US and China Are Both Raising the Military Stakes in the South China Sea

Yves here. A point that caught my attention comes partway thought this piece, that the US is repositioning forces to the China theater. The wee problem with any aggression or even just displays is that the time to Do Something about China’s claims on the South China Sea was in 2014 when China started constructing its artificial islands.

By Paul Rogers, professor in the department of peace studiesat Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group. His latest book is ‘Irregular War: ISIS and the New Threat from the Margins‘ (IB Tauris, 2016), which follows ‘Why We’re Losing the War on Terror‘ (Polity, 2007), and ‘Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century‘ (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). He is on Twitter at: @ProfPRogers. Originally published at openDemocracy

In the run-up to November’s election, Donald Trump’s position looks increasingly fraught as his poll ratings slip. If he does become more desperate he may look for a foreign diversion, perhaps a useful little war in a far-off place with not too big a country. An earlier column pointed to North Korea or Iran as possible ‘hosts’, especially as each has its own need for a political diversion. There are also indications, however, of rising tensions with a somewhat more powerful state.

A confrontation with China, over the contested islands of the South China Sea would be a particularly helpful for the US Navy, which has been having more than its fair share of problems recently. First came two collisions in 2017 involving US destroyers and merchant ships in the west Pacific, which killed seventeen sailors and pointed to serious deficiencies in training. As Defense News reported: “What was not thoroughly answered by the reviews was how it was possible, on two of the world’s most advanced warships, that the watch teams on the bridge and the radar monitors in the combat information center aboard the destroyers didn’t manage to coordinate to avoid the collisions.”

More recently we had two of the navy’s nuclear-powered supercarriers being confined to port because of COVID-19 outbreaks. To rub salt in the wound the US Air Force, by pure coincidence of course, staged a series of intercontinental exerciseswith its strategic bomber force. All three bomber types – the B-1B, the B-2 and the B-52 – were used in demonstrations of global reach, the planes taking off from the continental US and heading to exercises in either western Europe or the west Pacific.

That was bad enough but last Sunday week saw a massive fire in the 40,000-ton amphibious warfare ship the USS Bonhomme Richard, moored in San Diego harbour. The cause of the fire is not known, but it took many days and both navy and civilian firefighters to put it out, leaving hundreds of millions of dollars of damage, so bad that the ship may well be scrapped rather than repaired. Eleven of its fourteen decks were damaged, some of them wrecked almost beyond recognition, and sections of the flight deck were left warped and bulging.

The Bonhomme Richard is commonly deployed with aircraft, formerly the AV-8B version of the UK’s Sea Harrier jump jet and now the new US F-35, and to all intents and purposes has the capability of a light aircraft carrier. Its likely loss is a further blow to the navy: this is where a show of strength against China really will come in handy, as long as it doesn’t get too hot.

As if on cue, the Pentagon’s rhetoric on presumed Chinese designs on South China Sea marine resources included a comment from the Secretary of the Navy, James Esper: “American aircraft carriers have been in the South China Sea in the Indo-Pacific since World War II and we’ll continue to be there, and we’re not going to be stopped by anybody.”

This followed a deployment of two aircraft carrier strike groups, headed by the carriers Ronald Reagan and Nimitz, to joint exercises in the region at the start of July. Since then, according to the US Naval Institute, the Ronald Reagan group has moved to the Philippine Seafor exercises with a Japanese destroyer and a substantial Australian task group led by the amphibious warfare ship HMAS Canberra. The Nimitz, meanwhile, has moved on to exercises with the Indian navy.

The whole process is part of a wider US positioning of military forces around Chinathat includes the recent deployment of four US Air Force B-1B Lancer strategic bombersfrom Dyess Air Force Base in Texas to Andersen AFB on Guam in the western Pacific. According to the commander of the USAF’s 7th Bomb Wing,Colonel Ed Sumangi, in a news release: “Our wing has conducted, and participated in, a variety of exercises over the last year to ensure we are primed for large-scale missions such as this one. We’re excited to be back in Guam and proud to continue to be part of the ready bomber force prepared to defend America and its allies against any threat.”

China, meanwhile, has rather upped the ante by announcing a series of ‘live fire’ military exercises reportedly involving the firing of 3,000 missiles, with the South China Morning Post reportingthat:

China’s air force held live-fire drills and sent more fighter jets to its base on disputed Woody Island in the South China Sea last week, as the US Navy steps up drills and freedom of navigation operations in the region.

