In his keynote address on the opening day of the 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Beijing on Wednesday, the Chinese President and party Supremo, Xi Jinping, made two points of great relevance to the rest of the world. One is that the Chinese security forces, collectively known as the People Liberation Army (PLA), will be made fighting fit and able to win any war. And the other is that China will aim to sustain “moderate” economic growth, writes P.K.Balachandran in DailyFT.
Both goals answer China’s immediate needs: the first is the need to face multifarious challenges across the world as other powers challenge its global ambitions in the form of the $ 1 trillion One Belt One Road Initiative (OBOR) which envisages the building of ports, roads and railways across the world to promote its trade and investment and keep its industries humming.
China is now facing over capacity in the industrial sector and needs to moderate its economic activity at home until OBOR gets underway in a significant way. This is apparent in the stated theme of Xi’s address which was: “To secure a decisive victory in building a moderately prosperous society in all respects and strive for the great success of socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era.”
World-class military by 2050
As Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), which has total control of the defense forces, Xi said that China will keep strengthening the military. The PLA will be a “modern army, navy, air force, rocket army, and strategic support force, and a strong and efficient command agency for joint operations,” he said.
The specific goals set for the PLA are as follows: By 2020, the Chinese military should be fully mechanised and backed by information technology. It should take a “big leap forward” in strategic ability. And by 2050, the Chinese military should be a world-class one.
“A military is prepared for war. All military works must adhere to the standards of being able to fight a war and win a war.” Xi exhorted.
But in order to allay fears of Chinese military expansionism across land and sea borders, Xi said that his concept of defence is defence against external aggression.
“Our army is the people’s army; our defence is national defence. [We must] enhance the education on national defence education, consolidate the unity between the military and the civilian, in order to achieve the Chinese dream of a strong military,” he said emphasising the need for the common man’s involvement in the defence of the country.
In fact, since Xi came into office five years ago, he has repeatedly emphasised the Chinese “dream of a strong military” and the goal of fostering a military that can win wars. China’s defence expenses will therefore, soar in the coming years, experts predict.
According to the experts, the PLA, composed of different units charged with different tasks, needs to learn to work in coordination. It still has too many personnel who are also too badly armed, though the PLA has downsized the numbers periodically and upgraded the equipment.
The last time Xi spoke to the Military Commission he emphasised the need for (an American style) “lean and mean force.
Unlike many other world armies, the PLA has no combat experience. But this drawback can be overcome by better training under simulated conditions, Xi believes, hence his drive for technological modernisation.
Bid to absorb Taiwan?
Related to the policy of strengthening of the military is the issue of absorbing Taiwan, a Chinese country formed by the pro-West Kuomintang or nationalist party led by General Chiang Kai-shek in 1949. Xi addressed the issue of Chinese nationalism, essential for maintaining China’s integrity, by strongly advocating the One China policy, which in effect, means the absorption of Taiwan.
“We will resolutely safeguard the national sovereignty and territorial integrity and will absolutely not tolerate the tragedy of the country’s split. Any activity aiming to split the motherland will be firmly opposed by all the Chinese people. We have a firm will, sufficient faith, and adequate capacity to defeat any intention of “Taiwan independence” in any form. We will never allow any person, any organisation, any political party, at any time, in any form, to separate any piece of Chinese territory from China,” Xi said.
But it is not clear how he proposes to bring about unification in the light of US support to Taiwan.
Impact on India policy
Xi’s heightened militarism could have a direct impact on India too. China and India have a 68 year old border dispute, which flared up recently when Chinese and Indian troops had a long standoff at Doklam on the China-Bhutan border.
A détente was achieved but only to be challenged again recently by China when it sent back troops to the area. But no fighting is expected to take place during the beastly Himalayan winter. However, hostilities or eye ball to eye ball confrontations could erupt again after winter because both China and India want the Doklam platea. China wants to use it as a bridgehead to India and India needs it for the defense of West Bengal and Assam.
Xi will continue to side with Pakistan on the issue of cross-border terrorism and the UN-designation of Pakistan-based terrorist Masood Azhar. He will continue to execute projects in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir ignoring India’s protests saying that it is Indian territory seized by Pakistan in 1948. Xi’s China will continue to take majority stake in strategic projects in the South Asian region, brushing aside India’s concerns, as it did in Hambantota in Sri Lanka and in the Kyauk Pyu seaport in Myanmar. Hambantota faces the Indian Ocean and Kyauk Pyu faces the Bay of Bengal. India considers these seas to its strategic and political domain. China will also seek to oust or minimise India’s political influence in South Asian countries, especially in Bhutan and Myanmar.
Pragmatic towards West
Given the West’s military and economic strength, Xi’s China is, and will be, pragmatic towards the US and the West. Xi’s policy will be a mixed bag of compromise, competition and conflict, being tough when and where needed, and giving in, if the situation demands it.
Xi will continue to be at odds with the US on maritime security in the Indian Ocean, and the South and East China seas. China rubbishes the US contention that it is violating existing laws and throwing its weight about. It maintains that it is only striving for unhindered passage with the aim of promoting regional economic development.
“The ultimate guarantee of maritime security is all round and equitable economic development of the countries bordering the oceans,” said the Deputy Commander of the Chinese East Sea Fleet at the Galle Dialogue in Sri Lanka earlier this month. China also trashes the contention that nations which agree to China’s terms will necessarily lose their sovereignty.
China’s stand on all issues reflect Xi’s theories. These will get a further lease of life following the 19th party conference.
But Xi needs America’s economic cooperation because the two nations are inextricably tied economically. Bloomberg reported that hours before Xi took to the stage, the U.S. issued a report easing its criticism of China’s approach to the Yuan, lauding Beijing for acting to avoid a “disorderly” depreciation in the currency.
“The shift is a softening from President Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric over China’s currency and trade practices, with the two nations needing to smooth out ties and cooperate in combating the weapons threat from North Korea,” the financial agency said.
As in the case of the US, Xi needs Hong Kong though, theoretically, its virtual autonomy is untenable under the One China policy. Compared to his remarks on Taiwan, Xi’s tone toward Hong Kong was significantly softer.
He said Beijing will support Hong Kong as well Macau to fully get involved in the overall development of China. He put forward policies to facilitate the participation of Hong Kong in the development of the mainland.
(The featured picture at the top shows Chinese President Xi Jinping addressing the 19 th.Congress of the Chinese Communist Party)