The Weakness Behind China’s Strong Façade

Published 5 months ago

Xi’s Reach Exceeds His Military’s Grasp

Foreign Affairs. Bonny Lin and Joel Wuthnow. 10 November, 2022

Chinese soldiers in Beijing, March 2021 - Carlos Garcia Rawlins / Reuters

In late October, Chinese leader Xi Jinping kicked off the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th Party Congress—a twice-a-decade, agenda-setting conclave of the party’s key leaders—with a report that touted China’s achievements and laid out a vision for the years ahead. In a move that was widely expected, Xi extended his own rule. But he surprised even the closest China watchers by unveiling a roster of leaders in which his confidants now occupy all the top positions within the party and state apparatus. Using direct and forceful language, Xi consolidated his hold on power and projected a strong and ambitious China to the world.

But the façade of a confident and robust Xi masked deep anxiety. Xi sees China hemmed in on all sides and facing intensifying security threats. This anxiety is driven by Beijing’s perception of a hostile Washington, its problematic relations with its neighbors, and the fact that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army still has a long way to go to become a force capable of fighting and winning local wars—never mind larger conflicts. Such a bleak outlook motivated Xi’s selection of new military leaders, underscored the urgency with which he has pressed the PLA to modernize, and resulted in a daunting list of tasks that the PLA must meet in the years ahead. Indeed, Xi’s insistence on Chinese military strength at the party congress was in truth an admission of weakness: China cannot yet defeat its rivals, and Beijing knows it.


The report that Xi presented at the party congress depicted a China under threat. Gone is the assessment from the last party congress, in 2017, that the country enjoys a favorable external environment for development. Instead, it says, “Risks and challenges are concurrent and uncertainties and unforeseen factors are rising.” Beijing now needs to prepare for worst-case scenarios and guard against a range of potential dangers, including unforeseen but drastic “black swan” events (such as the COVID-19 pandemic) and more plausible “gray rhino” events for which China is insufficiently prepared (such as Taiwan formally declaring its independence). At the same time, Beijing needs to counter “external attempts to blackmail, contain, blockade, and exert maximum pressure on China.” Although the report does not name it explicitly, the United States is the elephant in the room and one of the main drivers of China’s security concerns. The Chinese government sees numerous threats emanating from the United States, including the possibility of interference in what China understands as its domestic affairs (particularly relating to Taiwan); U.S. support for countries in China’s backyard; the growing U.S. military presence in the broader Indo-Pacific region; active U.S. coalition building—as in its security partnership with Australia, India, and Japan, known as the Quad, and its partnership with Australia and the United Kingdom, known as AUKUS—to contain China’s rise; and U.S. efforts to delay, if not undermine, Chinese advances in science and technology, such as through sanctions on the telecommunications company Huawei.

Beijing also recognizes that it has tensions with some of its neighbors while other neighboring countries are dealing with significant external or internal challenges that could spill over and threaten China’s security. Afghanistan, Myanmar, North Korea, Pakistan, and Russia are all largely on good terms with China but have internal security challenges and troubled relations with the United States or with key U.S. allies or partners. China remains locked in unresolved territorial disputes with India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam and continues to claim sovereignty over a democratic Taiwan that does not want anything to do with the mainland. Despite its seemingly implacable hold over Chinese society, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) also remains obsessed with possible challenges to its political control, fearing that unforeseen domestic turmoil looms around the corner.


In a time of uncertainty and insecurity, Xi needs the PLA to be better prepared and stronger. In the recent party congress report, he tasked the PLA with achieving the same three-stage military modernization plan (with a raft of targets set for 2027, 2035, and 2049) that has been in place since 2020, the nearest milestone of which is the Chinese military’s centennial anniversary, in 2027. Chinese sources are vague on what precisely the PLA needs to do by then beyond the broad guidance that it should pursue breakthrough technologies, update its doctrine, and use its resources more efficiently. Some U.S. officials believe that Xi also expects the PLA to be ready for a large-scale operation against Taiwan in five years. That might be true, but the report to the party congress offers no evidence that Xi hopes to be able to strike Taiwan any sooner. If anything, the report focused on the longer term, with goals for the PLA to become “fully modern”—or capable of fully waging joint operations with the most advanced technology across all domains of conflict—by 2035, and “world-class,” that is, on par with the United States, by the centennial of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, in 2049.