The People’s Liberation Army Southern Theatre Command conducted the drills on Wednesday and Thursday last week, with more than 3,000 missiles fired at moving targets at sea, state-run China National Radio reported on Sunday. It did not say where in the South China Sea the exercises were held. Photos from the drills posted on state broadcaster CCTV’s website showed they involved JH-7 bombers and J-11B fighter jets.

None of this means that a conflict is imminent but in these circumstances and with parts of the South China Sea claimed variously by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan as well as China, the concern at times of high tension lies in the risk of unplanned escalation stemming from factors usefully summarised in the acronym AIM – ‘accidents, incidents and mavericks’. Perhaps the particular issue here lies not with direct risks in and around the South China Sea but back in Washington DC and the desperate need of the biggest maverick of them all, President Donald J. Trump, to get re-elected in November.

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  1. PlutoniumKun

    Historically, one condition for wars to break out is not that leaders have a desire for war, but that sufficient people in power are thinking ‘well, there is going to be a conflict at some stage, isn’t it better that it happens now rather than in 5 years time when X could well be far more powerful?’ I think there is a significant danger that we are at this stage in Asia, and Trump and the neocons are just one part of the equation.

    There has been quite a bit of buzz within China watching circles as to why China has been so aggressive with its neighbours recently, when its success over suppressing Covid could have given it a much better opportunity to push as a soft power alternative to the US. In an arc from India across to Japan to South Korea, lots of countries are looking nervously and wondering what is really going on in Beijing. Smaller countries are always making the calculation of whether its better to be friends with ‘the big bully across the globe’, or the ‘smaller bully on your doorstep’. This is a purely pragmatic calculation which has nothing to do with ideology and everything to do with balancing local and regional interests. Right now, numerous smaller countries for which the choice had been in the past been relatively simple, has gotten very complicated. The other article this morning her talked about how US voters ‘want Trump gone, but don’t want Biden’. Well, much the same applies to many countries in Asia – they want the US to butt out, but they don’t want the Chinese to replace the US as regional hegemon. When you have such uncertain and potentially unstable leaders such as Trump and Xi (who has been seen to be far more nationalistic and authoritarian than everyone thought at first) in charge, this calculation is not a comfortable one.

    So I think a key worry is that both within the military and political establishments of China and US you have elements who are thinking ‘hey, why not now? We can give them a bloody nose and put them in their box’, while the security establishments in countries such as India, Vietnam, South Korea and Japan, not to mention Taiwan would see a lot of virtue in hoping that the US could deliver a serious blow to China while allowing them to quietly build up their own capacity for a post-US hegemon world.

    Add to this of course a Trump in power desperate for a high profile distraction, a Dem establishment who will do their usual neocon cheerleading, and dangerous lunatics like Pompeo running around with razor blades, and you don’t necessarily have to think that it only requires ‘an accident’ for a hot war to start up somewhere in the South China Sea.

    1. Fritzi

      The Problem with this thinking is that the US is eventually going to go away, no matter what.

      The US is inlikely to actually win an outright war against China on China’s own home turf.

      Though the question is what would even constitute a win

      The only way to decisively win total war would be to sterilize a all of China with nuclear wrapons, murdering over a billion people, making the US leadership worse criminals than Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Leopold II of Belgium combine, even if by some unlikely miracle they avoided becoming incinerated in nuclear holocaust themselves.

      Other than that, even if the US manages to score a “win” by any technical measure, the war is at least as likely to weaken the US longterm as it is to strengthen them.

      Even if they “win” chances are high that it will be the last time the US is capable of mounting such an effort.

      While China will still be there, more pissed and vengeful than ever, quite possibly motivated to go from ww1 version of Germany to ww2 version of Germany.

      And it won’t forget who of it’s neighbours supported the Yanks.

      If China has a serious military setback, another national humiliation, you think whoever will replace Xi in that case will be nicer?

      If China’s neighbours think they have to worry about China now, let’s see how they like it I/when it goes all out revanchist Hitler on them.

      They might be better off in the long run if China decisively wins (which it may well manage to do, eell, enough to force the US to retreat at least), though there will be very bad consequences in that case as well.

      1. Synoia

        The US is inlikely to actually win an outright war against China on China’s own home turf.

        Has the US won any wars recently on anyone’s home turf?

        Make me believe that not winning (and ending) Wars is good for Military Careers, and defense contractors.

        1. Alex Cox

          How can you suggest this? Didn’t the US triumph in its glorious war against Grenada? And wasn’t that followed by the superlative victory over Panama?

