China aims to enhance its status as a great power by redefining the role of the PLA in its grand strategy.
Till now, the CCP elite has seen the PLA as an enforcer. Modern China’s founder Mao Zedong had propounded that “power flows from the barrel of a gun”, meaning that the PLA was an important pillar of state power, and consolidating power in the socialist system was incumbent on having a strong army. In the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident, when the CCP’s hold on power was challenged, the PLA was brought in to quell the uprising and bolster the Party rule. In recent times too, former CCP General Secretary Hu Jintao described the PLA’s mission as that of helping the CCP consolidate power and in the maintenance of domestic security. Significantly, one of the key ‘development goals’ of the Plenum in 2020 was the modernisation of the national defence strategy to realise the potential of a “rich nation” and “strong army”. The CCP reckoned that modernisation would improve the PLA’s ability to defend national sovereignty, security, and development interests (fāzhǎn lìyì). Junfei Wu from Tianda Institute, a thinktank in Hong Kong, said this was the first time that the Chinese elite had factored in the PLA with its development goals. The modernisation of national defence capability aims to put the PLA on a par with the US Army by 2027 which marks the former’s centenary, says Song Zhongping, a military analyst from Hong Kong. In 2020, there was an air of triumphalism in Zhongnanhai, the seat of the CCP elite, as the regime had been able contain the spread of coronavirus and reopen Wuhan, at a time when many of the world’s megacities under lockdown. Party-backed academia was predicting that China would be on the high table of nations on the strength of its economic might. Lin Liming from China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, a Beijing thinktank, forecast that China’s “success” in controlling the spread of COVID-19 highlighted its institutional advantages, which would propel China towards overtaking the US economy by 2027. Lin also argued that China’s leading role in developing advanced technologies like Artificial Intelligence and 5G would power China’s ascent. However, this triumphalist narrative was also tempered with the realisation that the march to the peak would be fraught with hurdles. Yang Xuedong, a professor of political science at Tsinghua University, cautioned that China’s rivals would use the pandemic to contain its rise to great-power status. This threat perception mandated that China needed to factor in ‘security’ in its development strategy.
Modern China’s founder Mao Zedong had propounded that “power flows from the barrel of a gun”, meaning that the PLA was an important pillar of state power, and consolidating power in the socialist system was incumbent on having a strong army.
Xi’s pet project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has led to China’s economic footprint expanding overseas. As Chinese professionals and companies operate in foreign lands, Guo Xiaobing, Director of the Arms Control Studies Center of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, posited that China needed to fortify its capability to protect its nationals stationed overseas since that was related to its economic security too. Recently, there have been a spate of attacks on Chinese nationals, but the ultimate target in these cases has been Chinese interests. In April 2022, three Chinese educators attached to Karachi’s Confucius Center, a Mandarin-language training institute, were killed in a suicide bombing for which a separatist group from Pakistan’s Balochistan province claimed responsibility. The separatist group is said to be behind several attacks on Chinese nationals working in Balochistan, where the Gwadar port and other large-scale infrastructure projects backed by China are located. In November 2021, the Solomon Islands witnessed arson and rioting in an area predominantly populated by Chinese nationals, following allegations that PM Manasseh Sogavare was influencing parliamentary voting using Chinese money. These incidents show that China cannot avoid getting enmeshed in local political currents as it expands to new territories, and its interests may collide with those of other actors. This means that China cannot rely solely on the assurances of foreign governments to secure its interests. Thus, while China has scaled up its imprint in Cambodia’s energy sector to the extent that nearly 75 percent of the latter’s domestic power supply comes from plants built or financed by China, and nearly all coal plants are built by China, it seeks to bolster its economic interests by seeking a strategic toehold via the renovation of the strategic Ream naval base in the vicinity. Similarly, the Chinese foreign ministry has asserted that Solomon Islands will be the new focus of its Belt and Road projects and special economic zones. An investment is good, if it can guarantee returns, in turn, this is incumbent upon factors like political stability. This seems to be the rationale for the security agreement recently inked between China and the Solomon Islands, where under the guise of improving the latter’s internal security capacity, the CCP can park its security personnel. In light of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, this is no longer a matter of speculation, but has provoked a serious debate. At the Raisina Dialogue, India’s premier conference on geopolitics organised by ORF and the Indian government, Andrew Shearer, Director General of Australia’s Office of National Intelligence, warned that China’s security pact with Solomon Islands would lead to greater Chinese military presence in its backyard, adding that China was using the pandemic to its advantage, marshalling economic, military, and diplomatic instruments to draw small countries into its fold.
Lin Liming from China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, a Beijing thinktank, forecast that China’s “success” in controlling the spread of COVID-19 highlighted its institutional advantages, which would propel China towards overtaking the US economy by 2027.
First, the perception that great powers are trying to thwart its rise is ingrained in the CCP’s psyche as evident from its grouse that western powers and Japan subjugated Imperial China in the 19th century. While Imperial China had a robust economy, its inability to modernise its military meant that other powers succeeded in browbeating it. Thus, by according the PLA more weightage in its grand strategy, China seems to be setting right a historical miscalculation. Second, Michael Pillsbury’s book ‘The Hundred Year Marathon’ reveals that the PLA is already integrated into the CCP’s power matrix as seen from Mao Zedong’s choice of the PLA over his diplomatic corps to calibrate China’s opening to the West in the late 1960s. The PLA has representation in China’s decision-making bodies—the politburo and the Central Committee. Two out of 25 politburo members are from the PLA, whereas in the Central Committee, the military establishment accounts for around 20 percent of the 205 permanent and 171 alternate members. World history is a linear chronicle of the rise and fall of empires, this offers China a wide range of templates to model its rise. Japan modernised using the war cry of ‘rich nation, strong army’. Consequently, the clout of political figures with a military background and the influence of large corporations (zaibatsu) pushed the empire to expand overseas, ultimately leading to its decimation in World War II. It is for enlightened empires to learn from other’s follies.
The perception that great powers are trying to thwart its rise is ingrained in the CCP’s psyche as evident from its grouse that western powers and Japan subjugated Imperial China in the 19th century.
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Kalpit A Mankikar is a Fellow with Strategic StudiesRead More +