theatre of conflict expanding to Arunachal Pradesh, where Indian and Chinese troops clashed in the Tawang sector in December 2022. Xi has launched large-scale exercises and regular patrols in areas claimed by China like the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea. China’s air force has been flying near Taiwan with increasing regularity and its war games close to Taiwan’s shores went to unprecedented levels last year after US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited the island.
In addition to external factors, one needs to carefully peruse domestic discourse in China. 2022 was an important year in China’s political calendar as Xi was expected to wrest an unprecedented third term in October 2022, bringing a renewed focus on the preparedness of the defence forces.
Overhauling the military
Significantly, Xi in his capacity as the Chief of the Central Military Commission (CMC)—animportant institution of the Communist Party of China (CPC) that is responsible for managing the armed forces—inspected its joint operations command centre in November 2022. His address warned that on account of the rapidly transforming situation the nation faced grave risks and that the forces must focus their energy on fighting wars, and expediting training to enable the People’s Liberation Army to win wars. Earlier addressing the National Defence and Military Reform Seminar in September 2022, Xi asserted that the reform of national defence during his tenure had been a historic achievement since it had addressed “structural obstacles and institutional issues”. In different phases, Xi has restructured troop units and command theatres. China has built capacities to soldier on new fronts like space and cyberspace with the formation of the Strategic Support Force. The PLA Rocket Force was upgraded to a full military service branch and, is in charge of China’s land-based nuclear and conventional missile forces.
Moreover, there has been a painstaking effort in China’s internal propaganda to burnish Xi’s role in the transformation of the PLA as a modern force, and billed as his signature initiative. CMC vice-chairperson General Zhang Youxia argued in an article in the People’s Daily that the defence forces had been exposed to risks before Xi took over in 2012 and that he carried out the task of rebuilding the army and purging it of corrupt generals. Implicit in this assertion is that Xi’s predecessors allowed a drift in the armed forces, imperilling national security. It may be recalled that there was a purge of CMC chairpersons Guo Boxiong, Xu Caihou, and other senior military figures shortly after Xi took over on grounds that they had been responsible for taking bribes in lieu of doling out promotions in the armed forces. The downfall of senior figures in the military establishment revealed the extent of the unholy practice of buying ranks in the services, which has put a question mark on the combat readiness of one of the world’s largest armies. At a time when Xi has branded the modernisation of the PLA as a pet project, he has to constantly harp on its preparedness.
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Since the Ukraine crisis, China has assiduously promoted a view that the situation is due to America’s obsession with forming alliances that threaten stability. Juxtaposing the European situation in Asia, an article in the PLA Daily describes the Indo-Pacific strategy as responsible for creating blocs in Asia and therefore, endangering peace and stability. In fact to the contrary, China’s live-fire drills in the Taiwan straits in response to the Pelosi visit last year spilt over to Japan with missiles landing in the latter’s exclusive economic zone. This has led to a growing belief among the Japanese elite that Japan would not remain unscathed in the eventuality of China’s invasion of Taiwan. This belief has consequently led to Japan boosting its security cooperation with the US and increasing its defence budget. In the Xi era, China’s internal narrative has tried to weaponise historical grievances, particularly Japan’s wartime role in China. In 2014, it declared two national holidays: “War against Japanese Aggression Victory Day” and “Nanjing Massacre Memorial Day”, and publicly honoured the assassin of Japan’s Prime Minister Hirobumi Ito.
To conclude, first, the bribes-for-promotions scandal will linger on in the psyche of China’s political elite despite the PLA’s overhaul, and continue to cast doubts on its efficacy. Besides, the armed forces still remain untested in battle, having last seen active combat in the late 1970s in the Sino-Vietnamese war. To bridge the gap, China has sought to engage veterans of foreign militaries to train its personnel as evidenced from an inquiry launched by the Australian government recently to uncover China’s overtures to their defence personnel. Second, China’s elite see Japan’s security posturing from a prism of history that has caused its strategists to argue that the latter is moving away from its avowed pacifism, which has led to Xi’s call to his army for greater combat readiness. Considering Xi’s belligerence, it is not something the world can ignore.
Kalpit A Mankikar is a fellow with Strategic Studies Programme and is based out of ORF’s Delhi centre. Views are personal. This article originally appeared on ORF website.