China's new leader is using the military to consolidate his power. But has he unleashed forces beyond his control?
Every morning at 6 a.m., more than two dozen of the world's leading submarine watchers, aviation experts, government specialists, imagery analysts, cryptanalysts, and linguists gather at the headquarters of the U.S. Pacific Fleet in Hawaii. Their job is to probe the overnight intelligence reports to guide the activities and strategies of the five aircraft carrier groups, 180 ships, and nearly 2,000 aircraft that constantly patrol the Pacific and Indian oceans. The morning meetings are convened by the fleet's top intelligence officer, Capt. James Fanell, and cover activities emanating anywhere "from Hollywood to Bollywood," as the head of U.S. Pacific Command, Adm. Samuel Locklear, likes to put it. But the group never takes long before zeroing in on the country driving the United States' military and diplomatic "pivot" to Asia. "Every day it's about China; it's about a China who's at the center of virtually every activity and dispute in the maritime domain in the East Asian region," said Fanell, reading from prepared remarks at a U.S. Naval Institute conference in San Diego on Jan. 31.
Fanell, in comments that went largely unnoticed outside the small circle of China military specialists, spelled out in rare detail the reasons the United States is shifting 60 percent of its naval assets -- including its most advanced capabilities -- to the Pacific. He was blunt: The Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy is focused on war, and it is expanding into the "blue waters" explicitly to counter the U.S. Pacific Fleet. "I can tell you, as the fleet intelligence officer, the PLA Navy is going to sea to learn how to do naval warfare," he said. "My assessment is the PLA Navy has become a very capable fighting force."
Some were shocked to hear the extent and intensity of China's carefully orchestrated maritime provocations, especially coming from an officer whose job may make him more of an expert on Beijing's naval maneuverings than anyone outside China. Others wondered whether the Pacific Fleet was simply playing the Washington game, perhaps lobbying for a greater share of the U.S. military budget or wider authority to act by magnifying the threat.
But it may well be that the most contestable of Fanell's assertions were about the Chinese military's capabilities, not its provocations. For the question on many minds, both in Washington and Beijing, is this: Can China actually fight? And the person most anxious to find an answer happens to be the man who just became China's fifth leader since Mao: Xi Jinping.
FOR XI, this is no idle question. The 59-year-old new president is himself a veteran who launched his career in 1979 as personal assistant to Geng Biao, then secretary-general in charge of daily affairs at the Central Military Commission, the 11-member panel that runs the Chinese armed forces. And Xi has stated clearly that the military is central to his vision for China. "We must ensure there is unison between a prosperous country and strong military," he said in a pep talk to sailors on board a guided-missile destroyer in December. But his ambition to have a strong, professional fighting force is greatly complicated by an even bigger question that has occupied every Communist Party leader since Mao uttered his famous dictum that "political power grows out of the barrel of a gun." Can Xi be sure that the PLA will always be loyal to the party, and specifically to him?
"The people's army is not merely an organ for fighting; it is also an organ for the political advancement of the party," Mao once said, in another statement whose truth has been confirmed by all his successors. Xi may be able to build a military that is either modern and capable or loyal and political. But many in China now believe he can't have both.
It won't be for lack of trying. In the West, Xi's assumption of power has largely been covered as an economic and political drama: Can he keep China's booming markets on track? Will he tame the country's toxic levels of official corruption before demands for political reform derail him? Is he a reformer at all? What these accounts often miss are Xi's very deliberate moves to build a military power base for his presidency.
Even before formally taking office, Xi launched a wide-ranging program of inspecting troops, cementing key military relationships, and muscling up against Japan, his associates say. On Nov. 15, his preparatory work was rewarded by his appointment as not only general secretary of the Communist Party but also chairman of the Central Military Commission. The latter was a title that had eluded his predecessor, the lackluster Hu Jintao, for two years after Hu became party secretary, a symbolism lost on no one. Almost immediately after Xi's elevation, he announced a high-profile austerity campaign, attacking the military's culture of banquets, ceremony, and pomp. He demanded that his soldiers focus on their mission. "We must ensure that our troops are ready when called upon, that they are fully capable of fighting, and that they must win every war," Xi said during a tour of military forces in southern Guangdong province in December.
The People's Liberation Army was founded as an arm of the Chinese Communist Party on Aug. 1, 1927, when it began a quarter-century of nonstop warfare. Today it occupies a central place in party history and mythology for helping to defeat the occupying Japanese, drive the Kuomintang nationalists to Taiwan, and push U.S.-led forces back to the 38th parallel in the Korean War. It added an air force and navy shortly after the 1949 founding of the People's Republic.
