By Kathrin Hille
When the US announced its decision last week to help Taiwan upgrade its fleet of ageing fighter aircraft, the response was swift and sharp. China should take “smart and devious revenge”, advised Major General Luo Yuan, deputy secretary-general of the academy of military sciences. He went on to demand “a tooth for a tooth from those who violate China’s interests”, suggesting his country learn from Russia and deploy missiles against America.
The biblical language and the cold war references make it difficult not to perceive China’s military as a belligerent force bent on confronting the US. In the past two years, a series of fierce outbursts from men in uniform, combined with constant friction with neighbours, and the People’s Liberation Army’s rapidly growing capabilities, have triggered complaints about an assertive, even aggressive, Beijing. Many outside China believe that the PLA is behind this push.
“Is the military now driving China’s foreign policy?” asked Iskander Rehman, an Indian security analyst, in an article this year. The answer is yes and no. But the balance may still shift, with substantial implications for the Asia-Pacific region and beyond.
“To be sure, the PLA as a bureaucratic actor lobbies for its preferences within the Chinese system,” says Professor Taylor Fravel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “However, speaking in general terms, there is no evidence that the PLA has sought to change policy at the strategic level.”
The defining moment for the theory of a hawkish, increasingly powerful PLA setting the foreign policy agenda came in January when the air force conducted the first flight test of its domestically developed stealth fighter – just as Robert Gates, then US defence secretary, headed into a meeting with President Hu Jintao.
Many analysts interpreted the timing as a snub by a military keen to demonstrate its growing capabilities to a country it sees as its main adversary. Mr Gates said later that he believed Mr Hu had been unaware of the test. “Over the last several years we have seen some signs of … a disconnect between the military and the civilian leadership,” Mr Gates said.
Such suspicions attract particularly strong attention as Mr Hu and members of the Communist party’s senior leadership prepare to hand power to the next generation late next year. Xi Jinping, the man expected to replace the president, has much closer ties to the top brass.
Admiral Mike Mullen, who retires this week as chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, was given a similarly embarrassing reception in Beijing at a press conference with his counterpart in July. Standing next to Adm Mullen but not looking at him, Gen Chen Bingde called US naval exercises in the disputed waters of the South China Sea “extremely inappropriate”.
These incidents attract particular attention as the PLA harvests the fruits of more than a decade of modernisation, driven by mostly double-digit percentage rises in spending. The navy tested its first aircraft carrier, a refurbished Soviet-built vessel, at sea for the first time last month. Washington believes Beijing is also developing an indigenous carrier, with two vessels under construction. The PLA could put one into operation by 2015 and deploy multiple carriers by 2020, according to the Pentagon’s annual assessment of China’s military power.
The PLA has begun deploying a land-based “carrier killer” ballistic missile with which it could deter US forces from entering what Beijing sees as its near seas – especially the South China Sea, an area rich in resources and vital sea lanes where China has territorial disputes with neighbours. Most importantly, it would limit US ability to protect Taiwan.
“By the latter half of the current decade, China will likely be able to project and sustain a modest-size force, perhaps several battalions of ground forces or a naval flotilla of up to a dozen ships, in low-intensity operations far from China,” said the Pentagon last month. “This evolution will lay the foundation for a force able to accomplish a broader set of regional and global objectives.”
What those objectives might be is the subject of fierce debate. Beijing insists it will never pose a threat to anyone and does not seek hegemony. But the past year has left many of its neighbours left feeling the opposite. Vietnam and the Philippines have complained about incidents in which they said Chinese ships had harassed boats engaged in fishing, surveying and exploration in the South China Sea. This follows frequent arrests of Vietnamese and Malaysian fishermen, huge exercises by the Chinese navy and a dispute with Tokyo after a ship collision close to the Senkaku – islands controlled by Japan but claimed by China, where they are known as Diaoyu.
On the other hand, Beijing refused to condemn Pyongyang over the March 2010 sinking of a South Korean frigate, and the shelling of a South Korean island eight months later, actions perceived by other nations as provocation by the north. But it blasted the US and Seoul for joint exercises in the Yellow Sea conducted in response to the frigate incident.
Despite the hawkish comments from military figures that accompanied these moves, a closer look shows Beijing is juggling many forces in its handling of the different conflicts – and the PLA is not necessarily the dominant one. While the army has stepped up South China Sea patrols, it has not been involved in the high-profile maritime incidents.
Security experts identify some of the institutions that perform coastguard functions as main actors in disputes in the South China Sea and around the Senkakus. There are at least five bodies involved in enforcing maritime security: the coastguard, part of the border control department of the People’s Armed Police; the maritime safety administration under the ministry of transport; the fisheries law enforcement command under the ministry of agriculture; the general administration of customs; and the maritime surveillance unit under the state oceanographic administration.
“They are competing for funds and attention – and in addition there are internal, regional rivalries,” says Linda Jakobson of the Lowy Institute, an Australian think-tank.
While the South China divisions of these five institutions are believed to have ties with, or even share facilities with, the navy, experts say there is no evidence of direct military involvement in any of the incidents.
“The [navy] does not want to be in the business of detaining civilians from other countries or shadowing commercial seismic survey vessels,” says Prof Fravel. “They see their mission as defending Chinese territory, such as the contested islands, or defeating other naval forces, especially those of the United States.”
