On March 4, Premier Li Keqiang delivered the annual Report on the Work of the Government to the National People’s Congress (NPC). In the small section on national defense, Premier Li stated: “We made solid progress in strengthening national defense and the armed forces, and the armed forces and armed police force now are full of new vigor and have enhanced their capabilities… [We will] further modernize them and upgrade their performance, and continue to raise their deterrence and combat capabilities in the information age” (Xinhua, March 14). Such policy bromides aside, the NPC provides further evidence of an increasingly coherent Chinese strategy that links military modernization with Beijing’s expanding interests. Moreover, the statements about China’s aspirations and security environment indicate a relatively high degree of concern about the stability of China’s place in the world.
Military Themes of the NPC
The thematic elements of the NPC should surprise no one who has paying attention to Party General Secretary and Central Military Commission Chairman Xi Jinping’s military priorities over the last year. Beijing has become increasingly concerned about its development environment, based on a more complex regional security environment and challenges to national sovereignty (Xinhua, March 6; China Radio International, March 6). According to one commentary, China’s weakness relative to the United States is forcing Beijing to accelerate military modernization, because the U.S. rebalance toward Asia has emboldened other countries to infringe on Chinese sovereignty and could affect its growing interests abroad (Xinhua, March 6). Although the Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” has not achieved the ideological standing of his predecessor’s contributions, its influence and military applications clearly shape the outcomes of the NPC.
Peace Through Strength
Knowing full-well that foreign commentators would focus on this year’s 12.2 percent defense budget increase, Beijing had a number of ready remarks to assuage anxiety about the meaning of this increase. Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Qin Gang responded to questions about the defense budget increase, opining that “Some foreigners always expect China to be a baby Scout. In that way, how can we safeguard national security and world peace? How can we ensure stability in the country, region and the world?…Even as a Scout grows up, his former dress and shoes will not fit anymore and thus he will have to change into bigger ones (Xinhua, March 5). Wen Bing, a researcher at the PLA’s Academy of Military Sciences, saw the defense budget increase as having three messages: “First, it’s a reflection of the government’s adherence to its central task—economic development… Second, it displays the Chinese government’s confidence in coping with its ever-more-complicated exterior environment. Instead of leapfrog, China has always adopted moderate rises in the defense budget…Third, it delivers an explicit message that China is adamant in maintaining the national security and global peace” (Xinhua, March 5).
In an institutional commentary, Xinhua eloquently encapsulated the other Chinese voices and the relationship between the military modernization and a favorable environment for China’s development:
To portray China as a threat because of its relatively big military budget is as nonsensical as to depict it as a pillar of peace if it spends nothing at all on defense. Furthermore, a militarily stronger China will be a more robust ballast of peace in a region where the security situation is increasingly complicated and volatile.?As a responsible, major stakeholder in regional peace and stability, China needs sufficient strength to prevent hot-headed players from misjudgment and thus forestall conflict and war, so as to maintain a favorable environment for the socioeconomic development of all in the neighborhood (Xinhua, March 5).
The defense budget commentaries reinforced the themes elaborated by news articles and PLA deputies’ discussions, implying the PLA’s relative weakness and the need to pursue Xi Jinping’s “Dream of a Strong Military” for China’s general development. PLA deputies at the NPC observed that “China’s peaceful development cannot be ensured without a consolidated national defense and a powerful military” (China Military Online, March 6). As NPC spokesperson and former vice minister of foreign affairs Fu Ying noted, “based on our history and experience, we believe that peace can only be maintained by strength… we Chinese might ask, can a prosperous country such as China really achieve peace without a strong national defense?” (Xinhua, March 4). One institutional PLA commentary provided an example of Fu’s history, asking why the Qing Dynasty faced nothing but war despite its desires for peace. The answer, predictably, was a lack of strength, and an invocation of the Roman dictum “if you want peace, prepare for war” (PLA Daily, March 15).Without such preparations, China’s exposure to the international system could derail China’s national rejuvenation. Major General Qian Lihua, former director of the Foreign Affairs Office at the Ministry of National Defense, said “If there is a war, it will only damage the hard-earned economic recovery” (Xinhua, March 3).
The “Dream of a Strong Military” Continues
The three components of Xi Jinping’s “Dream of a Strong Military” (qiangjun meng)—PLA loyalty to the party, fighting and winning battles, and maintaining a good work style—set the tone for the NPC coverage (PLA Daily, March 8; “Army Day Coverage Stresses Winning Battles with ‘Dream of a Strong Military,’ ” China Brief, August 23, 2013). Premier Li addressed the first pillar in the work report, noting the need to “strengthen and improve the political beliefs of the armed forces” (Xinhua, March 14). Although the work report perhaps underplays this point, the rest of the PLA coverage placed army loyalty at the top of military priorities. As one article opened, “faith is the root of the loyalty, the foundation of the military spirit” (PLA Daily, March 11). CMC member and PLA Navy Commander Admiral Wu Shengli placed “ideological and political construction” and adherence to the guidance of the party center and Xi Jinping as the first of three priorities (Chinamil.com.cn, March 7). The clarification in recent years that the preservation of the party’s status is a “core interest” means that this pillar of Xi’s dream encompasses more than just the party controlling the gun. The PLA also has a responsibility to help preserve the party’s legitimacy, which could explain the rise of the PLA’s hawkish commentators as well as the need for the PLA to join in Xi’s mass line and anti-corruption campaigns (see “Propaganda as Policy? Explaining the PLA’s ‘Hawkish Faction’ (Part Two),” China Brief, August 9, 2013).
