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China prepares its people for war
As nations in Asia rebalance against Chinese aggression and expansionism, China begins mobilisation of its citizens, citing danger to the nation.
The Communist Party of China’s (CPC) assessment of its security situation shows a heightened threat perception. During the “two sessions”—China’s annual parliamentary sittings of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference that serve as a barometer to decipher the nation’s policy direction—China’s elite voiced their concerns publicly. President Xi Jinping spoke about the severe challenges it had faced due to the Western alliance led by the United States (US), seeking to encircle and suppress China. His Foreign Minister Qin Gang again put the onus on America, cautioning that if the US does not desist from its current path, then it could lead to greater confrontation and conflict. In the face of these “risks” to China, Xi’s mantra to the Party has been: to be determined, consolidate through stability, strive for achievement, and importantly, have the courage for conflict.
Xi’s speech at the 20th Party Congress highlights an urgency to modernise the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) by 2027 and transform it into a world-class military by 2027. As PLA’s modernisation in recent years gathered steam, its aggression along the India-China boundary, in the East China and South China seas has also heightened. It carried out repeated exercises in the Taiwan Straits, seeking to send a message to the government on the island and deter it from seeking independence. While the US has responded to the China challenge by reinvigorating its alliances in East Asia, China sees the situation differently and through the prism of its nationalism and the ‘Century of Humiliation’ narrative—referring to the period stretching from the mid-18th century to the 19th century that saw several Western nations and Japan militarily intervene in China.
An article in the military’s newspaper,PLA Daily, sees an American hand behind the rapprochement between South Korea and Japan after a hiatus of more than a decade, citing Japanese PM Fumio Kishida’s and South Korean President Yoon Suk yeol’s recent visits this year. Additionally, Yoon also visited the US. President Joe Biden. Academics Zhang Yuanyong and Chen Yue say the PLA should be “extremely vigilant”, cautioning that frequent military exercises and drills between the US, Japan and South Korea pose a threat to regional security. The researchers foresee that military cooperation between the US, Japan, and South Korea in Asia is a precursor to the ‘Five-Eyes’ intelligence-sharing arrangement between the US, Australia, Britain, Canada, and New Zealand. Thus, Chinese strategists believe that the US will cement a NATO-like trilateral military bloc and intelligence-pooling arrangement in Asia just like the one in the Anglosphere.
"Experts prophesies a “perilous” nuclear arms race in China’s backyard, pointing to the recent agreement whereby the US can deploy US N-submarines in South Korean waters."
The paper also prophesies a “perilous” nuclear arms race in China’s backyard, pointing to the recent agreement whereby the US can deploy US N-submarines in South Korean waters. In the Xi era, China’s domestic political discourse has sought to hype historical wrongs, particularly Japan’s wartime role in China. Given this background, the CPC perceives that Japan had harboured militaristic ambitions that were restrained by its postwar “pacifist Constitution”, it now sees greater threat from Japan purportedly developing its nuclear weapons. It may be recalled that China’s exercises in the Taiwan Straits in response to the then US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan in 2022 spilt over to Japan after missiles landed in the latter’s exclusive economic zone. The notion that Japan could be threatened in the eventuality of China’s invasion of Taiwan has led to greater US-Japanese security cooperation. However, the People’s Republic seeks to portray this rebalancing by nations in its neighbourhood to its people as one that imperils the nation.
People at the centre of defence strategy
In conjunction with this, we must also see how the civilian element is being bolstered in China’s concept of civil-military fusion. A recent order by China’s Ministry of Defence states that the concept of ‘national defence education’ is of strategic importance to the Party. It also emphasises that steps to strengthen national defence education have been taken in the Xi era through public commemorations such as Martyrs’ Day and National Public Sacrifice Day, etc., which have boosted national resolve and increased defence awareness. This is not Beijing’s top-down initiative as evidenced by a discussion published on the theme of ‘Improving National Defence Education policy in the New Era’ on the website of the local municipal authority of Bazhou city in Hebei province. The directives state that the onus is on educational institutions to improvise the concept of national defence education and that it must be integrated into the examination system. The directives state that efforts should be made to explore whether retired military personnel can mentor youth in national defence education. This is a CCP initiative to socialise the GenNext in national defence thought before they are ushered into the PLA. Almost on cue, the revised regulations for military recruitment that came into force in May stipulate that local authorities must give wide publicity to conscription drives and organisations promoting them would be rewarded for enlisting “high-calibre soldiers”.
"This is a CCP initiative to socialise the GenNext in national defence thought before they are ushered into the PLA."
In a nation, where the state decides what movies its population can see, celluloid serves as a powerful tool for the CCP to mould and mobilise young minds. The Chinese movie ‘Born To Fly’ released recently echoes the political themes of the CPC namely: China’s besiegement, technological blockade, and militarist confrontation with foreign powers among others. The core theme of the movie is that China puts together a crack team of pilots, who are selected through several endurance exercises, to test a 5th generation aircraft. Thus, Xi seeks to inject military values like patriotism, unity, and discipline to harden its society.
There is more in store for the military too. Xi inspected the PLA’s Southern Theatre Command and instructed his generals to improve the training of soldiers in actual combat conditions, further highlighting the need to improve research on combat issues while resolving deficiencies in training. He has also stated the PLA and the People’s Armed Police Force formulate integrated strategies and create a reserve force to protect national security.
"China is preparing for war, and as a nation invested in studying conflicts of other nations, since its forces lack combat experience, China seeks to rectify Russia’s mistakes and harden its people."
To conclude, first, we must take note of the fact that China is creating a spectre of a looming besiegement and using the same argument that Russia put forth to justify the Russo-Ukraine conflict, namely NATO expansionism, paving the ground for military aggression. Russia may have not succeeded in “selling” war to its people which has led to many fleeing the nation. China is preparing for war, and as a nation invested in studying conflicts of other nations, since its forces lack combat experience, China seeks to rectify Russia’s mistakes and harden its people.
Kalpit A Mankikar (Strategic Studies-ORF)
19 May 2023
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