26 October 2015

Dreaming Big, Acting Big: Xi’s Impact on China’s Military Development

Andrew S. Erickson, “Dreaming Big, Acting Big: Xi’s Impact on China’s Military Development,” Asan Forum 3.5 (September-October 2015).

Xi Jinping emerged from his recent US visit with no meaningful new constraints on the development, deployment, and use of China’s military. Constructively, as part of a larger UN support package, he unveiled a Chinese plan to establish a police squad and 8,000 standby troops for UN Peacekeeping. Despite an ambiguous statement of intent to respect international law and not “militarize” features in the South China Sea, Xi underscored China’s sovereignty claims and insisted on its right to uphold them. There was no agreement on military cyber operations. There were two military agreements, concerning rules for aircraft encounters and a crisis hotline, but it remains to be seen how these will be implemented in practice.

Xi doubtless felt strengthened by preceding developments, including those showcased in the military parade over which he presided on September 3. There he ushered down Chang-an Avenue a procession of advanced weapons systems, including no fewer than 32 anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs) of two types, the world’s only such weapons. This pageantry displayed concretely what Xi has emphasized from the start: central to his “China Dream” of national rejuvenation through realizing a “Strong Country Dream” of great power strength is a “China Military Dream.”1 With economic growth increasingly uncertain, to shore up domestic support Xi is likely to emphasize this external component of his “China Dream” still further.

Though burdened with these political imperatives, Xi’s military vision is no pipedream. He is a man of big ideas and bold implementation. Beyond his confident princeling extroversion, Xi differs markedly from Hu Jintao, and even Jiang Zemin to some extent, in career path. Serving as secretary to Defense Minister Geng Biao gave him familiarity and comfort with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) that both lacked.2 Even more importantly, twenty-five years of executive experience with ultimate responsibility for important decisions made Xi capable of imposing his will as needed.3 Displaying his overall leadership approach, Xi is pursuing ambitious goals, policy emphasis, resource allocations, displays of progress to further public support, and restructuring to ensure the requisite institutional foundation.

This article uses the occasion of Xi’s US visit to analyze his impact on, and likely legacy for, China’s military development. In keeping with the visit’s bilateral nature, as well as Xi’s prioritization of preparation for scenarios of greatest concern, the article focuses primarily on PLA development to support the most likely major challenges it faces: demonstrating capability to address contingencies involving China’s unresolved island and maritime claims in the “Near Seas” (Yellow, East China, and South China seas). …

Editorial Staff, “Introduction to the Special Forum,” Special Forum, Asan Forum, 3.5 (September-October 2015).

Xi Jinping, indisputably, is the most consequential Chinese leader since the period of Deng Xiaoping. Much has been written, usually from a short-term perspective, about how he is transforming China, The five articles that follow aspire to a wider-ranging understanding of his impact. First, Ezra Vogel, biographer of Deng Xiaoping, offers a comparative perspective on Xi’s leadership qualities. Second, Alison Kaufman takes a close look at Xi as an historian, probing his speeches for different aspects of how he thinks about history. Third, Jacques deLisle examines the Xi approach to the rule of law, both at home and in international relations. Fourth, Andrew Erickson reflects on Xi as a military leader, rapidly adding new capabilities. Fifth, also bringing us up to date after Xi’s late September summit with Barack Obama, Robert Sutter gives a grade to Xi’s policy toward the United States. …

… According to Erickson, Xi’s impact on China’s military development is to put it on track to realize much of his dream of a strong country with a strong military. During his decade in office, the military will have grown far more rapidly in quality than quantity, giving China unprecedented options for pursuing disputed claims in the Near Seas. Far more important for Xi’s “China Military Dream” than limited agreements in Washington were the capabilities he unveiled in Beijing’s September 3 military parade, Erickson adds. Downsizing is designed to make the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), literally, leaner and meaner. China has developed a broad array of potent asymmetric weapons systems that pit China’s strengths against adversaries’ weaknesses, enabling China to exploit its formidable geography and resources to further its Near Seas claims. It will be increasingly capable of contesting US sea control within growing range rings extending beyond Beijing’s unresolved island and maritime claims in the Near Seas. For the Near Seas missions, likely to be prioritized throughout Xi’s tenure, however, China has many work-arounds able to compensate for limitations in both hardware and software, concludes Erickson. Similar to legal policies, military force development serves as the foundation for how Xi faces many possibilities.

Erickson focuses on the results of the Obama-Xi summit, acknowledging military-related deliverables and statements of intent, which followed memoranda of understanding that were announced at the November 2014 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing. …the majority of them and of proposals merely recommit China to doing what it was supposed to do already—adhere to existing international rules and answer the phone. None change the fundamental basis for Sino-American military tensions: Beijing is advancing its military and paramilitary posture in the Near Seas to uphold what it regards as inalienable sovereign rights. Washington remains determined to uphold international norms and prevent force, or the threat of force, from being used to resolve disputes. The impression is of trouble ahead. …