“Be ready for battle.” That’s how the South China Morning Post, the Hong Kong newspaper that increasingly reflects the Communist Party line, summarized Xi Jinping’s first order this year to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Xi, in his own words, which were broadcasted nationwide, demanded this: “prepare for a comprehensive military struggle from a new starting point.”
China’s bold leader has been threatening neighbors and the United States with frequency during the last several months. “Xi is not just toying with war,” Victor Mair of the University of Pennsylvania wrote on the Fanell Red Star Rising listserve this month. “He’s daring himself to actually start one. He’s in a dangerous frame of mind.”
Dangerous indeed. From Washington to New Delhi, policymakers wonder whether China will begin history’s next great conflict. Beijing of course wants to “win without fighting,” but the actions Xi Jinping are taking could lead to fighting nonetheless. One particularly disturbing development in this regard is the Chinese military gaining power in Beijing’s political circles.
The PLA, as the Chinese military is known, is arming fast, and that development is triggering alarm. Beijing has always claimed its military is for defensive purposes only, but no country threatens territory under China’s control. The buildup, therefore, looks like preparation for aggression. Much of the equipment the People’s Liberation Army is acquiring — aircraft carriers, amphibious troop carriers, and stealth bombers — is for the projection of power, not homeland defense.
Chinese leaders — not just Xi Jinping — believe their domains should be far larger than they are today. The concern is that, acting on their own rhetoric, they will use shiny new weapons to grab territory and occupy, to the exclusion of others, international water and airspace.
The Chinese — leaders and others — certainly have the world’s worst case of irredentism as they seek to “recover” areas they have in fact never ruled, but they do not necessarily envision military conquest as the means of acquiring vast “lost territories.” They believe they can intimidate and coerce and then take without force.