From early 2013 through the present, high level Chinese officials have consistently used the phrase “under the new situation” (zai xin xingshi xia) when discussing strategic concerns such as military reform, readiness and foreign affairs. The phrase refers to a critical reassessment of the international context of Beijing’s domestic power and development path, and the forces shaping its quest for the “China Dream.” This distinctly new assessment provides impetus to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) military reform effort, anti-corruption campaign in party and military, foreign policy initiatives and justification for future changes to China’s national military strategy.
What is the ‘New Situation’?
The 2008 financial crisis—which presented “challenges and opportunities never before seen since China’s reform and opening up”—accelerated China’s reassessment of its development prospects and national security environment (Renmin Wang, January 4, 2010). The analysis encompassed complex changes such as multi-polarization, globalization of the world economy, rapid technological advances and increased comprehensive national power competition. An essay published in 2010 by the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) states that the results of this reappraisal were communicated in a series of prominent CCP conferences including the 4th Plenum of the 17th CCP Central Committee in September 2009 (Contemporary International Relations, March/April 2010). The official 4th Plenum decision document coined the “new situation” to summarize China’s national power and prospects for continued growth amid a world that “…is undergoing a period of great development, great change and great adjustment” (Qunzhong Luxian Wang, May 30, 2013). The “new situation” is a formulation that represents the official analysis of these changes, and implies both confidence and wariness about macro-level changes affecting China’s path to attain the “China Dream.”
Changes in Perception under Xi
Under the Xi Jinping administration, China’s overall perception of its development and security environment has distinctly shifted in two ways. First, previous articulations of the new situation were careful to characterize that the complex changes wracking the world were ongoing phenomena. Yet in 2013, two important government documents on national security and foreign policy began referring to those changes as past events. Secondly, since 2013 the frequency and authoritativeness of uses of the “new situation” phrase has increased significantly, in particular in foreign policy and military reform contexts. This increase has corresponded with a disappearance of the Hu-era “harmonious world” characterization of the international sphere, although official documents note that “peace and development” remain a “trend of the times.”
The first change in tone for the security environment occurred in China’s latest defense white paper, “The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces,” published in April 2013. For the first time, the paper announced that a “New Situation, New Challenges, New Missions” (xin xingshi, xin tiaozhan, xin shiming) comprised its “security situation” (anquan xingshi)—the term previously used (Xinhua, April 16, 2013; State Council of the PRC, April 16, 2013). The key distinction in the 2013 white paper is the sense of timing: the 2011 paper definitively states that “…the international situation is currently undergoing new profound and complex changes,” (emphasis added) while the 2013 paper states that those changes “…have taken place” (State Council News, March, 2011; Gov.cn, March, 2011). Furthermore, the 2011 paper says that “China is still in the period of important strategic opportunities for its development,” whereas the 2013 paper avers that “China has seized and made the most of this important period of strategic opportunities for its development.” Thus, the 2013 white paper describes a distinct change in both the domestic development situation and international milieu.
Then, in August 2013, State Councilor Yang Jiechi published an article titled, “China’s Diplomatic Innovations in Theory and Practice under the New Situation.” Here, Yang Jiechi linked a strategic and comprehensive diplomatic “start and layout” to Xi’s “accurate grasp of the changes in the global situation and China’s development trends” as China was facing a new situation and new tasks (Qiushi, August 16, 2013). The article subsequently outlines diplomatic “innovations” stimulated by the recent evaluation of the overall situation. Of note, he nested the concept of a “new type of major country relations” used to describe U.S.-China relations within the broader framework of the new situation. The new type is listed as one of the “great results” of the diplomatic innovations, along with the China Dream, building friendly cooperation with peripheral and developing countries, and steadfastly defending core interests. The article does not mention “harmonious world” once, while a similar article by Yang Jiechi in October 2007 discussed the 17th Party Congress idea of building a “harmonious world” in an international situation undergoing many changes (Xinhua, October 15, 2007).
