Xi Jinping’s Dictum of “Building a World Class Military”
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By Amrita Jash

Xi Jinping’s Dictum of “Building a World Class Military”

Nov. 15, 2018  |     |  0 comments

Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2017 made a statement saying: “Lagging behind on the military front is lethal to the security of the country … I have read a lot on China’s modern history, and it gives me great pain whenever I come across a time when we dropped back (in military building) and fell victim to invasions”.

This statement by Xi contextualizes the drive behind China’s rapid national defense and military reforms as witnessed since 2015. Owing to this sense of national victimhood, the underlying key goal for Xi is to resist ‘history from getting repeated’. That is, China under Xi is not ready “to swallow [the] bitter fruit that is harmful to its sovereignty, security or development interests” as the key challenges are primarily: safeguarding territorial sovereignty, facilitating national unification, protecting China’s increasing overseas interests, and counter-terrorism issues. In Xi’s view, China’s security environment is faced with “Three Trends” and “Three Major Dangers,” wherein, the “Three Trends” exemplify the external environment, the international situation that is constantly changing and new opportunities and challenges that are continually emerging, while the “Three Major Dangers” are that of China being “invaded, toppled and separated”.[1] In the Chinese agenda, the primary goal is three-fold: safeguard national sovereignty, security, and development interests.

With this mindset, Xi’s plan of action to achieve the national goals entails three key targets: for the PLA to by 2020 “achieve its mechanization, make big strides in informatization and gain substantial improvement in strategic capabilities”; become “a modernized force” by 2035; and emerge “a world-class military” by 2050. Here, the emphasis lies on making the PLA a more joint and informationized force that can fight and win wars across all theaters. This is driven by China’s strategic outlook aimed at “winning informationized local wars” and projecting its force further from the country’s coasts. In view of this, the “world-class force” is characterized by PLA’s capabilities in “diverse spatial and functional areas, including information warfare, trans-and extra-regional mobility, long-distance maneuverability, effective counterterrorism, extended maritime depth, strategic air projection, and robust strategic nuclear deterrence”.[2]

One of the key indicators is the PLA’s changing defense budget. As noted, in 2017, the total world military expenditure rose to USD 1739 billion — a marginal increase of 1.1 percent in real terms from 2016. Given this increasing trend, China being second only to United States in being the largest military spender globally, called to further boost its defense spending by 8.1 percent in 2018, the biggest increase in three years. That is, China’s national defense budget will grow to RMB 1.11 trillion — equating to USD 231 billion, as noted in Figure 1. To note, China’s military spending grew by 10.1 percent in 2015, 7.6 percent in 2016, and 7 percent in 2017. The SIPRI 2018 Report suggests that China has increased its military spending by 5.6 percent to USD 228 billion in 2017, and that China’s spending as a share of world military expenditure has risen from 5.8 percent in 2008 to 13 percent in 2017.

Figure 1. China’s Defense Spending

Source: The Straits Times (2018).[3]

In view of this, China’s three-fold defense hike calls for an important observation, wherein the defense budget runs contrary to the slow gross domestic product (GDP) growth under the “new normal” phase. To note, the economy advanced 6.5 percent in the third quarter of 2018, after a 6.7 percent growth in the previous three quarters and missing market expectations of 6.6 percent. This has been the lowest growth rate since the aftermath of the global financial crisis in the first quarter of 2009, amid trade war with United States.[4] In 2017, the economy expanded by 6.9 percent, beating the government target of around 6.5 percent and following a 26-year low of 6.7 percent in 2016.

Figure 2. China’s GDP Growth Rate

Source: Trading Economics (2018).[5]

This asymmetry in China’s GDP growth rate to that of its defense spending in 2018 highlights the reversal in China’s own 2015 policy that emphasized on the need to closely match spending on the armed forces with slower GDP growth. Can China afford to balance the growing imbalance between the two? What makes it necessary, as Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in the 2018 Work Report stated: “Faced with profound changes in the national security environment, we must treat the Party’s goal of building stronger armed forces for the new era as our guide, […] We must stick to the Chinese path in strengthening our armed forces, advance all aspects of military training and war preparedness […]”.[6]

The very fact that China’s military spending has surpassed its economic growth itself reflects the undergoing shift. This further proves that despite the significant gaps, for China the drive for a “world-class military” runs high on its agenda.

However, dispelling the “threat factor” attached to China’s military budget, the Chinese analysts argue that the rise is partly to compensate for past insufficiency in spending; is partly to compensate for personnel laid off as part of a recent reduction in the armed forces by 300,000 troops; is normal for maintaining the army; and is not a preparation for war.

In pragmatic understanding, what prompts Xi to push for a “world-class military” is the very fact that there is an urgent need for PLA’s combat readiness. That is, since its war with Vietnam in 1979, China has not fought a real war resulting into a long-standing inexperience in war-fighting. Owing to this weakness, the necessity lies in making the PLA well-equipped to a fight modern warfare. This is further necessitated by the need to defend its status of being the world’s number two economy. Here, the larger objective lies in making China a security maximizing state, which can only be achieved by building its military means to meet the end of becoming a strong national security state. In doing so, Xi has envisioned a “world-class military” which will help elevate the PLA’s role in the country’s future given China’s forceful quest in securing its strategic space both regionally as well as globally.

With this quest in mind, China under Xi significantly defies Deng Xiaoping’s dictum of “keeping a low profile”, as Xi aims to “strive for achievement”. Here, the achievement lies in fulfilling the goal of building a world-class military by 2050 that can fight and win wars across all theaters.

[1] Sun Jianguo (2015), “Upholding the Chinese Approach to National Security”, China Institute of International Studies, 11 June 2015, at http://www.ciis.org.cn/english/2015-06/11/content_7983173.htm

[2] Ian E. Rinehart (2016), “The Chinese Military: Overview and Issues for Congress”, Congressional Research Service Report, R44196, 24 March 2016, p. 7, at https://fas.org/sgp/crs/row/R44196.pdf

[3] Cited in “NPC 2018: China raises military budget by 8.1% in face of 'profound changes' to national security environment”, The Straits Times, 5 March 2018, at https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/east-asia/china-raises-2018-defence-spending-by-81-per-cent

[4] GDP growth rate in China averaged 1.80 percent from 2010 until 2018, reaching an all-time high of 2.40 percent in the first quarter of 2011 and a record low of 1.40 percent in the first quarter of 2016.

[5] Cited in “China Economy Expands 1.8% QoQ in Q2”, Trading Economics, 19 October 2018, at https://tradingeconomics.com/articles/07162018022159.htm

[6] Li Keqiang (2018), “Report on the Work of the Government, Delivered at the First Session of the 13th National People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China on 5 March 2018, at http://en.people.cn/n3/2018/0403/c90000-9445262.html

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