South Asian Insider
Opinion and Editorial
China is replacing America as Asia's military titan
HONG KONG - In 1938, in the midst of a long campaign to bring China under Communist Party rule, revolutionary leader Mao Zedong wrote: “Whoever has an army has power.” Xi Jinping, Mao’s latest successor, has taken that dictum to heart.
He has donned camouflage fatigues, installed himself as commander-in-chief and taken control of the 2 million-strong Chinese military, the People’s Liberation Army. It is the biggest overhaul of the PLA since Mao led it to victory in the nation’s civil war and founded the People’s Republic in 1949. Xi has accelerated the PLA’s shift to naval power from a traditionally land-based force. He has broken up its vast, Maoist-era military bureaucracy. A new chain of command leads directly to Xi as chairman of the Central Military Commission, China’s top military decision-making body. Operational leadership of naval, missile, air, ground and cyber forces has been separated from administration and training — a structure that Chinese and Western defense analysts say borrows from U.S. military organization. The Chinese leader isn’t just revolutionizing the PLA. Xi is making a series of moves that are transforming both China and the global order. He has abandoned reform architect Deng Xiaoping’s injunction that China should hide its strength and bide its time. The waiting game is over. Xi’s speeches are peppered with references to his “Chinese dream,” where an ancient nation recovers from the humiliation of foreign invasion and retakes its rightful place as the dominant power in Asia. The effort includes signature shows of soft power: Xi’s multibillion-dollar “Belt and Road” program to build a global trade and infrastructure network with China at its center, and his “Made in China 2025” plan to turn the country into a high-tech manufacturing giant.
But the boldest stroke is his expansion of China’s hard power, through his remaking of the PLA, the world’s largest fighting force. At the core of this vision of national renewal is a loyal, corruption-free military that Xi demands must be prepared to fight and win.His push to project power abroad was accompanied by a power play at home. Xi has purged more than 100 generals accused of corruption or disloyalty, according to the official state-controlled media. A raw demonstration of his authority came when state television broadcast a laudatory documentary series about the PLA, “Strong Military.” In one scene in the 2017 series, an elderly man sits in a military court at a desk marked “defendant,” looking frail in a navy-blue civilian jacket. It is Guo Boxiong, a former general and the most senior officer convicted in Xi’s purge. He reads his confession to charges of bribery from a sheaf of papers gripped in both hands. “The Central Military Commission dealt with my case completely correctly,” says Guo, who had once served as vice chairman of the body. “I must confess my guilt and take responsibility for it.” Guo was sentenced to life in prison. In a series of stories, Reuters is exploring how the rapid and disruptive advance of Chinese hard power on Xi Jinping’s watch has ended the era of unquestioned U.S. supremacy in Asia. In just over two decades, China has built a force of conventional missiles that rival or outperform those in the U.S. armory. China’s shipyards have spawned the world’s biggest navy, which now rules the waves in East Asia. Beijing can now launch nuclear-armed missiles from an operational fleet of ballistic missile submarines, giving it a powerful second-strike capability. And the PLA is fortifying posts across vast expanses of the South China Sea, while stepping up preparations to recover Taiwan, by force if necessary.
This account of Xi and the PLA - which despite the "army" in its name comprises all military branches - is based on interviews with 17 current and former military officers from China, the United States, Taiwan and Australia. Many would only speak on condition of anonymity. It draws on the accounts of Chinese officials and people with ties to the senior leadership in Beijing who have known Xi Jinping and his family for decades and are familiar with his career as he rose through the party and government bureaucracy. It also relies on Chinese government publications describing Xi's political thinking, his speeches and official documentaries showcasing his leadership of the military.
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