The reappraisal of the development and security environment is a key element underpinning China’s ambitious reform effort outlined in last November’s 3rd Plenum. The emblematic “new situation” phrase appears in the introductory paragraphs of both the 3rd Plenum “decision” as well as Xi’s “Explanatory Remarks.” However, the phrase is much less often used, if at all, when discussing domestic societal and economic reform programs such as urbanization, markets or hukou (nationwide registration system).
“New situation” analysis is overwhelmingly used in the context of areas relating directly to strategic security concerns and foreign affairs. That is, foreign policy, anti-corruption in both party and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and military reform and readiness. For example, Vice-chair of the Central Military Commission General Xu Qiliang published an article on the imperative for structural reform in the PLA following the 3rd Plenum that cited the new situation five times in the pursuit of the “Strong army goal” (People’s Daily, November 21, 2013). General Liu Yuan, a “princeling” who is outspoken against military corruption and perhaps Xi’s principal ally in the PLA, published an article in Seeking Truth on ways the party must “strengthen its spirit under the new situation” (Qiushi, July 1). An editorial published on the website of Caixin magazine specifically stated that “tracing corruption to its source” was the only way for the military to improve and perfect itself, so that it could achieve the “Strong army goal under the new situation” (Caixin, July 2). Most recently, a People’s Daily editorial on former Politburo standing committee member Zhou Yongkang’s arrest for “serious disciplinary violations” stated that “Under the new situation, the party’s historic position, ruling conditions and party membership structure have undergone great change” (People’s Daily, July 30). The editorial then directly linked these changes to the imperative for “strict control of the party.” The same phrase was used in an official media announcement expelling detained General Xu Caihou from the CCP (Yangshi Wang, July 1). In mid-June, during a visit with PLA Air Force leaders, Xi Jinping said that “Protecting national sovereignty, security and development is a must-do requirement under the new situation” (Xinhua, June 17). Finally, Xi Jinping even used the phrase during his opening speech for the recent U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, saying that the United States and China “should cooperate and work to broaden areas of cooperation given the new situation” (Caixin, July 9).
Implications for China’s Military Strategy and Foreign Affairs
There are two primary implications for this new reappraisal of China’s development and security environment. First, the CCP’s strategic calculus is heavily shaped by official assessments. China typically alters its military strategic guidelines when it perceives a fundamental change in the international order, its security environment, domestic situation or the nature of war (see also China Brief, February 7).  Changes in one of these areas prompt a reevaluation of policy and have directly informed strategic defense posture and military reforms. Thus the present change in assessment amounts to a first step in a process that formulates new military strategic guidelines, strategic direction, or amends the PLA’s historic missions (Finkelstein [see notes], pp. 82-84). While the 2013 white paper affirmed the military’s existing historic missions, PLA watchers should look for changes to elements of the military strategic guidelines in future publications as the party and military digest the full implications of the new situation. Yang Jiechi’s article demonstrated that the changed assessment of the security environment precipitated new foreign policy initiatives. It is likely that strategic military planners are now considering similar changes to military strategy. Ultimately, the new understanding could also justify a shift away from Deng Xiaoping’s advice to “hide ability and bide time.”
Second, in a more pragmatic sense, the changed assessment is used as justification for Xi Jinping’s efforts at military reform and party renewal to a variety of domestic audiences ranging from the public, party cadres and the military. Senior leaders and official media invoke the “new situation” to bolster the legitimacy of the anti-corruption campaign and give urgency to the struggle to enact long-overdue structural reform in the PLA.
Based on its ubiquity and variety of use, it appears that the “new situation” phrase has become a hallmark of the Xi administration in matters of national security and foreign policy. More importantly, it demonstrates that the party has developed a distinctly new assessment of its development and security environment. It implies that China has a sense of growing yet cautious optimism in its increasing power and perception of the enhanced opportunities of a multi-polar world. At the same time, it entails a wary view of an international situation that may not accommodate the China Dream, requiring a “strong army” to cope with new challenges, prompting “innovative” diplomatic efforts and likely prompting similar “innovations” in military strategy and doctrine to secure China’s expanding interests.
- David Finkelstein, “China’s National Military Strategy: An Overview of the ‘Military Strategic Guidelines,’” in Right-Sizing the People’s Liberation Army: Exploring the Contours of China’s Military, Strategic Studies Institute (2007), p. 87.