With the onset of 2019, Chinese President and Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) Xi Jinping already set the objective in order by calling the Chinese Armed Forces to enhance their “combat readiness from a new starting point and open new ground for developing a strong military”.[i] Setting the precedent, on 4 January, Xi signed a mobilisation order for the training of the armed forces, the CMC’s first order in 2019. Does this action suggest that China is ready to use force if necessary?
Although combat readiness has been Xi’s principal agenda, however, what makes this 2019 wakeup call significant is the changing dynamics, which in Xi’s view is mainly defined by the rise of “various risks and challenges”. To note, in Chinese perspective, the 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”.[ii] For Xi, the primary goal is three-fold: safeguard national sovereignty, security, and development interests.
Given the imminent challenge of these contingencies, Xi’s 2019 resolution on elevating China’s battle readiness comes as a reactive response rather than proactive. That is, the timely order has been mainly catapulted by two key factors: first, the US factor- the changing equation between Beijing and Washington in recent times as witnessed in the event of a trade war has upped the ante in the security domain. In view of this, Xi’s response comes as an immediate follow up to United States’ Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan recent remarks on making China as the ‘top priority’. As Shanahan categorically emphasised that in addition to the United States focus on “ongoing operations” there is a need to “remember China, China, China”[iii]– this reiteration signifies United States’ revamped focus on China as a threat.
Second and most importantly, the Taiwan factor- China faces a severe challenge to its long-standing policy of reunification under Tsai Ing-wen led Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Contrary to China’s national interest, Taiwan under DPP is engaged in carving its own international space by acting independent of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) ‘One China’ policy. In view of this, in response to Xi’s remarks on the occasion of commemorating 40th anniversary of the Chinese mainland’s “Message to Compatriots in Taiwan”, Tsai expressed a retaliation. As noted, Xi’s categorical statement that “China must be and will be reunified”[iv] was retracted by Tsai’s strong assertion that “Taiwan will never accept ‘one country, two systems’”, that “[t]he vast majority of Taiwanese public opinion also resolutely opposes ‘one country, two systems’, and this is also the ‘Taiwan consensus’”.[v] These polemics reflect the growing instability in Beijing-Taipei relations- a significant challenge to Xi’s Chinese Dream of “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”.
With these two factors at play, it is interesting to note that they act in tandem rather than independently in PRC’s security matrix. To say so, as both these factors significantly aim to challenge China’s core national interest, that is, safeguarding its ‘One China Principle’. There is a strategic shift in United States’ policy towards PRC which is successively trying to hyphenate the Taiwan factor in Beijing-Washington nexus. This is well-witnessed in United States’ recent actions such as: signing the Taiwan Travel Act in March 2018 which encourages mutual visits between US and Taiwan officials, followed by arms sales to Taipei and most importantly, the appointment of National Security Advisor John Bolton who holds a pro-Taiwan stance.[vi] This suggests that Xi’s call for combat readiness is mainly aimed at the increasing security challenges from the United States and Taiwan.
In addition, on the operational end, Xi’s such an action-oriented order is also driven by China’s domestic challenges. At the foremost is the growing concerns over the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) “peace disease” which in words of PLA can only be cured if “we can only stop a war if we are able to fight”.[vii] This predicament is driven by the two-fold core objectives: to fight and win and to increase the PLA’s ability to carry out joint operations on a modern high-tech battlefield. For Xi, the central aim is to enhance PLA’s “combat readiness” and make it a “powerful force that is always ready for the fight, capable of combat and sure to win”.[viii]
This, therefore, suggests that the Xi’s call for ‘battle readiness’ is to balance its both external and internal threats. Here, the cornerstone lies in making the PLA a ‘combat force’ wherein, the capability to win by the PLA has become a strategic need for China to safeguard its national security. Furthermore, it also exemplifies China’s indisputable non-compromising attitude in safeguarding its sovereignty and territorial integrity and also that China is ready to use force if necessary.
[i] Chengcheng (2019), “Xi orders armed forces to enhance combat readiness”, Xinhuanet, 04 January 2019, at http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2019-01/04/c_137720169_2.htm (Accessed on 08 January 2019). [ii] 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 (Accessed on 08 January 2019). [iii] “Shanahan calls China his top priority as he takes over from Mattis”, Press TV, 03 January 2019, at https://www.presstv.com/Detail/2019/01/03/584734/US-Pentagon-Shanahan-Trump-Mattis-China (Accessed on 08 January 2019). [iv] Lu Hui (2019), “Xinhua Headlines: Xi says “China must be, will be reunified” as key anniversary marked”, Xinhuanet, 02 January 2019, at http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2019-01/02/c_137714898.htm (Accessed on 08 January 2019). [v] “Xi Jinping says Taiwan ‘must and will be’ reunited with China”, BBC news, 02 January 2019, at https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-46733174 (Accessed 10 January 2019). [vi] Amrita Jash (2018), “Can Xi and Trump Escape the Thucydides’s Trap in the Veil of Trade War?”, CLAWS Focus, No. 1953, 07 December 2018, at https://www.claws.in/1953/can-xi-and-trump-escape-the-thucydides%E2%80%99s-trap-in-the-veil-of-trade-war-dr-amrita-jash.html (Accessed 10 January 2019). [vii] “China’s army infiltrated by ‘peace disease’ after years without a war, says its official newspaper”, South China Morning Post, 03 July 2018, at https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/2153579/chinas-army-infiltrated-peace-disease-after-years (Accessed on 10 January 2019). [viii] Xi stresses real combat training”, Xinhuanet, 03 January 2018, at http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2018-01/03/c_136870001.htm (Accessed 10 January 2019).