Takeouts from the 19th National Congress show China’s readiness to develop its military and defend its interests oversea.

By Adrien Morin

The 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) took place in Beijing between October 18th and 24th. This congress, held every five years, is the most important political event for China, as it addresses the country’s main political guidelines, China’s priorities in the upcoming years as well as leadership changes within the CPC. Without a surprise, Xi Jinping was reaffirmed in his role as the Middle Kingdom’s leader for another five years. Xi’s name, along with his personal doctrine and political thoughts, was also added to the PRC’s Constitution, joining the ranks of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. This development and Xi Jinping’s increased grip over the country’s political institutions, pushed many observers to call him “China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.”

Xi Jinping’s doctrine and its repercussions on China’s security policy

Xi’s doctrine is often referred to as “The Four Comprehensives.” This doctrine makes little, if any, references to China’s security policy, but it does not mean that the question is not central to the Chairman. Following the National Congress, the CPC Central Committee report gave a prominent place to national security. According to the report, China “must stay committed to the Chinese path of building strong armed forces, fully implement Xi Jinping’s thinking on strengthening the military, adapt military strategy to new conditions.” In addition, the country must “build a powerful and modernized army, navy, air force (…) develop strong and efficient joint operations commanding institutions for theater commands, and create a modern combat system with distinctive Chinese characteristics.”

In short, the military will be a key actor of China’s development in the upcoming years, and will be given more resources to fill the gap with the world’s most powerful armed forces, starting with that of the US. The CPC also set the deadline for 2050 for China to achieve a “world-class military.” More importantly, Xi Jinping stressed during the National Congress the importance of a military “being able to fight a war and win a war.” In addition, Charlotte Gao highlights that the Chinese President has repeatedly emphasized “the Chinese dream of a strong military” since taking office five years ago (“The Chinese Dream” – 中国梦 or zhongguo meng – is a concept introduced and largely advertised by Xi’s administration since 2013).

What will it change?

We can only speculate on what these political announcements will mean in terms of concrete security policies for China. The US, for instance, have raised concerns about the expansion of the Chinese Navy. Indeed, reports have highlighted that the reform of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is giving special importance to Chinese naval capabilities. Xu Guangyu, a senior adviser to the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, stressed that, given China’s international status, the PLA must develop to be capable of “destroying hostile forces thousands of kilometers away” and “protecting international public security interests, such as counter-terrorism, peacekeeping and disaster relief.” This is as drastic change for a country that traditionally relied on “ground battle and homeland defense.”

The questions are who are China’s enemies (if any) and what could be the other goals of the Chinese “world-class military” if not only for securing the motherland? Many analysts have described China as an assertive power, calling out Beijing’s “active defense” policy in the South China Sea, especially since Xi assumed office in 2012. The anxiety is rising even further now that China established its first oversea military base in Djibouti.

First, we need to differentiate between what China considers its own territory or “zone of influence” and the rest of the world. Xi Jinping brought the debate around the “nine-dash line” to the frontline of East Asian politics, claiming Beijing’s right over most the South China Sea. The fact that China labels issues related to the South China Sea as “domestic politics” is of course questionable, but it is not sufficient to affirm that Beijing is pursuing a worldwide expansionist military strategy.

Second, in parallel to its rise to superpower status, China developed strong economic ties around the world. Securing these economic assets is becoming increasingly important for Beijing, especially with the growing Chinese investments in Africa and along the “One Belt One Road” project through Central Asia.

Even if China started to participate in UN peacekeeping missions, in counter-piracy operations near Somalia, and is considering stepping up its counterterrorism capabilities abroad following the August 2016 Bishkek terrorist attack, it is yet to be the protagonist of an oversea military conflict.

“With great power comes great responsibilities.” Many of the western powers have long integrated this maxim and spread their military all over the globe to protect their interests. Why should we have different expectations for China?

Cover Picture: China’s Liaoning navigating the South China Sea, 2017, © AFP / Wikimedia Commons