It is part of the lore of modern China. When paramount Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) was handing over power a generation ago, a widely recounted tale said he had some advice for his successor: For every five working days, spend four with the top brass of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) shows every sign of following that lesson. A month after assuming power in November last year, Xi visited Guangdong Province on his first major political tour.
Of the five days he spent there, three were at a military base, according to official coverage of his trip.
The son of a communist revolutionary commander, Xi built his career as a friend of the army, and at times an official in it.
However, he still feels compelled to ask his generals for something in return: loyalty.
“First, we must keep in mind that the military must unswervingly adhere to the party’s absolute leadership and obey the party’s orders,” he said on one of his many military inspection tours.
Xi’s injunction that the party comes first is a sign of the insecurity modern Chinese leaders feel at the top of their nation’s huge and increasingly powerful armed forces, military experts say.
As it grows mightier, the PLA is growing trickier to govern.
The PLA’s rising global profile is integral to Xi’s stated vision for the nation: the “China Dream,” a rejuvenated country that is both peace-loving and militarily powerful.
However, Xi is less a true military man than Deng and the founder of the People’s Republic, Mao Zedong (毛澤東). He is fundamentally a career bureaucrat, like his immediate predecessors, former Chinese presidents Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) and Jiang Zemin (江澤民).
Like them, Xi has to win over the force that keeps the CCP in power. However, he must do so at a time when the PLA is more self-confident than ever, mounting the first serious challenge to the naval dominance of the US since the end of the Cold War.
“It will take time for Xi to take control of the military,” National University of Singapore PLA expert Huang Jing (黃靖) said. “Most of the senior generals were not appointed by Xi. Instead they were all appointed by his predecessors.”
The rise of a nationalistic leader with military leanings comes as the PLA, with 2.3 million men and women under arms, forms the hard edge of a rising China.
China’s annual military spending is now second only to that of the US armed forces. The PLA Navy is projecting power further into the Pacific. Years of buying, copying and sometimes stealing technology have helped the PLA narrow its capability gap with the US and other rivals in Asia.
Xi, as chairman of the Chinese Central Military Commission, is commander-in-chief alongside his roles as CCP general secretary and president. He now oversees armed forces that are influencing events far beyond China’s borders.
Fleets of Chinese warships patrol disputed territories in Asian seas.
On Dec. 5, a Chinese warship forced a US guided missile cruiser, the USS Cowpens, to take evasive action in the South China Sea, the US Navy said.
The incident, in international waters, appeared to be an attempt to prevent the US ship from observing sea trials of China’s new aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, naval experts said.
PLA fighters now scramble to guard the controversial air defense zone that Beijing imposed last month off its east coast.