These goals reflect Xi’s conviction that his vision of “national rejuvenation” by the middle of this century cannot be achieved without a first-rate military. For him, the PLA bears the responsibility to “shape [China’s] security posture, deter and manage crises and conflicts, and win local wars.” The 20th Party Congress report included several key areas of emphasis for the military in line with these goals. Xi called for enhancing the PLA’s ability to deploy “on a regular basis and in diversified ways” and to be “both steadfast and flexible.” This language suggests that Beijing will be more willing to use its armed forces for political purposes. China’s unprecedented military exercise near Taiwan in August (after U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited the island) is an example of China’s inclination to flex its military muscles as proof of its resolve—and its displeasure. China may take similar actions in the various flash points along its disputed borders with its neighbors, seeking to advance its agenda without triggering a full-blown conflict.

Staging more PLA operations also helps address China’s lack of combat experience. Beijing has not, after all, fought a war since 1979 and has no experience with modern joint operations of the sort the U.S. military pursued during the Gulf War. Real-world tensions, like those that flared with Taiwan in August, provide the PLA opportunities to hone its skills, helping the Chinese army get to know the terrain of a possible future war. China has also run its soldiers through more rigorous and even “combat realistic” training so as to counter what it describes as a “peace disease” and prevent the army from atrophying in the long years it has not been called on to wage war.

The report to the party congress also calls for “strategic deterrence” of China’s rivals. Rather than fighting the United States head on, Xi would prefer to deter or limit U.S. intervention by convincing U.S. officials that the military costs of any intervention against China would be unacceptable. Beijing is closely watching how Russia, through nuclear saber rattling, has managed to hold off any conventional U.S. and NATO military involvement in Ukraine. In the report, Xi refers to a desire to build a stronger “strategic deterrent force system,” composed of nuclear weapons and nonnuclear systems such as cyberweapons and missiles that can strike targets in space. Some of this agenda has already been completed with the recent expansion of China’s nuclear forces, and the PLA will now work assiduously to build China’s overall deterrence capability.

Xi clearly expects the PLA to be able to fight and win wars if called upon. He promised to “intensify troop training and enhance combat preparedness across the board.” Beijing is also now placing more emphasis on developing cutting-edge technologies, including advanced unmanned drone systems, big data analysis to improve the speed and accuracy of decision-making on the battlefield, and hypersonic missiles that may be able to evade enemy defenses. These systems, the report confirms, should help rapidly increase the PLA’s combat effectiveness.


But these are daunting tasks for the PLA. The depth of urgency conveyed in Xi’s report is a measure of how far the PLA is from achieving the goals it set for 2027. To ensure that the PLA redoubles its efforts, Xi has appointed a new military leadership.

Much like promotions that occurred during the party congress on the civilian side, positions in the Central Military Commission—the seven-person body, headed by Xi himself, that directs the PLA—were doled out to Xi’s loyalists. But Xi also clearly prized experience in dealing with major threats and crises, partially explaining why Zhang Youxia, one of the few remaining PLA generals who was involved in the 1979 Sino-Vietnam war, retained his position on the commission and was even promoted despite being well over the retirement age.

A surprise personnel choice was the elevation of He Weidong to the role of vice chairman of the Central Military Commission. He previously led the Eastern Theater Command opposite Taiwan and served as the ground force commander in the Western Theater Command, which is responsible for the disputed Sino-Indian border. Xi gave him a rare double promotion to become the second vice chairman. Given his expertise in facing Taiwan and his recent experience leading a modern joint command, he will likely be charged with making sure that the PLA meets its 2027 milestones. Two of the other members of the seven-person commission are also notably former PLA equipment czars who have worked for years to make the Chinese military into a “world class” force.

These military appointments do not augur imminent war. It would be a gross misreading and simplification of Beijing’s external security challenges to view China’s new military leadership as a war council that will advise Xi on invading or blockading Taiwan sometime in the next five years. Xi has neither set a hard timeline for unification with Taiwan nor initiated plans to use significant military force against the island. Xi knows that simply preparing for a war over Taiwan is insufficient. Indeed, the two vice chairmen of the Central Military Commission have leadership and operational experience in all five Chinese military theater commands, spending years dealing with India, North Korea, and Vietnam, in addition to Japan and Taiwan.

