Xi Jinping’s Military Might

China’s leader is remaking the PLA into a serious fighting force.


Military delegates leave the Great Hall of the People after the opening session of the National People's Congress in Beijing on March 5.
Military delegates leave the Great Hall of the People after the opening session of the National People’s Congress in Beijing on March 5. PHOTO:NICOLAS ASFOURI/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

The annual session of China’s rubber-stamp legislature opened this week, and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang announced an 8.1% increase in defense spending, the largest in three years. Lawmakers are expected to approve the military budget and constitutional changes to let supreme leader Xi Jinping serve as President indefinitely. All of this will amplify the angst in Asia about Beijing’s military buildup.

The budget of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) isn’t transparent, and the U.S. Defense Department estimates that spending is about 25% higher than Beijing’s figure. More important, Mr. Xi is remaking the military into an effective fighting force. Under previous leaders, the PLA became top-heavy with generals whose main mission was to line their own pockets. They padded the ranks with followers and offered promotions in return for bribes. An anticorruption campaign has netted 16 top generals in the past six years.

Mr. Xi has replaced them with loyalists, giving him the clout to reform the PLA. He replaced regional commands that were personal fiefdoms with theater commands that require the army, navy and air force to work together, much as the U.S. did after the Goldwater-Nichols Act in 1986. Beijing is reducing the military’s headcount and investing the savings in sophisticated weapons. Since 2015 the PLA has shed 300,000 troops. Instead of relying on human-wave attacks, it is racing the U.S. to develop artificial intelligence for the battlefield.

 Under Mr. Xi the PLA is harassing U.S. forces in the international waters and airspace off China’s coast. Chinese vessels and aircraft are testing Japanese defenses around the disputed Senkaku Islands almost daily. Despite a promise by Mr. Xi that China would not militarize the seven artificial islands it reclaimed in the South China Sea, the PLA has built hangers for 72 fighter aircraft and 10 bombers.

Beijing is also stoking nationalism at home to an extent not seen since the death of Mao Zedong. Feature films such as “Wolf Warrior” show the PLA fighting abroad, while television documentaries extol the military’s reforms and growing strength. Mr. Xi’s “China Dream” slogan includes a “strong army dream,” and last year he reviewed troops on Army Day without other senior leaders present.

All of this raises questions about Mr. Xi’s intensions. The U.S. retains a military edge over China, but that is slipping as the PLA seeks to build a blue-water navy, and deploy weapons that could kill U.S. satellites and put American aircraft carriers at risk.

Mr. Xi’s predecessors also increased China’s military budget. But his success in amassing personal power and his record of using the PLA to intimidate neighbors mean his moves to build military might will be closely watched from Japan through the Straits of Malacca to the Indian Ocean. One lesson of history is that rising authoritarian powers often make the mistake of tempting conflict in the name of nationalist glory.

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