Politics have always played a key role, and the PLA retains a Soviet-style dual command structure. A powerful political department sits at the center of the organization, while political minders shadow commanders at every level of the enormous hierarchy. With its crucial role at home as well as internationally, the PLA today boasts 2.3 million active-duty personnel, and its capabilities have been greatly strengthened by two decades of double-digit budget increases, enabling it to invest in everything from its first aircraft carrier and stealth fighter jets to the world's only anti-ship ballistic missile.
Despite the hype, however, high-ranking insiders have come forward to say the Chinese military is rotten to the core. Formal hierarchies are trumped by personal patronage, coordination between branches is minimal, and corruption is so pervasive that senior positions are sold to the highest bidders while weapons funding is siphoned into private pockets. "Corruption has become extremely institutionalized and significant," says Tai Ming Cheung, director of the Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation at the University of California/San Diego. "It makes it much more difficult to develop, produce, and field the weapons systems required to achieve world-class power projection."
It's not just corruption. More than three decades of peace, a booming economy, and an opaque administrative system have taken their toll as well, not to mention that the PLA is one of the world's largest bureaucracies -- and behaves accordingly. "Each unit has a committee with a commander, political commissar, and deputies, to the point they have a meeting now for everything," says Nan Li, associate professor at the U.S. Naval War College's China Maritime Studies Institute. Li told me that PLA military universities have even been reduced to printing textbooks that instruct commanders how to transcend the tyranny of committee-style decision-making. "That shows how much the PLA has been defeated by -- corroded by -- peace," he says.
Nor is the military necessarily 100 percent loyal to its political masters in the Communist Party -- a terrifying prospect for a new leader trying to consolidate his power. In theory, the PLA has always been subordinate to the civilian side of the party, but the actual command linkages are largely limited to its top leader and sometimes his deputy. In 2012 -- in the wake of the political destruction of Xi's potential rival, Bo Xilai, who boasted extensive informal ties within the military -- the drumbeat of official demands that the PLA demonstrate the proper obeisance to the party and the party's outgoing general secretary, Hu, suggested the chain of military command might be more fragile than commonly understood.
Xi's associates believe he harbors similar concerns. They note that Liu Yuan, the senior general who sent shock waves through the party and military establishment after warning in an internal speech that mafia-like knots of patronage and corruption were crippling the PLA, did so only after getting a nod from Xi. "Only our own corruption can destroy us and cause our armed forces to be defeated without fighting," Liu warned in his December 2011 speech. The two ambitious princelings, as the privileged sons of China's revolutionary leaders are known, have been close friends since the late 1970s. Another close friend of the Xi family, whose father fought alongside Xi's father when the Chinese Red Army was a hungry, disciplined machine, told me that Xi has focused his political capital on whipping the PLA into better shape and probing to see which generals he can personally rely on. The family friend says Xi's relentless inspection program and calls for combat readiness have a clear purpose: "To sort the horses from the mules you need to walk them around the yard."
Xi's associates point out that his first real job, as personal assistant to the secretary-general of the Central Military Commission, gave him a ringside seat for studying the art of accumulating power as demonstrated by one of the world's great strongmen, Deng Xiaoping. Although most recall Deng today as the architect of China's economic reforms, the initial foundation of Deng's political platform was the military, where he enjoyed prestige unparalleled by any other post-Mao leader. He tightened his "grip on the gun," as Communist Party insiders put it, by mobilizing the military for an invasion of Vietnam in February 1979. Deng, still technically vice chairman of the commission but already its most powerful leader, initiated, planned, and managed an invasion that was militarily disastrous, costing tens of thousands of Chinese lives and blowing out the budget deficit, but nevertheless left him with a more professional fighting force and firmly in command.
He ensured this grip on power by closely managing the military's upper echelons. By 1980, after a reshuffle when incumbent Central Military Commission Chairman Hua Guofeng was out of the country, 15 of the 22 top military region posts were held by generals who had fought directly under Deng, says historian Warren Sun.
None of this was lost on the young, ambitious princeling Xi Jinping. After all, Hua was Xi's nominal boss at the time, yet Deng swept him aside. The lesson learned? "Without the gun in your hand, who will obey you?" as Xi's close family friend puts it. "So the first thing Xi did after his rise was seize military control."
XI HAS TAKEN CHARGE at a moment when China has been building up its military power as never before, surprising the United States and shocking its neighbors with the speedy development of new hardware and the aggressive manner in which it has deployed those tools to support its expanding ambitions. Top U.S. intelligence analysts and generals have admitted to being caught out by the 2011 flight-testing of China's new J-20 stealth fighter. They were dumbfounded by China's subsequent deployment of the East Wind 21D, the world's first anti-ship ballistic missile, dubbed the "assassin's mace" in China and "the carrier killer" in the West. And now China is on track to nearly triple its fleet of maritime strike aircraft by 2020, according to the U.S. Congressional Research Service. Its naval weapons -- and capabilities -- are proceeding even faster.
