Authors: Wang Li & Kripendra Amatya
In modern history, the great powers of the West rarely discussed Chinese military favorably, because although it was an ancient civilization that had produced significant strategists like Sun Zi and Zhuge, it was the country which was at the mercy of the great powers of Europe and Japan for one century from 1842 to 1943.
Given this, when General MacArthur was asked if he would be worried about Chinese military challenges in 1950 while he ordered his soldiers approaching the borders on China and North Korea, he confided to his boss President Truman that “well, have you heard of Chinese capable of fighting. Sure, they had cooked brilliantly, but never fought decently.” This sort of arrogance later led to the humiliating retreat of American soldiers driven by Chinese troops who were equipped much badly. Chinese capability was further recognized by the world in 1962 in which the Chinese soldiers overwhelmed the Indian troops in a series of flanking maneuvers during the quick border conflict. Yet, even though the impressive progresses were made by China since 1950, the overall capacity of the Chinese army, literally People’s Liberation Army (PLA), has been regarded far behind the US, its allies and Russia as well. In the 1990s, Robert Ross still argued that “despite its sheer size, economic vitality, and drive to update its military forces, China remains a vulnerable power, whose most pressing security problems are powerful rivals at its own borders.”
To certain extent, it is true that Chinese military modernization has come from a very low level, yet the leaders of China have persistently dedicated their efforts to catch up with the world-class military strength. The latest milestone is the military parade on July 30 commemorating Chinese military anniversary of its 90th birthday. President Xi Jin-ping, who is also the Chairman of the Central Military Commission of China, took the occasion to reaffirm that China needs a strong military more than ever, urging building the PLA into world-class armed forces and committing itself to the world peace. Now the question arises how China will be able to accomplish its mission of “taking its place in the 21st century as one of the greatest powers of the world, by the means of peace or force”?
Politically speaking, China and its PLA are now governed by the fifth generation of leaders since the revolution of the 1920s. Each previous leader distilled his era’s particular vision of China’s needs. The Xi Jin-ping leadership has obviously sought to build on these legacies by undertaking a massive reform program of the Deng’s era. Belonging to the post-revolution generation after 1949, he has had several unique features as the supreme leader of China, which is the largest and economically most dynamic emerging power in the world. First he served in the military three decades ago; second he was well-educated in social science rather than as a technocracy. Third, he was on the field-study in the United States when he was a junior official in the 1980s. The composition of the current Chinese leadership does reflect China’s evolution toward participating in—and even shaping—global affairs. In the earlier 1980s, not a single member of the Politburo had a college degree. By the early 2000, all of them are college-educated, and a significant number have advanced degrees. Given that a college degree in China is based on a Western-style curriculum, not a legacy of the old mandarin system, this represents a sharp break with China’s tradition, and contemporary Chinese leaders are more influenced by their knowledge globally and domestically as well.
During his review of the military parade on July 30, Xi laid down three key words as the core tenets of China’s strong military doctrine.
First is confidence that refers to the strong legacies of serving the needs of the country and the people’s as well. For Chinese army is named as people’s army rather than national army, it is committed to taking the relief tasks in terms of natural disaster and humanitarian rescue. As the PLA officers and soldiers must firmly adhere to the fundamental goal of serving the people with no hesitation, Chinese military services have enjoyed the ordinary people’s confidence and support.
Second is competence which refers to the fighting capabilities of Chinese army. Since he took power in 2013, President Xi has called for unremitting efforts to make the PLA a world-class army, including the launch of Chinese aircraft carrier groups, more advanced fighter jets, drones and missiles, and more live-fire drills conducting with Chinese first professional “opposing forces” brigade to test their combatants’ skills and spirits. In order to achieve successfully the national goal as a great power, President Xi has urged the PLA to focus on war preparedness to forge an elite and powerful force that is required to be “ready for the fight, capable of combat and sure to win.”
Third, as China is both a rising power and a developing country as well, it is necessary to assure the world that China’s modern armed forces remain committed to peace. Diplomatically, Chinese servicemen are actively involved in international peace-keeping missions. The country has sent about 35,000 military personnel, the most among permanent members of the UN Security Council, to at least 24 UN peace-keeping missions. Given that the world is not all at peace, and peace must be safeguarded, Chinese soldiers intend to accept more UN—designed responsibilities regionally and globally.
Summarily, it is self-evident that since President Xi Jinping took power in 2013, the fundamental changes have taken place gradually in China’s armed forces with sweeping reforms. For instance, the top command bureaucracy was streamlined, military services balanced, the joint command system reshaped, equipment upgraded and the previous goose-stepping in a parade abandoned. As an emerging great power of the world, the PLA is urged to uphold combat effectiveness as the “sole and core” standard for its services. To that end, Xi once again argues that it takes first-class military talent, doctrine and science and technology to build up the PLA into a world- leading military, and science and technology are the core fighting capacity. Compared to Mao’s motto that political power grows out of the use of force; and Deng’s that a strong economy fosters a strong army, Xi’s military doctrine is evidently built on soldiers’ confidence, competence and their commitments to China’s greatness and the world peace.
(*) Kripendra Amatya is a post-graduate student majored in International Relations, SIPA, Jilin University