New Chinese leader Xi Jinping burnishes military support

(The New York Times) On the eve of the National People’s Congress, the chief of China’s Communist Party, Xi Jinping, is emphasizing his role as a champion of the military, using the armed forces to cement his political authority and present a tough stance in growing territorial disputes with American allies in the Pacific region.

New Chinese leader Xi Jinping, second from right, is pictured on March 3, 2013. Mr. Xi is emphasizing his role as a champion of the military, using the armed forces to cement his political authority and present a tough stance in growing territorial disputes with American allies in the Pacific region.
(Andy Wong/AP)

Mr. Xi will be appointed president at the end of the Congress, the party-run parliament that opens Tuesday for an annual session of about 10 days. The 2,987 carefully vetted delegates are also virtually certain to approve another rise in military spending, after an 11.2-per-cent increase to $106-billion (U.S.) in the 2012 defence budget. The new budget is expected to show another robust increase, probably in the same vicinity as last year, Western analysts said.

Since Mao Zedong rode to victory in a revolutionary war, the country’s Communist leaders have regarded an utterly loyal military as the ultimate shield of their political power. Nearly four months since his appointment as party chief in November, Mr. Xi has made that shield his own, with greater speed and sureness than his recent predecessors.

“Compared with the two previous leaders at a similar stage, Xi has already established closer, better relations with the military. They didn’t come to power with the same confidence,” said Chen Ziming, an independent commentator in Beijing who studies party affairs.

Beyond being the only member of the powerful seven-member Politburo Standing Committee to also sit on the Central Military Commission, Mr. Xi already leads the military body, which controls the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

Mr. Xi is taking over from Hu Jintao, who had to wait two years before his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, handed him chairmanship of the Central Military Commission. Mr. Jiang dealt gingerly with the military in his first years as leader, Mr. Chen said, overshadowed by the party patriarch Deng Xiaoping.

Since succeeding Mr. Hu as party chief and military chairman in November, Mr. Xi has visited army units or met commanders and troops at least nine times, according to state news reports. His activities included a brief trip on a new naval destroyer that is deployed in the South China Sea, and meeting commanders of the Second Artillery Corps, which manages China’s strategic missiles, including nuclear weapons.

Mr. Xi has also assumed charge of a secretive civilian-military group steering strategy in maritime disputes, particularly the clash with Japan over a cluster of barren islands in the East China Sea, according to Western analysts.

The Chinese military owes its paramount loyalty to the party and its leader, not the civilian government. In private, Mr. Xi has said absolute military obedience to the party is essential to ensuring the Chinese Communist Party is not wiped out like its Soviet counterpart.

“Any paramount leader needs the support of the PLA and makes gestures in that direction. I think that’s what Xi’s doing,” said Andrew Scobell, a senior political scientist for the RAND Corp., who studies Chinese security policy. “It’s kind of like how a kid holds onto a security blanket. The party is more secure than it thinks, but it needs that security blanket of the PLA.”

Xi’s background also helps to explain his relative ease with generals, said Chen, the analyst. The son of a revolutionary leader, Xi worked early on as an aide to a veteran general, Geng Biao, who served as defense minister in 1981-82.

Many Western experts believe that real Chinese military spending is higher than the publicly released number by a large degree. A Pentagon annual report to Congress last year estimated that China actually spent between $120-billion and $180-billion on its armed forces in 2011, when the official public budget for defence was $91.5-billion. Richard A. Bitzinger, a researcher at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore who studies China’s military, said he believed the public military budget now reflected actual spending with reasonable accuracy.

Even with generous budget increases, said Bitzinger, China’s military strength remains far behind that of the United States. “There’s a lot of progress in modernizing the PLA, but a lot of it is just a high-tech veneer that goes over a system that is still pretty conservative,” he said.

Mr. Xi has signalled that he wants to shake off the inefficiency and corruption that have undermined the military. Since taking the top party post, he has repeatedly demanded “battle readiness” from the military and sent ships and aircraft to assert China’s claims over islands also claimed by Japan.

Xi’s comments were a call to vigilance from the military, not war footing, said several experts. “He’s not beating the drums for an imminent battle. It’s all about training,” said Dennis J. Blasko, a former U.S. military attache in Beijing, and author of a book, “The Chinese Army Today.”

In the view of army commanders, China remains beset by enmity and hazards and is the target of military belligerence, not its initiator.

“The United States and Japan are worried that we will catch up, and are doing their utmost to contain China’s development, and by no means should we be fooled,” said Liu Yuan, a Chinese general, in comments published by a popular Chinese newspaper, the Global Times, in February.

China’s first security priority should be “vigilance against and prevention of the West’s strategy of infiltration and subversion,” Qi Jianguo, a PLA deputy chief of staff, told a party newspaper, the Study Times, in January.

The main risk presented by China’s mix of military swagger and insecurity is not a deliberately initiated conflict, analysts say. Rather, combined with poor communication between China’s opaque military and civilian bureaucracies, it could lead to missteps that spiral into dangerous confrontation.

“They’ve got a system of governance that originated in the caves of Yan’an,” from where Mao commanded his revolutionary war, said David Finkelstein, director of China Studies at CNA, a group in Alexandria, Va., that provides analysis to the U.S. government and military. “Frankly, China’s national security interests have expanded faster than the capacity of their extant institutions to manage.”

HONG KONG — The New York Times News Service
Published Sunday, Mar. 03 2013, 9:05 PM EST
Last updated Sunday, Mar. 03 2013, 9:08 PM EST

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