Force Forward

Military power to drive China’s foreign policy

Pravin Sawhney

For those in India wondering how things would pan out with China, post-Doklam, the unmistakable message was given by President Xi Jinping himself: Military power will play a big role in China’s foreign policy.

People’s Liberation Army
People’s Liberation Army

In a symbolic gesture, as is China’s wont, Xi, wearing military fatigues in his capacity as commander-in-chief addressed over 7,000 combat troops standing in front of 400 tanks, guns and missiles in Hebei province on New Year day. The event was simultaneously broadcasted to troops assembled at 4,000 places across China. According to People’s Daily newspaper, the Communist Party’s mouth-piece, Xi, in the history of China, became the first Chairman to directly addressed troops on the importance of combat training to win wars.

Xi Jinping, President of China and leader of the Communist Party
Xi Jinping, President of China and leader of the Communist Party

By doing so, Xi sent out two messages. One, combat readiness had been elevated to a strategic priority, implying that military goals to achieve the ‘China Dream’ by 2049 must be met. This is to be accomplished in two phases: completing military modernisation by 2035, and becoming a world power militarily by 2049. And two, by protecting Chinese interests, assets and people abroad, the People’s Liberation Army will be at the vanguard of ‘China Dream’ through the ambitious One Belt One Road (OBOR).

To be sure, Xi’s actions of January 1, or his 2015 military reforms, or even the need to bring the PLA onboard the foreign policy did not begin with his anointment. The ground-work for progressive military role in foreign policy was done years in advance, during the term of China’s fourth generation leadership under President Hu Jintao from 2002 to 2012. Chinese think-tanks, both civilian and under the PLA (especially the National Defence University) were prolific in debating various facets of military power. These included subjects like technology in building of military power, form and essence of modern wars, need for military reforms or doctrinal ideas to optimise revolution in military affairs — evolutionary or transformational, essence of military diplomacy, role of military power in foreign policy to name a few. To garner outside opinion on security and defence issues, China, under aegis of the PLA started the Xiangshan Forum in 2006; it became an annual 1.5 track (military and civilian experts) diplomacy event in 2015.

It was at the sixth Xiangshan Forum held in Beijing in October 2015, at the height of the tensions in South China Sea, that China unveiled its oxymoronic doctrine of ‘combative cooperation’ for its peaceful rise through the OBOR. Addressing the audience (this writer was present), vice-chairman, CMC, General Fan Changlong said, “We will not recklessly use force even when the issues affect our sovereignty.” Except for issuing warnings about deteriorating Sino-US ties, China did nothing to curtail US’ Freedom of Navigation patrols. It instead continued with its reclamation and militarisation activities in South China Sea, while creating fissures within the ASEAN by dangling the Code of Conduct negotiations and by distributing economic largess. Overtime, most ASEAN reasoned that they could not seek prosperity from one power (China) and security from another (the US).

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