          Of course, the Panama triumph was helped by the enormous US military bases there, enabling the US to invade the country from within – an advantage it doesn’t have in Venezuela, China or Iran.

        2. flora

          I normally enjoy a bit a schadenfreude at the Pentagon’s or the State Department’s expense but not here, not with this flash point potential.

      2. PlutoniumKun

        You are of course right, but that all assumes that key decision makers are looking longer term than their next potential election/promotion. It wouldn’t be the first time a war started with none of the aggressors having a realistic idea of what a victory would look like, at least not one that didn’t belong in a fantasy world.

        So far, it looks like Trump isn’t pushing things too far – in fact arguably he (or at least, someone in his administration) has been smarter and more subtle than the media gives him credit. But there are many more players in the region than the US and China, and all are more than a little upset at China essentially making land (and sea) grabs. If there is a conflict, both the US and China may end up as losers, but out of this others, such as Vietnam or Japan, may see themselves as long term winners, so they may be more than happy to encourage missteps.

    2. kiers

      It’s amazing how Xi (a strongman) came to power IN-SYNC with the wave of strong-men in many other countries that occupy mind space in the west. That is fascinating how the CCCP coordinated its international posture as it saw what was happening. And, like you mention, it is fascinating how China is playing current events PRO-CYCLICALLY, rather than opposing with “soft power etc”.

      There aren’t too many “checks and balances” in their system, and a few key arrests of opposition (who were well familiar to western intelligence agents to boot!) were enough for Xi to become Chinese Dictator for Life!

      1. ObjectiveFunction

        Meh, I am more in the camp of my old prof Ed Luttwak (yes, he’s old school neocon, so season to taste, but on strategy he’s one of the best). Condensed from his recent Twitter:

        1. China could do splendidly with its economy & Westernizing culture, but instead its simple-minded corporal of a leader is encircling C with enemies, ensuring its eventual defeat. The CCP’s legitimacy derives from economic growth, the result of hard work but also of wide access to Western markets and high tech. When post-Mao China emerged from three decades of self-destruction, the US did much to favor its economic rise with special privileges. Xi Jinping’s “Wolf” policies are causing their revocation one by one.

        2. China’s traditional view of the world is that other countries ought to be paying tribute to China’s centrality. China is the middle country…. Chinese leadership, in its autistic isolation, grossly overestimated the impact of the 2008 financial crisis on its global rivals (the final crisis of capitalism, as Party princelings duly learned in school), so it became far more aggressive in its foreign policy.

        3. In Europe, the China lobby praises the subtlety of Chinese strategy. Yet but for the Ming interval (1368-1644) China was ruled by much smaller numbers of steppe conquerors for a thousand years: Khitans, Jurchens, Mongols, Manchus, till 1912. The Russians, but not the Chinese, learned strategy from the experience. Good at everything else, but ethnocentrism blinds their rulers.

        He also points out that Xi’s China is making the same fatal mistakes as Wilhelmine Germany after the far more prudent Bismarck got the boot:
        a. throwing their weight around and butting heads with all their neighbors over economically marginal patches of ocean and mountains, and
        b. trying to compete with an established superpower on naval power.
        And that did not end well for anyone.

  2. The Rev Kev

    If some people are thinking that the USS Bonhomme Richard is going to come back into service, I have some news for them and it is all bad. That ship is a wreck and being 22 years old, is unlikely to be worth spending the money repairing. It may be that the intense heat stressed the hull too much as well-

    But as far as China is concerned, pushing the military right up against their borders and surrounding them with the new Quad Alliance and any other countries that are interested in signing themselves up to be missile sponges may not be wise. China was always going to rise and it was a matter of adjusting the international order to accommodate this happening but apparently, some countries are determined to protect the status quo. It’s too late for that and the time of sending gunboats up the Yangtze are long past. In fact, the last time that that was tried was with HMS Amethyst back in 1949 and that did not work out so well.

    I think that the problem is that diplomacy as an art has been downgraded far too much in the west and having party bundlers being awarded Ambassadorships is not going to hack it. With a very shallow bench of professional ambassadors, the go-to solution is to call out the military but that will not work here. China has developed their own military the past few decades and will not be cowed nor tolerate western ships using their coastal waters as a parade ground. Of course an approach like this leaves countries like Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea in the firing line but I do not think that the people pushing this military approach cared in the slightest about the people that live in these countries. So here is an example of what Beijing is dealing with and people will recognize the name John Yoo-

  3. Diego M

    No mention of nuclear weapons.

    NK could wipe out Silicon Valley in a matter of hours.

