Xi Jinping and the PLA

In recent weeks, Western media has characterized Xi Jinping as a more assertive and forceful leader of China’s armed forces, including the People’s Liberation Army and People’s Armed Police.  The Wall Street Journal, for example, described Xi as “as a strong military leader at home and embracing a more hawkish worldview.” Similarly, the New York Times described Xi “as a champion of the military, using the armed forces to cement his political authority and present a tough stance in growing territorial disputes with American allies in the Pacific region.”

Such characterizations, however, may be misplaced – or at least incomplete.  Since becoming Chairman of the CCP’s Central Military Commission at the 18th Party Congress four months ago, the policies adopted under Xi reflect far more continuity with those of past leaders than is commonly perceived.

One general indicator of the relative priority of the military for China’s leaders is spending on defense.  Although China’s official defense budget does not include all defense-related spending, there’s no evidence yet that Xi has been more inclined to favor the military.  At the most recent National People’s Congress, China’s official defense budget was slated to increase by 10.7 percent in 2013.  Although budget preparations likely started before Xi became CMC chair, the figure nevertheless helps to assess whether Xi has been exerting any special influence.  Under Hu Jintao’s chairmanship of the CMC (2004-2012), China’s defense budget, on average, increased 15 percent per year.  When Jiang Zemin was CMC chair (1989-2004), it increased more than 16 percent per year on average.  Under both leaders, China’s defense budget as a share of the government budget has been declining steadily, indicating that the military was not being favored over other government spending areas.

Instead, if anything, the 2013 defense budget reflects continuity in China’s defense policies.  The percentage increase for the 2013 defense budget roughly equals the rate of GDP growth plus inflation for 2012, and is slightly lower than the rates of growth in 2011 and 2012 (reflecting the slight downturn in China’s GDP).  The growth of the defense budget is consistent with Beijing’s official policy “that defense development should be both subordinated to and in the service of the country’s overall economic development, and that the former should be coordinated with the latter.”  Thus, the military budget, roughly in line with the growth of China’s GDP and inflation, has not diverted massive funding away from important civilian projects necessary for maintaining economic development.

Xi’s statements on military affairs have attracted a great deal of attention. In the post-Deng era, all new leaders have moved early to distinguish their command over China’s armed forces from their predecessors.  The easiest way to do so is by articulating new formulations (tifa) for what are often the same or very similar general policies.  Previously, for example, in December 1990, Jiang Zemin announced his “Five Sentences” that the PLA should be “politically qualified, militarily competent, have a good work style, strict discipline and adequate logistics support.”  Likewise, shortly after becoming CMC chair in 2004, Hu Jintao called on the PLA to fulfill its “historic missions in the new phase of the new century.”  Although the historic missions called on the PLA to develop the capability to carry out non-combat operations such as peacekeeping and disaster relief, they were premised on “strengthening the ability to win local wars under modern conditions as the core.” Now after becoming CMC chair, Xi has used a new formulation of building a “strong army” (and PAP) that “obeys the party’s commands, is capable of winning wars, and has a good work style.”

Despite the different formulations each leader has used, the content and general policies have remained the same.  Both Jiang and Xi have stressed “having a good work style,” basically a call for the PLA to be a model for society, particularly in the fight against graft and corruption.  Unsurprisingly, Jiang, Hu and Xi all emphasized the leading role of the party over the armed forces.   And although the specific words are different, Xi’s requirement that the PLA be able “to fight and win” reflects a long-standing policy to enhance China’s military preparedness, especially in the context of changes in the conduct of warfighting since the Gulf War.  In the past, this goal has usually been described as strengthening “preparations for military struggle” (junshi douzheng junbei).  The PLA itself underscored the continuity with the past in a February 2013 article published by the General Staff Department in the authoritative party journalQiushi.  According to the article, “To be able to fight and win battles is also the fundamental starting and ending point of preparations for military struggle.” As a result, this directive basically is a call to improve the PLA’s operational readiness – it is not an indication of impending operations that will be executed.

Xi Jinping’s leadership has also been linked with a more assertive posture in China’s disputes with other states, especially the maritime sphere.  China’s maritime assertiveness, however, started long before Xi took office.  In the South China Sea, it can be traced back to 2007 and 2008, when China began to oppose the investments of foreign oil companies in Vietnamese blocks.  In 2011, China Marine Surveillance vessels harassed Vietnamese and Philippine seismic survey vessels while in early April 2012, China responded forcefully to a stand-off with the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal.

In the East China Sea, China’s assertiveness started at around the same time.  In 2008, a China Marine Surveillance vessel for the first time entered the 12 nautical mile territorial waters around the islands.  In September 2010, China reacted harshly to the arrest of a Chinese fishing captain who had entered the territorial waters around the islands and then collided with a Japanese Coast Guard vessel.  Between September 2010 and the purchase of three of the islands by the Japanese government in 2012, Chinese government ships entered the territorial waters around the islands almost once a month.  Although Xi is rumored to have played a role in China’s response to the purchase of the islands in September 2012, China’s response reflected a continuation of policies adopted under Hu Jintao.

What does this all mean?

On the one hand, like past top leaders in the post-Deng era, Xi is seeking to build a strong relationship with China’s armed forces, which is key to cementing his status as both CMC chair and CCP general secretary.  He’s moved more quickly than either Jiang or Hu because he has been able to assume the CMC chairmanship without a senior party figure looking over his shoulder.  Jiang became CMC chair while Deng was still very active in Chinese politics, while Hu had to two wait two years before Jiang relinquished that post.  Ironically, the relatively smooth transition has enabled Xi to move more quickly in consolidating his position as commander-in-chief.

On the other hand, China’s basic approach to military modernization remains unchanged.  It is premised on ensuring the loyalty of the military to the party and not the state.  The long-term goal is to recapitalize China’s armed forces to achieve mechanization and partial informatization by 2020 – a goal set by Jiang Zemin in the late 1990s – and to complete its military modernization by mid-century, 2049.  It is perhaps not a coincidence that Xi has set 2049 for the fulfillment of the “China dream.”  Xi is the new leader of China’s armed forces, but he is not yet pursuing new policies.

[This piece originally appeared in The Diplomat and was co-authored with Dennis Blasko.]