Much of the equipment that China's People's Liberation Army is acquiring — aircraft carriers, amphibious troop carriers, and stealth bombers — is for the projection of power, not homeland defense. Pictured: China's Type 001A aircraft carrier, in 2017. (Image source: GG001213/Wikimedia Commons)
"Be ready for battle." That's how the South China Morning Post, the Hong Kong newspaper that increasingly reflects the Communist Party line, summarized Xi Jinping's first order this year to the People's Liberation Army (PLA). Xi, in his own words, which were broadcasted nationwide, demanded this: "prepare for a comprehensive military struggle from a new starting point."
China's bold leader has been threatening neighbors and the United States with frequency during the last several months. "Xi is not just toying with war," Victor Mair of the University of Pennsylvania wrote on the Fanell Red Star Rising listserve this month. "He's daring himself to actually start one. He's in a dangerous frame of mind."
Dangerous indeed. From Washington to New Delhi, policymakers wonder whether China will begin history's next great conflict. Beijing of course wants to "win without fighting," but the actions Xi Jinping are taking could lead to fighting nonetheless. One particularly disturbing development in this regard is the Chinese military gaining power in Beijing's political circles.
The PLA, as the Chinese military is known, is arming fast, and that development is triggering alarm. Beijing has always claimed its military is for defensive purposes only, but no country threatens territory under China's control. The buildup, therefore, looks like preparation for aggression. Much of the equipment the People's Liberation Army is acquiring — aircraft carriers, amphibious troop carriers, and stealth bombers — is for the projection of power, not homeland defense.
Chinese leaders — not just Xi Jinping — believe their domains should be far larger than they are today. The concern is that, acting on their own rhetoric, they will use shiny new weapons to grab territory and occupy, to the exclusion of others, international water and airspace.
The Chinese — leaders and others — certainly have the world's worst case of irredentism as they seek to "recover" areas they have in fact never ruled, but they do not necessarily envision military conquest as the means of acquiring vast "lost territories." They believe they can intimidate and coerce and then take without force.
The fast rearmament also has other objectives. Speaking of China, Arthur Waldron of the University of Pennsylvania told Gatestone Institute:
"I think her goal is to increase her awesomeness in the eyes of the world, so her buildup is therefore to be understood as an attempt to become strong enough to flout the international system without consequences."
Despite the rhetoric, the Chinese know the "imponderables" of actually going to war. For centuries, they have not been very good at it, enduring defeat after defeat and invasion after invasion.
Their military record during the tenure of the People's Republic is similarly unimpressive. Yes, the Chinese grabbed control of the Paracel Islands and specks in the Spratlys in the South China Sea in a series of skirmishes with various Vietnamese governments, but these incidents were minor compared to the setbacks.
Mao Zedong sustained perhaps 600,000 killed — including his son, Mao Anying — to obtain a draw in Korea in the early 1950s. His successor, Deng Xiaoping, launched an incursion in 1979 "to teach Vietnam a lesson" and instead suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of his small communist neighbor.
Despite its undistinguished record, China causes grave concern. Xi was already beholden to the generals and admirals, who form the core of his political support in Communist Party circles, and they have gotten even more powerful as the Chinese people have become more restive.
As Willy Lam of the Chinese University of Hong Kong told Gatestone this month, "the top leadership is paranoid about massive social unrest" and so has given the military and police "extra power to tighten internal security... Xi understands very well that it is the army and the police that are keeping the Party alive."
Xi has tried to bring the military under control with both "anti-corruption" efforts — in reality a series of political purges — and, as June Teufel Dreyer of the University of Miami told Gatestone, "a sweeping military organization."
Yet those efforts have not been entirely successful. That is why Xi is trying, in the words of Waldron, to be viewed as the "martial emperor." He knows the power of the PLA as "kingmaker," able to back and depose civilian leaders. "The current Chinese focus on the military undoubtedly has internal political roots and is not related to changes in the security environment," Waldron said. Xi, in order to curry favor, has to accede to the flag officers.
Just because the process is internally driven does not make it less dangerous. Xi has sponsored overly large military budgets and has allowed senior officers to have outsized roles in formulating provocative external policies. The November 2013 declaration of the East China Sea Air-Defense Identification Zone, an audacious attempt to control the skies off its shores, is a clear example of the military influence. The seizure of Scarborough Shoal in early 2012 and the reclamation and militarization of features in the Spratly chain in the South China Sea are other destabilizing events.
Military influence in the Chinese capital means that hostility never goes out of fashion. Twice in December, senior PLA officers publicly threatened unprovoked attacks on the U.S. Navy. "The United States is most afraid of death," said Rear Admiral Luo Yuan in the second of the outbursts.
"We now have Dong Feng-21D, Dong Feng-26 missiles. These are aircraft carrier killers. We attack and sink one of their aircraft carriers. Let them suffer 5,000 casualties. Attack and sink two carriers, casualties 10,000. Let's see if the U.S. is afraid or not?"
Everyone, not just the U.S., should be afraid, in part because of the parallels between China's military today and Japan's in the 1930s.
In the 1930s, Japan's military officers, as Dreyer told Gatestone, took "drastic action to force the government into a war footing, even assassinating Japanese politicians who opposed such moves."
Then, the Japanese military, like the Chinese one today, was emboldened by success and ultra-nationalism. Then, like now, civilians controlled Asia's biggest army only loosely. Then, like today, Asia's largest military is full of assertion and belligerence.
Moreover, in the 1930s the media publicized the idea that Japan was being surrounded by hostile powers that wished to prevent its rise. Eri Hotta in Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy writes that the Japanese "talked themselves into believing that they were victims of circumstances rather than aggressors." That is exactly what the Chinese are doing at this moment.
"If we ask, 'Did they want war?' the answer is yes; and if we ask 'Did they want to avoid war?' the answer is still yes," noted Maruyama Masao, a leading postwar political scientist, as recounted by Hotta. "Though wanting war, they tried to avoid it; though wanting to avoid it, they deliberately chose the path that led to it."
Unfortunately, this tragic pattern is evident today in a Beijing where Chinese, wearing stars on their shoulders, look as if they want to repeat one of the worst mistakes of the last century.
Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China and a Gatestone Institute Distinguished Senior Fellow.