Politics and war in China

May 3, 2013

The May issue of Foreign Policy features a long article on the growing military capabilities and increasing belligerence of China and the linkage of both to internal Chinese politics, especially to new President Xi Jinping, who has built his power base around his nation’s armed forces.   From the article:

Captain James Fanell (lead intel officer of the US Pacific Fleet), in comments that went largely unnoticed outside the small circle of China military specialists, spelled out in rare detail the reasons the United States is shifting 60 percent of its naval assets — including its most advanced capabilities — to the Pacific. He was blunt: The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy is focused on war, and it is expanding into the “blue waters” explicitly to counter the U.S. Pacific Fleet. “I can tell you, as the fleet intelligence officer, the PLA Navy is going to sea to learn how to do naval warfare,” he said. “My assessment is the PLA Navy has become a very capable fighting force.”

Some were shocked to hear the extent and intensity of China’s carefully orchestrated maritime provocations, especially coming from an officer whose job may make him more of an expert on Beijing’s naval maneuverings than anyone outside China. Others wondered whether the Pacific Fleet was simply playing the Washington game, perhaps lobbying for a greater share of the U.S. military budget or wider authority to act by magnifying the threat.

But it may well be that the most contestable of Fanell’s assertions were about the Chinese military’s capabilities, not its provocations. For the question on many minds, both in Washington and Beijing, is this: Can China actually fight? And the person most anxious to find an answer happens to be the man who just became China’s fifth leader since Mao: Xi Jinping.

It is widely stated in the popular press China plays geopolitics as a “long game,” and thus that any direct confrontation would only occur in the distant future.  But, how long is long?  China, for centuries – millennia even – site the world’s leading civilization – has from their perspective suffered centuries of humiliation at the hands of Western powers and some certainly feel it is now time for them to reclaim their rightful position.  How many in positions of leadership think this is unclear, but I happen to believe that China has already peaked as an economic power and their moment will pass before their military is able to truly challenge US dominance.  That actually makes this a dangerous historical period, if influential thinkers in China also perceive their window of opportunity to be closing



  1. The idea that China may be peaking is an attractive idea created by a Western world in decline. I have seen no convincing arguments to support this. It may even be a dangerous one, as the flip side of the argument presented here shows; if the US escalates the conflict in Asia, believing it is just a question of holding out a bit longer before China starts its decline.

    • China made a very difficult choice in her one-child policy, but the resulting demographic tables now are working relentlessly against China – her work force is aging faster than that of the US, and will overtake the US in average age before she overtakes us in GDP. Her politico-military leaders know this and see their window for parity with the US closing, much as Japan’s did a generation ago. It’s not a question of “holding out;” if China manages its peak and decline as Japan did, then the US has no issue. If not, it’s a question of applying the right amount of pressure at the right time in the right places (e.g., the maritime commons that China relies upon but cannot dominate).

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