China is simultaneously developing and producing seven types of submarine and surface warships. That's after a decade in which it quadrupled its number of modern submarines, including nuclear submarines designed to carry nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. It has massively expanded production of corvettes, frigates, amphibious ships, and destroyers. In September, China launched its first aircraft carrier, which it has flagged as a training platform for others to come.
Then there's the less visible but perhaps more troubling escalating cyberwar now being waged with hyperactive assertiveness by PLA cyberunits that have reportedly penetrated deeply and repeatedly into key U.S. government departments and top U.S. defense, media, and technology companies. Along with probing infrastructure vulnerabilities and spying on commercial transactions, they have reportedly pilfered military designs and technology. Mandiant, an IT security firm, reported in February that it had traced 141 specific cyberattacks to a single PLA unit based in Shanghai. The PLA has been tasked with "systematic cyber espionage and data theft against organizations around the world," the report stated.
"No other great power today enjoys China's ability to dedicate such vast amounts of capital and personnel so dynamically to such a wide range of new programs," says Andrew Erickson, an expert on PLA technology at the U.S. Naval War College's China Maritime Studies Institute. "China enjoys unparalleled flexibility and adaptability and could increase production rapidly if desired."
The backstop for all these new platforms and capabilities is the PLA's strategic missile force, which possesses conventional ballistic missiles that can destroy satellites in space, plus as many as 400 nuclear weapons. The dizzying display of hard power is sending fear and awe throughout the Asia-Pacific region. But Xi, it seems, is unconvinced that all this shiny hardware can be effectively deployed by an organization that was designed for civil war and adapted in recent decades as a political force to ensure the party's grip on power.
That's where China's rapidly escalating territorial showdown with Japan, its largest trading partner and still the world's third-largest economy, comes in. In September, the Japanese government bought the disputed Senkaku Islands, or Diaoyu Islands as they are known in China, from private owners to prevent them from falling into the hands of Tokyo's governor at the time, a hawkish nationalist provocateur. But China responded with fury. It launched a propaganda blitz against Japan, facilitated protests and riots across China, and escalated its maritime and air patrols of the disputed area. For Xi, according to his close family friend, the otherwise baffling diplomatic crisis that resulted has offered a priceless opportunity to "sort the horses from the mules" and mobilize willing generals around him. Claims that Xi has exploited or even orchestrated the brinkmanship with Japan might seem preposterous to outside observers, given that a miscalculation could lead to war. But the logic is compelling for those who have grown up near the center of China's endless and unforgiving internal struggles.
"Promoting people into positions is always a very sensitive question," says a retired officer, the son of one of the PLA's most decorated commanders and who was himself working at the PLA's General Staff Department, the operational command center, when Xi was at the Central Military Commission in 1979. "This is why Xi is coming to power using a very strong voice on the Diaoyu Islands," he says. "He was asking them to prepare for war … like Deng."
Indeed, the crisis with Japan seemed to come exactly in tandem with Xi's ascension last fall. In September, Xi disappeared for a fortnight, missing top-level meetings (including with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) for reasons that remain unexplained. He re-emerged looking healthy and happy on Sept. 15. A day earlier, according to a report in the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun that cited a "source close to the Communist Party," Xi had assumed control of a special cross-agency and military task force to manage the Diaoyu dispute. China immediately increased air and maritime patrols in the area.
For the remaining three months of 2012, roughly once each day, a Chinese government plane flew southeast toward the Japanese-administered islands. With equal regularity, when the plane crossed an "identification" line nearly 100 miles east of the Chinese mainland, Japan tried and failed to make radio contact and then scrambled F-15 Eagle fighters from its Air Self-Defense Force. The Chinese planes would each veer east at about the 28th parallel and then north, out of harm's way, without crossing into Japanese-controlled airspace or encountering approaching Japanese fighters, according to Western defense officials. That's the way it happened on 91 occasions between October and December, according to Japan's Defense Ministry.
But on Dec. 13, the 75th anniversary of the Nanjing massacre and a day after Chinese media reported that Xi had called for "real combat" awareness during a three-day tour of a PLA warship and live-fire tank drills, a low-flying China Marine Surveillance Y-12 twin-propeller plane crossed the 28th parallel. It kept flying southeast and penetrated Japanese airspace -- the first such episode since Japan began monitoring half a century ago -- and took a snapshot of the largest of the disputed islands out of its left window, a photo that was published widely in the Chinese state media the following day. On Dec. 16, a new Japanese government led by Shinzo Abe, who had promised to stand up to China, was elected in a landslide. Abe immediately increased surveillance over the disputed area and reportedly loosened the rules of engagement so that Japanese vessels could approach much closer to Chinese vessels.
