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February 2021

China Trends #8
Military Options for Xi’s Strategic Ambitions

Mathieu Duchâtel
Resident Senior Fellow and Director of International Studies

Dr. Mathieu Duchâtel is a Resident Senior Fellow for Asia at Institut Montaigne, and Director of International Studies.

Jyh-Shyang Sheu
Assistant Research Fellow at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research

Jyh-Shyang Sheu is currently an Assistant Research Fellow at the "Division of Chinese Politics, Military and Warfighting Concepts", Institute for National Defense and Security Research. He obtained his PhD from the Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen, Germany. Dr. Sheu’s research interests encompass global advanced weapon systems and its implication for strategy; asymmetric warfare; developments of global warfighting concept, and Chinese Military.

Viviana Zhu
China analyst, former Research Fellow, Institut Montaigne’s Asia Program

Viviana Zhu was Research Fellow at Institut Montaigne until January 2023. Prior to that, as Coordinator of the Asia Program of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), Viviana  was responsible for event coordination, reporting, and research support.

Introduction by Mathieu Duchâtel, Director of Institut Montaigne’s Asia Program 

"Xi Jinping’s thought on a powerful military" (习近平强军思想) is an entry of its own on Baidu encyclopedia, and a category in the Chinese press and in specialized publications. Xi’s thought is often described as a "series of guiding principles for building a new type of people’s army that dares to fight wars and that wins wars" (建设“敢打仗,打胜仗”的新型人民军队).

Indeed, readiness for war has become a leitmotiv in Xi Jinping’s speeches to the military. Last October, visiting a Marines unit in Chaozhou in Fujian province, Xi Jinping called the Marines corps to "put all their mind and energy in preparing for war" (要把全部心思和精力放在备战打仗上). The slogan "dares to fight wars and win wars" can be seen painted or engraved on many walls in military sites in China. In the first 2021 order issued by the Central Military Commission in early January, and signed by Xi Jinping, the People’s Liberation Army is asked to "resolutely implement the policy directions of the Party Centre and the Central Military Commission, and carry forward a fighting spirit without fearing hardship or fearing death" (坚决贯彻党中央和中央军委决策指示,发扬一不怕苦、二不怕死战斗精神).

Greater capabilities provide the Chinese leadership with options to secure favorable outcomes during crises, in line with Chinese national interests.

These are more than just words. The Chinese Communist Party is investing enormous amounts of budget and political capital to build a "world-class military" by 2050 - a goal outlined by Xi Jinping in his work report to the 19th Party Congress in 2017, and a testimony of its ambitions for China on the world stage.

Military power is about daring to fight wars and win on the ground, but it is first and foremost a tool of foreign policy.

Greater capabilities provide the Chinese leadership with options to secure favorable outcomes during crises, in line with Chinese national interests. This raises one question for the short term future. How likely is China to use more coercion in territorial disputes?  China’s pattern of behavior under Xi Jinping in the South and East China Seas, in the Taiwan Strait and at the border with India provides ample evidence that coercion, fait accompli and the display of power to alter the status quo are an entire part of China’s regional playbook.

This issue of China Trends sheds light on the links between military power and Chinese behavior in its region, with the spotlight on the Taiwan Strait, the border clashes with India in the Himalayas, and the status of defense cooperation with Russia. 

Amphibious Capacities: The Taiwan Strait Scenarios

Sheu Jyh-hsiang, Assistant Research Fellow at Taiwan’s Institute for National Defense and Security Research, takes an in-depth look at China’s amphibious capabilities by analyzing the ongoing change of scale of the Marine Corps of the PLA Navy - from two to eight brigades. He argues that the geography and urban density of Taiwan Island are making amphibious landing an extremely risky endeavor. Hence, a focus on helicopter airborne assault is to be expected in the development of the Chinese Marine Corps. The build-up of the Chinese Marines is still a work in progress, and it is likely to take a few more years. This will also provide the Chinese leadership with new options to protect Chinese overseas interests, in regions other than East Asia.

The Border Clashes With India : In the Shadow of the US

Mathieu Duchâtel, Director of the Asia Program at Institut Montaigne, dives into the Chinese understanding of the border clashes that erupted last Spring in the Ladakh area. The articles translated display strong similarities - especially in the aspects of the conflict they do not cover. The sources clearly describe the clashes with India as a "contest of will power", and resolutely adopt a grand strategic perspective. This is about the balance of power, and China has to demonstrate its resolve and its capacities to India and the United States. Despite nuances among Chinese analysts, the general impression is that China can afford serious and long-term damage on its relations with India.

The Russian Connection: Strategy Over Frictions

Viviana Zhu, Policy Officer at Institut Montaigne’s Asia Program, takes a look at Chinese discussions on the China-Russia military cooperation. Observers across the world wonder if China-Russia defense cooperation can withstand the test of China becoming a more serious competitor for Russia on export markets. If one adds to this equation the Russian commitment to Indian defense modernization, the question that arises is whether the China-Russia military partnership could lose steam. The response of Chinese experts is categorically negative - the strategic driver is so strong that potential frictions in the area of technology transfers and the elements of competition in China-Russia military balance will not derail the partnership.

Pictures Copyrights:
Amphibious capacities: the Taiwan Strait scenarios: © Mark Schiefelbein / POOL / AFP
The border clashes with India: in the shadow of the US © Mohd Arhaan ARCHER / AFP
The Russian Connection: Strategy Over Frictions © FLORENCE LO / AFP

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