China’s neighbours have good reasons to be alarmed by recent suggestions made by a General of the People’s Liberation Army that Beijing should opt for “limited armed conflict” to settle the country’s maritime territorial disputes in the East and South China sea. That this comes after China established controversial air defence identification zones and no-fishing zones over these seas has possibly added to their worries.
One can discern a pattern in these hawkish military attitudes that seeks to capitalize on China’s growing domestic constituency for aggressive nationalism. India got a taste of it last summer when the PLA moved nearly 20 kms inside what India perceives to be her territory at Depsang bulge in Ladakh. Now China’s south-east Asian neighbours are experiencing this teacher-and-bully tactics with some Chinese official threatening war and some visiting Chinese ministers offering more aid and trade.
Liu Yazhou, now political commissar at the PLA’s National Defence University, said in a recent interview that such conflicts would be a good chance to test the country’s military prowess. “An army that fails to achieve victory is nothing,” Liu was quoted as telling the Guofang Cankao, or the Defence Reference Magazine. He advocated that the PLA could emerge as a modern military power by “seizing opportunities” for war. A growing number of hawkish generals, backed by a fiercely nationalist young officer corps, makes the PLA ever more ambitious in trying to flex its muscles — whether to corner an ever-greater share of the national budget or to go a step further by reversing the Maoist dictum of the party controlling the gun is what one would have to closely follow.
Some China-watchers like Huang Jin of the National University of Singapore compare the situation in the country today to the Japan of the 1930s with a hawkish military elite backed by a nationalist popular surge seeking wars to justify its raison d’être. For China’s new leadership, this is a very hot mix to control and one that would test its mettle to the hilt.
When Liu Yazhou recommended a “limited war” in the South China sea, other Chinese analysts were quick to point out the fallacies behind such arguments. Some even said that such “reckless talk of conflict would harm the nation’s long-term interests”. Xu Guangyu , a retired major-general, was quick to point out that Liu’s views may reflect views supported by some PLA leaders, but do not reflect official thinking. A Macau-based analyst, Antony Wong Dong, says that Liu might be trying to please President Xi Jinping who, he says, needs to show that the military supports his decision to announce the air defence zone over the disputed seas. But is Xi trying to play along with the military to ensure that he has their loyalty to be able to ultimately control them? The veteran China-watcher, David Shanbaugh, has even argued that China’s new leaders are fast losing control over their foreign policy because they do not really know how to handle the aggressive nationalism that spurs a hawkish military. That is a dangerous scenario for the world, if this is true.
Liu Yazhou’s essential argument is based on the old maxim that an army can only live up to its reputation by fighting wars, and it is only useful as an instrument of national policy if it is feared by potential rivals and enemies. He said that China has not engaged in mechanized warfare since its brief war with Vietnam in 1979, while the American army has fought several complex campaigns in recent decades, testing out everything from strategic concepts to equipment to troop capability. Under the leadership of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping , the PLA had fought the American army in Korea in the 1950s, a border conflict with India in 1962, a battle with the former Soviet Union over the sovereignty of Zhenbao or Damansky Island in 1969, and the war with Vietnam in 1979. Liu said in the interview that the PLA now had “a strategic opportunity” to boost its military capability to defend Chinese sovereignty in the East and South China seas, where China is involved in territorial disputes with Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines and other Asian countries.
The Beijing-based naval expert, Li Jie, rubbished Liu’s argument that China has peace and stability on borders where its army has won victories. He says that China has not fought any war with most of its neighbours but those borders have been peaceful. And on borders where the PLA has fought, says Li, it has taken sustained diplomacy to maintain peace. The Shanghai-based naval expert, Ni Lexiong, agreed with Li Jie. He dismissed Liu’s argument that the PLA needs actual battle experience to test itself. He said the the PLA’s wars with the former Soviet Union, Vietnam and India failed to bring real peace to China and it took years of political and diplomatic negotiations to ensure stability and peace. The fact that China still has outstanding territorial disputes with countries it has fought wars with takes the bottom off Liu’s argument. The former Taiwanese defence minister, Andrew Yang Nien-dzu, has an interesting explanation to offer. He says that Liu, as a top PLA commissar, is aiming to boost the army’s morale in order to ensure heightened battle preparations by undertaking more intense exercises and military reforms — important goals set by President Xi himself.
Khurshid’s Beijing visit was followed by the reciprocal visits of the two prime ministers, and several key agreements were signed, including the BDCA. Again, by supporting the Sheikh Hasina Wajed government in Bangladesh, Beijing may have sent a signal to India at a time when Indian and American diplomats were sabre-rattling in Dhaka and elsewhere, especially after the unseemly Devyani Khobragade affair. The message that India and China can work together on regional issues like Bangladesh may not be lost on Delhi. Which is why India has been cautious in not going too far with Japan on the territorial disputes despite welcoming Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, with open arms.
Beijing may have much more at stake in winning over India, but the dynamics within the PLA may work against a durable border peace. If the Chinese navy gets aggressive in the seas, commanders of the land army managing borders like those with India may not want to be left behind. Competitive hawkishness have spurred many armies on the path of war — history is replete with such examples. India will have to adopt a very careful balance in its own foreign policy to be able to maintain peace with China and not provoke it as India develops its military capability in the Himalaya to manage a more aggressive PLA and court the other Asian countries that China is not on the best of terms with. Rogue acts by the PLA cannot be ruled out, but war is too important a matter to be left to generals on either side of the Himalaya.