    Small war?

    My ***.

    1. Andrew Thomas

      The rulings of international courts mean nothing to the ruling clique in the US. Why they should mean anything to the ruling clique in China is beyond me.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        China cannot (or should not) ignore international law, for the simple reason that the Chinese economy is vastly more dependent on external trade than the US. Law cuts both ways.

        The US is in a historically almost unique situation whereby it can influence international law while more or less ignoring it. China will get a rude awakening if it thinks the same lack of rules applies to it.

        1. Alex Cox

          Who will give China this rude awakening? The EU, which like the US relies on China to keep its economy afloat?

          1. PlutoniumKun

            The point is that China is highly dependant on international trade for raw materials, food, and exports. It is far more dependant on the EU and the US than vice versa, this is a simple fact of trade balances and the distribution of raw materials.

            China is powerful, but not so powerful that it can afford to serially piss off all its neighbours. It has nowhere near the type of autarky that Russia or Iran has achieved to allow them to insulate themselves from US wrath, or anyone elses wrath for that matter. They bound themselves to international trade in order to achieve high growth. They can’t just pretend this does not matter.

            1. Fritzi

              I seem to remember that China for years kinda deliberately styled itself as the one respecting international law, respecting treated, and treating it’s partners more like equals than the US and the european countries (wherever the europeans thought they could get away with holding one to their old, colonialist arrogance, so mostly in Africa) did.

              There was surely always a lot of hypocracy to this, but it was part of the more soft power oriented approach that brought them plenty of sympathy, and caused all kinds of countries from Africa to Latin America to see them as a preferable alternative.

              There immediate neighbours sure always had more reason to be wary, but globally speaking not all of the good will was undeserved.

              Unfortunately the current leadership seems to squander it.

              Though of course the US worked hard to make the peaceful rise that the Chinese Goverment spoke of for decades (and that I think they all in all DID want) impossible.

              1. PlutoniumKun

                Actually China has never been better or worse than most other large countries at respecting international law or agreements as the Tibetans, Vietnamese and Indians can attest.

            2. Jeremy Grimm

              You make an interesting point. How might things change if North Korea made sufficient nice with South Korea to allow an extension of the Trans-Siberian Railroad into South Korea?

              1. PlutoniumKun

                There are ongoing proposals to resurrect the railway, which would probably be a very significant boon to the region, certainly to the Russians. But I don’t think it has wider implications – the Chinese certainly don’t trust the North Koreans, but its in their interest not to have a powerful unified Korea on their doorstep.

                I think the Chinese find the North Koreans as mystifying and infuriating as everyone else. I suspect they’d not be unhappy at anything that helped develop North Korea, as they fear the country collapsing and so having to deal with a few million starving refugees on their doorstep. But they’d certainly step in rapidly if it looked like it could lead to reunion. But even the South Koreans aren’t so keen on that as they know how much it would cost them.

                1. Jeremy Grimm

                  I am not suggesting a re-unification of North with South Korea has any likelihood. The South Koreans are very much aware of costs associated with a re-union with North Korea but I do not believe that blinders them to the value of a rail linkage with Siberia. I would be very surprised if North Koreans expressed any desire to rejoin with South Korea. The joining between the Germanies does not provide a pretty example for what the Koreas might expect. But the potential flows of raw materials from Siberia into South Korea … and by other means into North Korea should be most tantalizing to both. The paths between South Korea and China are not truly that mysterious or opaque.

  4. Andrew Thomas

    What would be the reaction to this headline?
    ‘The US and China both raising stakes in the Gulf of Mexico’. And everywhere in the essay you read the US where it says China, and vice versa, and the Gulf of Mexico where it says South China Sea. The problem is US pretention to world hegemony. You remove that, and the islands China has built have no reason to exist; they area reaction of Chinese military strategists to the country’s deliberate encirclement by the US military. Given that the US will never give up said pretention- this chapter was begun with the ‘pivot to Asia’ under Obama- I suppose our only option is to live with this madness until we run out of luck.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      There are far more than the US and China involved. Those islands and the surrounding seas were not claimed by the US. They were (and are) claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea.

      1. Fritzi

        Yeah, but the US sees many of these states as it’s defacto vassals, even if they themselves see things quite differently and some of them May have great power ambitions of their own or dream of the restoration of empires past themselves, as some in Japan’s political class certainly do.

        This allows the US to live out their naked imperial aggression while hiding behind supposedly selflessly “protecting” their allies.