On Jan. 10, with Xi firmly in control but now up against a more assertive Japanese administration, Chinese and Japanese surveillance and fighter planes tangled above disputed oil fields north of the Senkakus. On Jan. 14, the PLA Daily reported that the General Staff Department had ordered all units to prepare for battle, in what may have been the first such warning since Deng's debacle in Vietnam. On Jan. 18, Clinton met the Japanese foreign minister and warned China against taking "unilateral" steps to challenge Japanese administration of the Senkakus. It did little good. On Jan. 19 a PLA Navy frigate responded by locking its missile-control radar on a Japanese Self-Defense Forces helicopter around the same disputed oil fields, according to Japanese accounts. On Jan. 30 it was a similar story, this time with a Japanese ship in close proximity, according to more detailed Japanese accounts that were backed by the United States but denied by China. Western military officials and diplomats have told me that they have evidence, including from electronic intercepts, that shows that the movements of Chinese boats and ships were micromanaged by the new task force chaired by Xi.
The world still knew nothing of these dangerous confrontations when Captain Fanell gave his remarkable speech in San Diego the following day, Jan. 31. Asia's two heavyweights -- America's key ally and its global rival -- were one itchy trigger finger away from exchanging live fire on the water while Chinese J-10 and Japanese F-15 fighters were buzzing overhead, according to Western military sources. "If you are the Japanese captain, you would have an incredibly uncomfortable choice to make very quickly," says a Western diplomat who has been following the dispute closely. "You're seconds away if that thing decided to fire." What had been hypothetical musings about the PLA's combat capability took on a more urgent tone.
BUT THE SPECTER OF WAR is not the only possible explanation for Xi's saber rattling and demands for combat readiness. For even as Japanese leaders and U.S. officials were publicizing their concerns this winter about a region on the brink of naval conflict, it became clearer that Xi and his close military confidants are squarely focused on domestic politics. Indeed, Gen. Liu Yuan -- the same reputedly hawkish princeling general thought to be close to Xi, who had blasted corruption in the military -- counseled in an essay published Feb. 4 in state media that China's dream of modernization had twice been shattered by war with Japan. "Today, our economic construction has arrived at a critical moment. We must never let it be broken by an incident," he wrote, referring to the Diaoyus. "The U.S. and Japan are scared of us catching up, and they will do anything to contain China's development, so we must not be fooled."
At the same time, another top-level document emerged: a speech delivered in December by Xi himself, in which he gave thundering confirmation that the PLA's primary function is to defend the regime, not China. This was the lesson learned from the Soviet Union's collapse, he said. "In the Soviet Union, where the military was depoliticized, separated from the party, and nationalized, the party was disarmed," Xi warned, according to an extract of his speech that was published by journalist Gao Yu and broadly corroborated by other sources. "A few people tried to save the Soviet Union; they seized Gorbachev, but within days it was turned around again because they didn't have the instruments to exert power." Nobody in the vast Soviet Communist Party, Xi averred, "was man enough to stand up and resist."
Xi, then, has ultimately chosen to defend the Communist Party against internal political threats rather than prepare it to face external military threats. There is little doubt the Communist Party has been sharpening its identity in a post-communist world by defining itself against the West, fanning nationalist fervor, and promising a restoration of China's ancient grandeur. Xi thus has little choice but to keep pumping enormous resources into a war machine if he is to justify his party's continuing monopoly on power. "This dream can be said to be the dream of a strong nation," Xi told sailors on board the destroyer Haikou. "And for the military, it is a dream of a strong military."
To many observers, however, his speech seemed to confirm that China's provocations against Japan were in fact "evidence of profound domestic insecurity rather than rational policy," a Beijing diplomat who closely studies China's military machinations told me. "It is the fact of party control," he says, "that makes the PLA weak. Everything else -- the corruption, the risk aversion, the hierarchy -- is a symptom of that."
Then, too, there is the very real risk that if China or Japan miscalculates over the Senkaku Islands and actually does spark a war, China may lose. That, at least, is the assessment of several military analysts with whom I spoke, who believe Japan's disciplined, professional forces would prevail even without direct U.S. intervention. More broadly, I have heard growing doubts about China's actual fighting capabilities in some sections of the Chinese military, foreign diplomatic corps, and U.S. academia, many of whose members are revising their views on the PLA. "Our assessment is they are nowhere near as effective as they think they are," a Beijing-based defense attaché from a NATO country told me.
What if the recent drums of war are a sign of China's weakness and not its impressive new strength? "When Xi tells his troops to be ready for war, it's really an admission that they're in disarray," says the defense attaché. "He's saying, 'You guys are drunk, fat, and happy, siphoning off all the money into private accounts, and you need to get real.'"
Illustration by Piotr Lesniak for FP