Xi’s army: from ‘hiding and biding’ to building China’s dream
The combat capability of the People’s Liberation Army may still be a ‘work in progress’ but it is catching up through influence and training
When Covid-19 swept across Iran last March, killing more than 1,000 people including the senior commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, it was the Chinese military that Tehran turned to for help. On 19 March, 2020, batch loads of testing kits, PPE and face masks arrived in the Iranian capital.
In February this year, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) began to donate Covid-19 vaccines to their counterparts overseas. The Cambodia armed forces have received two batches of 300,000 vaccines; Sierra Leone’s army was given 40,000 doses; United Nations peacekeeping forces secured 300,000.
The million-strong PLA proudly publicised its accomplishment, trumpeting it as the latest example of the army helping China to become a “responsible stakeholder”. The Ministry of Defence website promoting the PLA’s activities in Sierra Leone showed the flags of the two countries with the slogan: “Stormy seas or calm waters, we sail together.” In Zimbabwe, it was: “In tough times, we watch out for each other.” For Rwanda: “The destiny of two fingers is to live together.”
Historically, China’s military has played a minor role in Beijing’s foreign policy. But since president Xi Jinping came to power nearly a decade ago, Beijing has moved away from the “hiding and biding” doctrine to “actively accomplishing something” on the world stage. In 2015, Xi urged his forces to play a more prominent role in supporting China’s foreign policy agenda.
That year, the Chinese military sent a 163-strong team of medical experts to Liberia to assist the embattled west African country with its effort to contain Ebola. But since Covid-19, the PLA’s role has grown to serve both China’s strategic and operational goals, said Meia Nouwens, a senior fellow for Chinese defence policy and military modernisation at the London-based thinktank International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).
Shortly after the global pandemic was declared last year, Nouwens began to notice an increase in the PLA assisting with their overseas counterparts’ anti-virus fight. In the month after the pandemic was declared in March 2020, China’s medical donations increased by 400% relative to the same period in the previous year.
According to the China power project at the Washington-based thinktank the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the PLA has provided medical aid to more than 50 military counterparts since early 2020.
‘An opportunity to leverage China’s narrative’
China is not the only country that has been using Covid as an opportunity to expand its diplomatic influence. But Beijing’s Covid diplomacy, which is being conducted amid its confrontational wolf warrior style of diplomacy, has worried some western commentators.
“If China is seen as the only country to offer assistance, then this can become another opportunity for China to leverage its south-south narrative and point out that only Beijing has other countries’ interests and wellbeing at heart,” said Nouwens.
Yet this is also an opportunity for western leaders to offer their own alternatives, Nouwens added. “At a time when the west is trying to push back on China’s narrative and improve partnerships with countries to offer alternatives to the belt and road initiative or digital infrastructure, the west should signal that it doesn’t only speak about partnerships, but it matches words with actions.”
Bonny Lin, the director of CSIS’s China power project, went a step further. “It will be particularly important for western countries to ramp up donations of vaccines to countries in need – this would provide a stark contrast to China’s decision to provide the bulk of its vaccines through commercial sales,” she said.
‘Work in progress’
The PLA’s strengthened role in China’s diplomacy is amplified by the modernisation of the armed forces themselves. By the end of this year, Beijing will increase its defence spending by 6.8% to 1.35tn yuan ($208bn). In the last few years, Xi also articulated his “dream of a strong armed forces” in his “China dream” thesis. This involves modernising his military by 2035 and making it world-class by mid-century. In other words, being able to take on the powerful US military.
Some in Washington see this trend as alarming. Even though as of this year China’s total military spending is still less than a third of that of the US, it is, nevertheless, the largest in the Asia Pacific region. They say that China’s increasing nationalism would eventually push the leadership to take on targets such as Taiwan – an island of 24 million people that Beijing regards as its breakaway province.
“I worry that they’re [China] accelerating their ambitions to supplant the United States and our leadership role in the rules-based international order … by 2050,” said Washington’s top military officer in the Asia Pacific, Adm Philip Davidson, in March. “Taiwan is clearly one of their ambitions before that. And I think the threat is manifest during this decade, in fact, in the next six years.”
There’s pushback, too. Last week, the US, the UK and Australia unveiled a historic trilateral security partnership that observers say is aimed at keeping China in check. And Taiwan has practised skills that would be needed in the event of an attack by China in its annual drills. The island’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, praised her forces for their “splendid combat skills and rapid and real actions”.
Since his tenure, Xi has also demanded his forces increase their “jointness” – the ability of its army, navy and air force to swiftly and seamlessly collaborate in a real and complex combat. This is a tall order, because the PLA has had no combat experience since its 1979 war with Vietnam. Its troops are, therefore, largely untested and it’s unclear how well they could fight if a war broke out, according to Timothy Heath, a senior international defence researcher at the US public policy thinktank Rand Corporation.
Meanwhile, according to Heath: “The military’s discipline and adherence to regulations remains uneven at best, due to still-rampant corruption and the weakness of regulatory enforcement. This means that the military leadership cannot be sure that the entire military force can carry out operations in a consistent and predictable manner.”
Perhaps most challenging to the PLA – as the armed forces have also admitted publicly – is that it continues to struggle absorbing the latest technology and in recruiting as well as preparing its personnel to fight effectively using hi-tech equipment.
“The PLA is more capable today in military hardware than it has been since the 1990s. However, the softer elements of war-fighting are still a work in progress,” said Nouwens. “What China ‘can’ do militarily does not directly or immediately transfer to what China ‘will’ do. Political decision-making about when China will be willing and able to risk a conflict is important to keep in mind.”
Beijing understands its weakness and is working hard to mitigate it. In the last few years, Heath said, China has intensified its military training across an impressive breadth of topics – stretching from Taiwan to threats to Chinese citizens and infrastructure investments in other countries. It has also conducted more frequent exercises with its partners, such as Russia.
In May, the armoured division of the PLA’s 73rd Group Army conducted a day of live-fire exercises and amphibious beach landings, in a show of determination and capability to unite Taiwan. Early in August, about 10,000 Chinese and Russian troops carried out joint exercises to test some of the PLA’s newest weapons and to signal the unity of the two countries.
In addition to these high-profile activities, the PLA is also building partnerships and military capabilities in developing countries. This includes training in missile technology and drones, for example, as well as basic technical and other training.
“Although partner countries recognise that the US and western militaries offer the most advanced, sophisticated training,” Lin said, “countries still value Chinese military training and benefit from the more basic training the PLA offers.”