Has a quiet military coup taken over China’s foreign policy? Is China’s new president, Xi Jinping, leading the militarization of policy or submitting to it? The questions are not frivolous or far-fetched given recent actions and statements emanating from China’s new leader and other influential establishment figures.
Immediately after assuming his positions as head of the Communist Party and the Chinese military, Xi made a series of visits to state of the art military units and installations. He rallied his officers and men to be ready for “real combat” and “fighting and winning wars,” suggesting a sense of not-too-distant conflict. Unlike the more bellicose bombast coming out of North Korea, Chinese rhetoric is less explicit in naming the United States as the intended enemy.
But Major General Zhu Chenghu, who heads China’s National Defense University, was more specific when he once threatened nuclear attacks against “hundreds” of U.S. cities in a possible Taiwan conflict. Like an earlier general who made a similar nuclear threat, he was promoted, not fired. (This week Zhu will visit the Pentagon where he may deliver another tough message—or take the softer line he used at a dinner toast during a 2009 Beijing conference, vigorously insisting that “China and the U.S. are friends.”)
Xi has adopted as his governing theme “The China Dream,” the title of a popular book by another NDU intellectual, Col. Lin Mingfu, who advocates China’s military dominance, not just regionally but globally. Xi’s speeches equate “a strong nation” with “a strong military.” Arms prowess seems to have supplanted economic development as the principal component in China’s vision of “comprehensive national power.”
All this assertive rhetoric from Xi and others comes in the context of Chinese actions in recent years which have sent disturbing signals to China’s neighbors and to the United States.
Chinese ships and planes have increased their incursions into Japanese territorial waters and airspace in the East China Sea including that around the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands claimed by both countries but administered by Japan. Washington takes no position on the ultimate merits of the claims but has declared that the islands fall under the U.S. Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security in the event of China-initiated hostilities.
In the South China Sea, China asserts sweeping claims to the maritime domain of virtually the entire region, in contravention of the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention and customary international law. It describes those claims as “core interests,” meaning it will go to war to defend them, and has clashed with Vietnamese and Philippines fishing boats as well as U.S. hydrographic survey ships.
On Taiwan, Beijing reserves the right to use force to compel unification if Taiwan simply takes too long to accept it “voluntarily.” It has deployed ballistic missiles and attack submarines to sink any U.S. aircraft carriers daring to come to Taiwan’s defense as they did in 1995-1996 when China fired missiles toward Taiwan.
Chinese officials, their media and academic allies, and some Western scholars describe Beijing’s militant posture as a “natural” Chinese response to a perceived American “containment” policy. But the reverse is true. China’s dramatic military buildup and increasing assertiveness are what initially led to the U.S. “pivot” or “rebalancing” to Asia in the last two years of the Bush administration. As Beijing continued its aggressive posture, the Obama team accelerated and explicitly announced the policy shift.
In February’s official journal of the Communist Party Central Committee, an article from the People’s Liberation Army’s General Staff stated: [W]hat determines the political and economic pattern of the world . . . ultimately depends on force.”
That proclamation takes Mao Zedong’s approach to domestic governance and extends it to international relations: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” What we are seeing is the militarization of China’s much-touted “peaceful rise” and the end of Deng Xiaoping’s approach: “Hide your capabilities; bide your time.”
Whether Xi Jinping is leading or acquiescing to PLA dominance of Chinese external relations, the result is the same: “the China dream” may become the world’s nightmare.