China’s New Military Strategy: Self-Defense or Expansion?

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On the last day of 2015, when each home was immersed in peace and hope for a brighter future in the New Year, Chairman Xi launched the last step of his grand military reform. In the original scheme, the ground army was superior to the Navy and Air Force, and was considered to be the core of the army. The reform, however, places different armies in a parallel structure in equal positions, and adds new subdivisions to the military system. In the new military system, the five subdivisions of the army are commanded directly by the Commander of each military zone.

Under the military reform, the army system is comprised of five components: Ground Army, Air Force, Navy, Rocket Army, and Strategic Support Force. This parallel construction of five departments symbolizes the end of ground army superiority that has dominated the People’s Republic of China since its inception. With the new institutional change, the significance of Navy and Air Force has risen. Xi’s decision to put the five institutions under the control of the Commanders in different military zones notably increased the modernity of Chinese Army, because the cooperation of a variety of armies plays an important role in modern warfare.

Conspiracy theorists, both in China and abroad, have interpreted Xi’s recent acts, including the recent military reforms and anti-corruption campaigns, as a purge of his political opponents. Xi’s major political rivals, Yongkang Zhou and Xilai Bo, and their henchmen officials, were all sent to prison under the guise of his political campaigns against corruption. None of them were given the death penalty, which in some way served to mitigated the resistance from his rivals. With Xi’s military reforms, both of the two deputies of the central military committee in China were deposed; both were also Xi’s long-term political rivals. Moreover, the status of ground army whom his rivals had great influence on was greatly reduced, with the increasing significance of other four branches in which Xi has a more prominent voice. It is inadequate to say that the sole purpose of these series of reforms led by Xi is to remove his rivals under the disguise of political reforms and justice, but it is also inadequate to conclude that Xi has no intention to use the reforms as means to solidify his supremacy inside the Communism Party.

What worries power groups outside China more is not Xi’s solidification of power, but China’s ability to wage and win wars. Coupled with China’s recent aggressive strategies in the South China Sea and the Middle East, a more modern and aggressive version of military institution might raise concerns about China’s next steps. Generally speaking, the ground force is for self-defense in China; on the contrary, the Navy and Air Force are more likely to be used as expansion tools. China’s increasing investments in the Navy and the Air Force indicate that the country is no longer satisfied with its current influence around the globe. In his 2016 New Year Speech, Xi noted that the magnitude of problems and conflicts in the world necessitated China’s involvement, and he believes that the world expects a greater voice from China. Xi quoted an ancient Chinese axiom that hard work would, and has to, be rewarded.

Though his ambitions are clear, the path he wishes this influence to take remains ambiguous. It is valid to reason that the new military reform will only be used for protecting China’s increasing global interests, especially economically. On the other hand, it remains reasonable to infer that China hopes to apply its military supremacy to eliminate dissenting voices around the globe. If this is the case, then Xi has picked one of the best moments in history. China’s greatest rival, the United States is gripped in a carnival of democracy. The presidential election weakens the diplomatic power of the current president and reduces US advantage in negotiations.

China has recently passed an anti-terrorism law that grants the military committee the power to launch attacks abroad under certain circumstances related to terrorism. This is the first law in China that grants the power to wage wars abroad whose main purpose is not self-defense (both the Korean War and the Vietnam War are interpreted in China as self-defense). Combined with the military reform, the law seems both worrisome and reassuring. On one hand, the law grants the army domestic legitimacy to wage wars abroad, and the increasing tensions between China, South East Asia, Taiwan, and Japan foreshadow the likelihood of Chinese action. Even though it is difficult to interpret the military actions taken against Chinese neighbors as anti-terrorism acts, the law has opened a precedent for the legitimacy for China to deploy troops abroad. This precedent may be used in the future to pass laws that grant the military committee the power to send troops abroad in other circumstances besides anti-terrorism. The law also implicitly infers from the popular cultural notion that China is rarely expansionist and often unwilling to invade other countries. As noted by Chinese Philosopher Tingyang Zhao, “war not aiming at defense is never a part of the Chinese culture, and it is highly unlikely for contemporary China to launch wars if there exist other diplomatic ways to deal with the conflicts. The absence of religious disputes in Chinese history excludes the necessity for expansion in the traditional culture, and the ancient prosperity in China is based on peace with the nomads in the north. In modern society, each time we attempt to launch wars, we reassure our people by calling the military campaigns self-defense”.

It is very difficult to predict the exact steps China will take, but 2016 remains a very important year for China’s foreign policies. China is also suffering from extreme Islamic radicalism in Xinjiang Province and Yunnan Province. The anti-terrorism law preempts the possibility for China to be more actively engaged in the affairs of the Middle East. The development of China’s foreign relations in 2016 will also be influenced by the result of the 2016 presidential elections in the USA, since the attitude of the new president may potentially affect China’s attitude towards the world. If things are going well diplomatically, we might predict a more active China in international politics in a positive way, and America can expect a new partner to cooperate against ISIS. But if irrational decisions are made in the international arena, or negotiations and compromises fail, the powder keg in South East Asia or in the Middle East might be ignited immediately.




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