Xi Pledges to Modernize PLA, D.C.’s “New Benchmark”

Xi Pledges to Modernize PLA, D.C.’s “New Benchmark”

Chinese state media highlighted President Xi Jinping’s recent pre-Spring Festival trip to a military base in Sichuan over the weekend, where he greeted service members and stressed China’s commitment to modernizing the Party-led People’s Liberation Army. At Reuters, Ben Blanchard reports:

On a visit to a satellite launch site in southwestern China’s Sichuan province on Saturday, Xi told senior officers they should work with more commitment and be steadfast in building China’s strength in aerospace to create more “Chinese miracles”, state news agency Xinhua said late on Monday.

Xi stressed “military training under combat conditions to build the country’s military into a world-class one and improve the country’s strength in aerospace”, the report added.

“Noting that technology was a core combat capability, Xi called for intensified work to make breakthroughs in core and key technologies so that China could take the initiative in international competition,” the news agency said.

Xi also chatted by video conference with soldiers stationed at an island in the Paracels, in the disputed South China Sea, asking them how they were preparing to celebrate the new year, Xinhua said. [Source]

Under Xi’s leadership, the reform and modernization of the armed forces has been a top priority. Beijing recently announced a significant acceleration of plans towards that goal, shortening the deadline for a third stage of the modernization of the People’s Liberation Army from 2049 to 2035. Last week, state media announced that a newly developed stealth fighter jet was operational, but military sources later revealed a a flaw suggesting it may have been rushed into service. China last April launched its second aircraft carrier (their first domestically constructed carrier after commissioning the Liaoning, a former Soviet carrier, in 2012), and last year unveiled an advanced new warship. Last July, China began deploying troops to its first overseas military base in Djibouti, and long-running speculation that China is seeking to establish a base in Pakistan continues.

As China’s military modernizes and appears to be looking increasingly beyond its borders, a new report from the International Institute for Strategic Studies suggests that China is becoming a benchmark for Washington to judge its own military capabilities. At the BBC, Jonathan Marcus summarizes from the IISS report, noting the potential implications of China becoming a globalized military force:

Now, according to experts at the International Institute for Strategic Studies – the IISS – in London, it is China and no longer Russia, that increasingly provides the benchmark against which Washington judges the capability requirements for its own armed forces.

[…A]s a military player China has pretty well joined the Premier League. But this though is not the end of Beijing’s global military impact. It is also pursuing an ambitious arms export strategy. Often China is willing to sell advanced technologies that other countries either do not have, or are unwilling to sell to all but their closest allies.

The market for armed drones is a case in point. This is a rapidly spreading technology that raises huge questions about the boundary between peace and war. The US, which was one of the pioneers in this field, has refused to sell sophisticated armed drones to anyone except a limited number of its closest Nato allies like the United Kingdom. France, which already operates US-supplied Reaper drones, has plans to arm drones as well.

China has had no such constraints, displaying impressive unmanned aerial vehicles alongside the various munitions that they can carry at arms shows around the world. The IISS Military Balance says that China has sold its armed UAVs to a number of countries including Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Myanmar, among others. […] [Source]

The AFP reports that China has begun construction of the world’s largest test site for remote-controlled naval ships in Zhuhai, on the shores of the highly contested South China Sea:

Unmanned or “autonomous” ship technology, still in its infancy, would allow both civilian and military craft to be remotely controlled.

It could revolutionise the shipping industry by creating more cargo space on unmanned ships, which would also save huge sums in labour costs.

As the first of its kind to be built in Asia, Zhuhai’s “unmanned boat test site” is expected to become the world’s largest with an area of about 770 square kilometres.

[…] No commissioning date has been announced.

[…] “It symbolises its rise as a world maritime power and is meant to position it in the future market for unmanned ships, whether for civilian or military applications.” [Source]

Last month, the U.S. Department of Defense released the first national defense strategy of the Trump administration, which labeled China and Russia as “revisionist powers” posing a “central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security”—an accusation that quickly drew reprimand from Beijing. Reporting for The Diplomat shortly thereafter, Zi Yang outlined the ideological underpinnings of Xi’s military reforms:

As the lead architect of PLA reforms, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ideology matters enormously. Like most leader-centric ideologies in contemporary China, Xi’s thoughts on rebuilding the military are publicized in pithy slogans, which are now plastered across PLA barracks. While some might dismiss these catchphrases as nothing but platitudes, there are real-life implications behind these words.

“Obey the party’s commands, be able to win wars, and maintain good conduct” constitute the core of Xi’s expectations.

Unlike his predecessor, Xi maintains very close relations with the military, evident by his frequent appearances with PLA top brass as well as visits to military bases in all corners of China. In return, Xi demands absolute loyalty from PLA soldiers to the party and to himself. Obedience to Xi, the chairman of the Central Military Commission — the party’s top military decision-making body — is a means of reinforcing the unity of command, critical to any warfighting organization.

Following this line, we have witnessed an intensification of propaganda and indoctrination among Chinese troops. To critics, this seems like old-fashioned brainwashing. But to Chinese political warfare specialists, more indoctrination is their way of combatting perceived U.S. and Western ideological warfare. In the Chinese view, U.S. ideological warfare was one of the main causes behind the collapse of the Soviet Union. Due to Soviet state negligence, U.S. influence operations penetrated all levels of Soviet society. The spread of liberal ideology even captured the mind of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who repeatedly clashed with conservative generals — straining the once robust unity of command.

Obeying the party’s commands, from the Chinese standpoint, is therefore a critical facet in building a new PLA resistant to external influence operations. […] [Source]

Amid a multifaceted campaign to maintain ideological orthodoxy, Xi has reinvigorated an assault against “Western values.” Xi’s sweeping anti-corruption campaign has led to the fall of several high-ranking PLA leaders, and he last year issued a call for his restructured military to “serve the Party”—a call he has also issued to state media.


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