PLA strategists have long been concerned about the potential for “chain reaction warfare,” or the possibility that conflict in one theater could trigger fighting with other countries that seek to press their territorial claims while Beijing is preoccupied elsewhere. Planning for a war over Taiwan likely requires the PLA to prepare for other contingencies, including possible Indian opportunism to reclaim territory along the contested border, and to clamp down on any domestic turmoil if the public grows disenchanted. But the Chinese military is just not ready for that yet. Beijing does not trust its ability to successfully use large-scale force against Taiwan and likely has even less confidence that it can simultaneously manage both a war with Taiwan and any subsequent chain reaction conflicts.


The PLA must also contend with other broad challenges. Personnel-wise, the new Central Military Commission will need to get up to speed. With Zhang Youxia in his 70s, He Weidong having no prior experience on the Central Military Commission, and incoming Joint Staff Department Chief Liu Zhenli having held no previous joint position, the top brass will face a steep learning curve if the PLA wants to engage in any large joint military operation on China’s periphery. Li Shangfu, the likely new minister of national defense, still remains under U.S. sanctions for his role in the purchase of Russian jets and missiles when he headed the PLA Equipment Development Department. It remains to be seen how China will navigate military-to-military ties with the United States.

Beyond the top-level leadership, the PLA is struggling to improve the quality of its personnel. Xi trimmed the military by 300,000 people five years ago and emphasized the importance of career tracks focused on operational command and science and technology. Despite these cuts, however, the share of the defense budget allocated to military personnel remains about the same, underscoring the simple reality facing all countries: high-quality personnel are expensive. The PLA might have to make further cuts to attract the talent it needs rather than staffing a large military to help offset China’s unemployment woes.

In coming years, the PLA will also have to operate in a more resource-constrained environment. Its budget has grown annually at high single-digit percentages for the last decade and it officially declared that its defense spending is now close to $230 billion per year, second only to the United States’ nearly $750 billion budget. With economic headwinds gathering and China’s GDP growth uncertain, the CCP will have to make a conscious choice to sustain large increases in its military budget. Xi did prioritize security over economic development at the party congress, and he seems likely to ensure that the government will continue to provide the funding required to modernize the PLA. But there will be immense pressure on the PLA to demonstrate progress and prove that it deserves the government’s largesse.

Longer term, it remains to be seen how the PLA can maintain access to advanced technology for next-generation military platforms that are critical for any attempt to seek parity with the United States. The party congress advocated more robust cooperation between the civilian science and technology sector and the PLA. Such cooperation is already under stress from global supply chain difficulties as well as COVID-19 lockdowns. It could be further short-circuited by the Biden administration’s decision to limit the export of advanced technology to China. The administration’s recent curbs on the sale of microchips by U.S. companies and third parties to China is likely just the beginning of U.S. measures that take aim at the technological aspects of China’s military competitiveness. Much of Beijing’s success will depend on its ability to increase self-sufficiency in key technologies that Washington seeks to deny it.


Xi’s assessment that China faces mounting external threats is driving Beijing’s desire to build a more capable military. The new Central Military Commission consists of individuals who have the experience—and the confidence of Xi—to push his plans forward. But the long list of tasks and challenges facing the PLA as it inches its way toward meeting its modernization goals in 2027, 2035, and 2049 should reassure outsiders that Xi is not eager to start a significant conflict with any of China’s neighbours in the next year or two.

But below the threshold of war, the PLA is likely to be more assertive in advancing Chinese interests and engage in more acts of coercion along its periphery. The new normal of more frequent military incursions around Taiwan will likely continue and China will more boldly encroach into contested regions, such as the South and East China Seas. At the same time, the PLA will be increasingly called upon to “defend” Beijing against external hostility and could use perceived “missteps” by the United States and U.S. allies and partners—for instance, the visit of high-level U.S. political delegations to Taiwan—as a pretext to escalate tensions, intimidate foreign audiences, and provide its military with more real-world experience.

As it does so, China may become overconfident; it may see the well-coordinated execution, for example, of the August military exercise against Taiwan as evidence that Beijing can well manage future crises. That would be a mis-judgment of colossal proportions and could very well precipitate the conflict that the PLA remains underprepared for. For now, Xi seems to understand that China is not yet ready to be the military power he wants it to be. But that caution and restraint may not last indefinitely, particularly if the loyalists Xi has surrounded himself with—including on the military side—are more keen to please their leader than to honestly report China’s shortcomings.