        If the US gave up it’s desire for global hegemony there could and unfortunately almost certainly would be all kinds of local and regional horrible and tragic nastiness.

        But the likelihood of it escalating into a world war, possibly into nuclear armageddon, would be much smaller, wouldn’t it?

        1. vlade

          Actually, it very much depends. One reason why the Russia was ok to invade Crimea was because Ukraine gave up its nukes (in assurances for safe. Let’s ignore now that at worst non-aligned Ukraine is a critical Russian security requirement etc.. ). You don’t invade a country that has a twitchy military with nukes (at least not easily).

          So if US withdrew from Asia, at the _very least_ Japan would immediately develop nukes (it has all the know how and technologies, so it could do it pretty quickly) as otherwise it would consider itself a sitting duck for China. Same for say Taiwan IMO. Which all would be a massive escalations, as you’d have many more players who could start a nuclear exchange.

          As PK says, is it better to have a large known bully or smaller ones? And the answer is “it depends”, so not really a good one.

          1. Charles 2

            Japan and Taiwan don’t really need nukes to counter China. Mastering missiles is enough to target big dams in China.
            Taiwan is big on missiles see here. Japan has a significant space industry too.
            It is China’s official policy to answer to such a destruction with nukes, so it would be like a last resort only if Taiwan or Japan were invaded.
            The irony is that nuking Taiwan, from a continental Chinese standpoint, is nuking one’s own territory…

        2. PlutoniumKun

          They don’t see themselves as vassals, because they are not. They are small to medium sized powers that do what small countries do – cut the deals with whoever it is will give them the best deal to preserve their independence. Certainly the Vietnamese are nobodies fools to push around as the the US, France and China have found out in the past.

          Anyway, if the US left the region tomorrow, Japan, and most probably South Korea and Taiwan would go nuclear, all three countries almost certainty have the capacity to do so in a matter of months, so there is no guarantee one way or another what would happen.

          1. vlade

            Yes, I forgot about SK. TBH, I suspect Vietnam would go nuclear too, just a bit later.

            Vietnam is no friend of China (where some see it still as a wayward province that fell to barbarians), and would loathe to have a China as the one and only hegemon in SE Asia.

            1. PlutoniumKun

              The South Koreans have already launched a long range submarine with ballistic missile capability. Amazingly, with all the focus on North Koreas nukes, nobody seems to have asked what possible use SK would have for such a weapon. As all of North Korea is already within range of hundreds of land based ballistic missiles from the south, you can only wonder at the target (and no doubt China and Japan have been wondering).

              And just today, SK got permission to build even bigger solid rocket launchers.

              Taiwan had actually developed a small nuclear weapon in the 1970’s, but the US squashed it. So they certainly have both the capacity to make one, and they have the launchers. Japan could certainly make one within a matter of months. I’d suspect the Vietnamese have been thinking about it, but they don’t have a significant domestic nuclear industry so they’d have to start from scratch.

      2. RBHoughton

        Those claims were solicited by western academics and diplomats to make the US case. A great beanfeast was geld at HKU about twenty years ago to line it al up. The only country that actually has a historical claim is Cochun China, the Mekong river valley bit of today’s Vietnam which, as a dependent on China formerly, was able to share in the seafood harvests each summer. But let’s make history up guys. That’s more fun/

  5. Tom Stone

    Not mentioned yet is the US dependence upon Carrier groups to project power.
    The death knell for carrier groups sounded in the 1982 Falklands war, aircraft Carriers are nothing but floating sarcophagi and platforms for Admiral’s flags at this point.
    Does anyone seriously think that a “Super Carrier” (If it worked, it doesn’t) like the USS Ronald Reagan would last a day in a modern theater of war?
    At least that ship has an appropriate name…

    1. Charles 2

      In a South China Sea / Taiwan Invasion scenario, the main role of the US Navy Surface vessels will be to shut off any supplies to China far away from China’s missile reach. For successful convoying, China would need to be able to achieve both aerial and submarine supremacy. I wouldn’t want to be the Chinese Captain in charge of an Iranian oil convoy In the Indian Ocean !
      US Military assistance closer to China (in the SE Asia, or Japan) would take the form of aerial and submarine support to take down Chinese planes and sink Chinese ships, especially the ones that cross the Taiwan Straits.
      With no possible resupply from the mainland, Continental Chinese troops in Taiwan would slowly loose to Taiwanese ground troops through light tech guerilla warfare with US air support and US air supply chain.
      I am not saying that the Chinese can’t win the hegemonic contest, but it takes much more than the capacity of sinking US Navy ships 1500 miles from China’s coastline : they essentially have to gain hegemony by air in their neighbourhood, then by sea to secure their advanced air-bases around the globe, while expecting that other nations will just sit and watch ! The coalition that China needs to defeat is quite broad, as the list of participants to RIMPAC exercises show.