The sense of that mission has clearly evolved. As early as 2000, the Chinese magazine, Modern Navy, noted that the definition of the country’s maritime rights and interests was shifting from simply protecting its coast to safeguarding its resources and sea lanes. Wu Shengli, commander of the navy, has defended his force’s missions farther from home, pointing in 2009 to the need to protect economic lifelines, which now include many more assets far from its shores.
The military rarely moves from such arguments to attempting to develop a consistent foreign policy line, however. One of the most important national security debates has surrounded the question of whether to base South China Sea claims on an ambiguous dotted line that appears on all Chinese maps, circling the entire area; or to switch to claiming “land structures” – anything from islands to coral reefs – and the waters immediately around them, a move towards international law that would make Beijing’s position easier for rival claimants to understand. The more hawkish coastguard opposes changes because they would make it impossible to claim some areas. The foreign policy apparatus favours a switch because it could strengthen China’s credentials as a responsible stakeholder in the international system and eventually facilitate dispute resolution through negotiations. The PLA, by contrast, has kept out of the debate.
Scenarios under which the civilian leadership would lose control of the military therefore have no basis in reality. Even though Mao Zedong, who coined the phrase that “the [Communist] party controls the gun”, died more than 30 years ago, the armed forces remain subordinate to the party. The PLA’s relationship with later political leaders was much less close than with Mao and Deng Xiaoping, who had earned the generals’ respect in combat during the revolution, but presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao managed to establish a good working relationship with them.
. . .
Long-term PLA observers say one reason is that these leaders have ensured the army receives the funds and equipment it needs to modernise and professionalise. Another is the flexible, pragmatic nature of China’s version of the political commissar system designed to keep the military under control. After realising that civilian commissars were not popular with the soldiers, the party moved early on to put political work in the hands of professionally accomplished officers.
Even when the military does meddle, analysts argue this is not a new phenomenon but simply more visible as levels of debate and friction increase throughout society, magnified by a more commercially driven press and a vibrant internet. “In this new media environment, other bureaucratic players and interest groups can become first movers to establish a narrative to which governments must respond,” says Prof Alastair Iain Johnston of Harvard University. In one such case, the foreign ministry initially voiced only “concern” over plans for joint manoeuvres by the US and South Korea in the Yellow Sea last year. But it toughened its line following a statement by Gen Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of the general staff, that China was “extremely opposed” to such exercises.
“It seems that the [foreign ministry] felt it could not be outflanked by the PLA on this issue, and no one at the top was willing to discipline Ma,” says Prof Johnston.
Similar forces are at work with military scholars such as Maj Gen Luo. The Global Times, a tabloid owned by the People’s Daily, the Communist party mouthpiece, regularly quotes him and other PLA professors. “The Chinese public is increasingly patriotic, so the angry generals sell,” says an editor at the paper.
As many of them are retired, and PLA pensions are relatively low, appearances on television are a welcome source of additional income. Foreign defence officials in Beijing say their commentary has contributed to the impression of a new assertiveness driven by the military. Some of them, for example, have used the term “core interests” to describe a wide range of areas including the South China Sea, which has caused alarm abroad. But observers agree that they do not even speak for the PLA, let alone the country’s leadership.
“Having us is quite convenient for the government,” says one retired general who frequently airs hawkish views on state television. “Many people feel the same way we do, but then the government can disown us when needed – and, I tell you, they shut us up frequently.”
On a beautiful day in late May, a grandson of Mao Zedong, the Chinese dictator, got married. But much of the attention was focused not on the bride and groom but on the couple’s powerful matchmakers.
One was General Liu Yuan, political commissar at one of the military’s most important departments. The other was Bo Xicheng, brother of Bo Xilai, the prominent party chief of the south-western city of Chongqing. Both are princelings – sons of party leaders of the first hour.
Gen Liu surprised guests with a political speech calling for the offspring of Communist royalty to be friends and stick together – the latest in a series of high-profile moves observers read as a sign he is campaigning for a seat on the central military commission, the apex of the military leadership.
At its 18th congress next October, the party will not only appoint a new overall leadership but also military leaders. Although some rules have been established, the succession process remains so opaque that every round raises the question of whether the army – just like any other group or faction – will gain or lose power.
With eight of the CMC’s 12 members due to retire next year, the forthcoming succession promises particularly big changes in this regard. What makes it more interesting is that Xi Jinping, the man expected to take over from Hu Jintao as president of the Chinese state, general secretary of the party and head of the CMC, is believed to be friends with some princeling generals.
These include Gen Liu and Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of the general staff. Both are seen as strong contenders for membership or even senior posts in the CMC. Gen Ma, currently in charge of military intelligence and diplomacy, is expected to become air force commander while Gen Liu could head up the general political department.
What binds these princelings together is shared experiences: their fathers fought in the revolution alongside Mao but later fell victim to his constant political campaigns. Mr Xi has gone on the record praising some of Mao’s ideological teachings, rather unusual nowadays, as has Gen Liu. Gen Liu and Gen Ma are known as hawks in foreign and security policy.
How all this might translate into policy once Mr Xi is in the top job is hard to tell. But a leader who counts some of the top brass as close friends would mark a sharp departure from Mr Hu and his arm’s length relationship with the military.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2011.