The work report and NPC-related commentaries reiterated the common refrain of the PLA’s need to be able to fight and win wars, because of continuing shortfalls in the military’s capabilities to protect China’s interests. In a speech on March 5, CMC Vice Chairman General Xu Qiliang “stressed that achieving the dream of building a powerful military is the mission and responsibility of the servicemen of our generation. It is necessary to focus on the real-combat training and push forward the combat power toward the high end” (China Military Online, March 7). This focus runs throughout the PLA, including its research and development process. As Lieutenant General Zhang Yulin, NPC deputy and deputy director of the General Armaments Department, stated, “ ‘Actual-combat orientation’ means the whole process ranging from equipment design, research and manufacture and production through test and verification” (China Military Online, March 7). The Central Military Commission continues to maintain a long-standing judgment about the shortfalls in the PLA capabilities known as the “Two Incompatibles” (liang ge buxiang shiying)—PLA capabilities are incompatible with winning local wars under informatized conditions and with accomplishing the new historic missions—as well as related slogans like “the inability to fight means the inability to guarantee the outcome” (da bu liao zhang jiu bao bu liao di) (PLA Daily, March 10).
Improving the PLA’s work style (zuofeng) carries the Xi’s anti-corruption and mass line campaigns into the military. PLA officers are advised to be disciplined in their self-cultivation, self-discipline and use of authority (PLA Daily, March 10). Senior PLA officers and military commentators believe addressing the principle contradictions in PLA modernization, like the “Two Incompatibles,” requires changes that go beyond hardware and doctrine, including changes to education, mentality, and discipline. Corruption, accordingly, disrupts PLA modernization by undermining the military’s spirit and distracts from the goal of preparing to fight and win modern wars. If corruption is not addressed, according to the commentator Luo Yuan, the PLA could be defeated before it even fights (Global Times, March 18; PLA Daily, February 23; December 18, 2013). The need for a mass line campaign to address military corruption suggests a number of continuing problems at the mid-level ranks, such as pay for promotion, that distract officers from the second pillar: preparing to fight and win battles.
The work style reform reportedly has had an effect on the way the PLA speaks to itself and handles information. As one deputy from the Jinan Military Region, Han Qingbo, observed, the PLA has made “fewer flourishes, dealing more with facts” (huajiazi shao le, gan shishi duo le) (PLA Daily, March 9). However, the PLA’s progress on addressing the work style has been skin deep and requires greater perseverance to root out the problems, such as non-commissioned officer selection (PLA Daily, March 9).
Press Forward with Military-Civil Integration:
In addition to being mentioned in the premier’s work report, military-civil integration (junmin ronghe) also was one of three topics discussed by Xi Jinping when he attended a PLA deputies meeting at the NPC on March 11 (Xinhua, March 11; March 14). At that meeting, Xi stressed the importance of military-civil integration for “achieving the dream of a strong military” and using the power of the market economy to support military modernization (PLA Daily, March 12). Pushing forward with military-civil integration was a characterized as one of the party center’s “major strategic decisions in the new era,” which was reflected in its selection as a key theme for the Army Day editorials in recent years (“Civil-Military Integration Theme Marks PLA Day Coverage,” China Brief, August 12, 2011). Adding context to Xi’s remarks about the value of the market, political commissar of the East China Sea fleet Wang Huayong suggested the army could learn from the special economic zones set up during the early reform era and possibly establish the PLA’s own experimental zones to encourage modernization (PLA Daily, March 11).
Apart from its modernization implications, one PLA delegate noted that military-civil integration should be adopted to improve the military’s handling of non-combat military operations, particularly inside China. Usually, military-civil integration is about leveraging the civilian sector to build the military; however, some of the proposals, such as those from the Henan chief of People’s Armed Police Shen Tao, went the other direction. Shen’s proposals addressed using military surveillance resources to bolster domestic humanitarian missions. Shen’s other suggestions of linking or allowing interoperability between civilian and PLA information systems that could activated in emergencies also required the PLA assisting the civilian sector with information security (PLA Daily, March 10).
The military themes of this year’s NPC reinforce the notion that Chinese strategy has become institutionalized from the developmental goals of the party congress work reports to the application of military modernization.  At a basic level, strategy is all about how leaders will use the means available to control their environment and achieve objectives. The 18th Party Congress Work Report outlined China’s national rejuvenation as “building a prosperous, powerful, democratic, civilized, and harmonious socialist modern country” by the centennial of the People’s Republic (“The 18th Party Congress Work Report: Policy Blueprint for the Xi Administration,” China Brief, November 30, 2012; Xinhua, November 17, 2012). The PLA’s contributions to these objectives come through its ability to fight and win wars, deter (and coerce) adversaries and execute non-combat military operations. Slogans like the “Dream of a Strong Army” and the “Two Incompatibles” identify where PLA modernization must go and provide reference points for evaluating the usefulness of any given reform or proposal, enabling the dialectic between ends, ways and means that is required for effective strategy.
The explicit “peace through strength” narrative shows that the world in which Chinese leaders think they live is a very dangerous one—and getting worse—with a variety of challenges threatening to derail China’s development. For example, Japan is a country where “increasingly rampant rightist elements attempt to deny history, sabotage the postwar world order and scuttle the pacifist constitution” (Xinhua, March 6). In the speech where President Xi vowed not to “compromise [Chinese] core interests, no matter when or in what circumstances,” he also told the PLA “western hostile forces” are making China’s territorial sovereignty, geopolitical environment and internal ethnic and religious contradictions more severe (PLA Daily, March 15; Xinhua, March 11). The PLA’s ability to achieve the “Dream of Strong Army” to face these immediate challenges relates directly to China’s overall ability continue its progress toward the developmental milestones of 2049. Thus, the NPC narratives may reflect fear as much as the desire to be able to assert China’s prerogatives.
- Timothy Heath, “What Does China Want? Discerning the PRC’s National Strategy,” Asian Security, Vol. 8, No. 1 (2012), pp. 54–72.