  6. Jeremy Grimm

    I can’t help recalling a Matt Stoller post to offer some insight to the likely outcome of a US-China conflict in the South China Sea:
    “National Champs or National Chumps: US Big Business vs China”
    “China makes a host of key inputs for DoD missiles, satellites, and other defense manufacturing programs. Our ability to fight a war with China in some ways hinges on whether Chinese companies are willing to keep selling us ammunition.”

    But “how did we get get here?” to paraphrase and echo the Talking Heads:
    “How Bill Clinton and American Financiers Armed China”
    I hear echoes of a similar song from the 1930s described in one of the many books of Kevin Phillips — “American Dynasty”?

    I suppose I might add that after working as a low level contract engineer in a few DoD organizations, the Chinese penetrations into US military and Government networking and computer hardware would give me pause if I were posted to a front line facing Chinese forces. Intel’s current moves to outsource chip production to Taiwan are not at all comforting.

    I have trust the Chinese are not so crazy as to push toward a nuclear confrontation. I have absolutely NO such confidence in what the psychopaths at the top of US military and Government hierarchies might do. I recall reading that Dick Nixon considered that ‘uncertainty’ a ‘plus’ for the US ‘negotiating’ position [but no root for searching the source comes to mind]. [Russia! Russia! Russia! has not blotted the note on my calendar for a moment of deep thanks to Vasili Arkhipov.]

    1. vlade

      I believe it’s naive to think China (or, for the matter any country) has fewer psychopaths and crazies in their military and government on per-capita basis. It may appear so to people who do not know the country, but reality is pretty much always “yours are as bad as ours”, but you just don’t know.

      For example, its likely you may have a good or even excellent knowledge of the top Dems/Republicans, but I very much doubt you have as good knowledge of the Chinese poliburo and its various factions, never mind top military.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        As you say, not a lot is known about who makes up senior levels in the Chinese military, but one thing is known is that the CCP generally ensures that nobody too talented or too ambitious is allowed rise in the ranks. The greatest threat to the CCP (as with most civilian autocratic governments) is a military that decides that it could do a better job of running the country. So the primary qualification to be a general is to be absolutely 100% faithful to the Party, and not be too obviously greedy, smart, or ambitious. That is not the ingredients for a top class military (as Stalin found out nearly to his cost in WWII). It’s a long time since their last major test – probably the 1979 invasion of Vietnam. That didn’t go well for them.

        1. ObjectiveFunction

          Correct. This lay at the core of Xi’s rise to power.

          [In the 1980s] military companies established joint ventures with many of the largest international firms; making full use of their intellectual property. This dominant role of the PLA corporations grew after Tiananmen Square, as the Communist Party was in some disarray.

          By 1998 the Party tried to reassert itself in control. There was an effort by the Chinese Government to try and rein in some of these companies but to no avail. More than a year after the Chinese military was ordered to disband its octopus-like business empire (1999) and return to the barracks, its influence over the nation’s economy continued.

          With the rise to power of Xi Jinping in 2012 the Party began to reassert control of the military and its companies. In addition to his role as Chairman of the Communist Party Xi Jinping took over the leadership of the Central Military Council (‘CMC’) the Party’s control organisation in charge of the military.

          Unlike his predecessors in the office Xi has had a prolonged military experience and is a “princeling” of the military establishment.
          He used his position to dramatically reduce the number of soldiers and he reorganised the military structures. Most importantly, Xi embarked upon a strict anti-corruption campaign. President Xi Jinping concentrated on the “rule of law” within China, removing from the leadership of the Party many of Xi’s enemies; both on the Left (Bo Xilai and the “New Left” in China); and the Right Jiang Zeminists.

          Many of the leaders of the PLA military corporations had to choose between the companies and their ranks in the Army. The withdrawal of the PLA from many of its business ventures and its reorganisation into a more solidly military configuration has increased its efficiency.

          I also agree that the effectiveness of the Chinese officer corps at warfighting (as opposed to the technocratic / MIC component) is very much untested. ‘Good nails are not used to make iron, nor good men to make soldiers’ is an ancient proverb. The storied veterans of the 8th Route Army are now largely in the grave, and talented Chinese have many other career choices. Defensively formidable, but far far from an imperial instrument.

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