Modern China is the creation of Deng Xiaoping, who correctly identified the main enemies of the Chinese people as disease, ignorance and poverty rather than the “imperialists” and the “hegemonists” so often declaimed against by Mao Zedong. The last war fought by China was in Vietnam in 1979, three years before Deng was able to consolidate his control over the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Since then, there has been no theatre in which the PLA has played an offensive role. This is in contrast to NATO, which seems to be looking for locations where it can unleash firepower, naturally on those too weak to offer much resistance. During the period when Deng was in direct charge, the PLA received much less attention and financial support relative to other institutions than it had during the Mao years, when it was coddled as the main guarantor of the Chairman’s power, especially during the tumultuous 1960s, the decade of the Cultural Revolution as well as of the Sino-Indian border conflict. Once Jiang Zemin took charge in the 1990s from Deng, and after the latter’s passing in 1997, huge boosts were given to the PLA’s capabilities. However, except for a bit of sabre rattling across the Taiwan Straits, which ironically helped the anti-China DPP presidential candidate Chen Shui-bian to defeat his pro-China KMT rival, there was hardly any instance where force or even the threat of force was used. The concept of the “peaceful rise” of China that had been popularised by Deng held, as it did during much of the time of Jiang’s successor, Hu Jintao.
Matters began to change around 2010, and this may be traced to the rise of Bo Xilai, the charismatic scion of one of the CCP’s most prominent political families. Bo sought to return to the era of Mao Zedong, and this he did by basing his appeal on raw xenophobia. Anti-Japanese sentiment was whipped up, while those who called for China to copy the NATO strategy of the use of force to defend its interests were encouraged. The higher, lower and middle ranks of the PLA became entranced by Rambo Bo, seeing in him a leader who would free the military from the invisible fetters mandated by the “Peaceful Rise” strategy. Aware that Bo’s purpose was to upset the line of succession and thereby to replace Xi Jinping or Li Keqiang (at that time, it was not clear who would emerge as Top Gun), party elders began to tack to the Maoist wind, ramping up their references to the military. This change became most obvious when Beijing suddenly raised the stakes in the South China Seas. Its rate of growth would have inevitably given Beijing dominance in the South China Seas over others within about 15 years, and without any threat of force. However, to compete against Bo, even Hu Jintao (whose greatest success was to use the “Peace Card” in order to win over hearts and minds in Taiwan) was forced into accepting the PLA’s desired tactic of following the NATO example of giving primacy to the use of military force in the settling of disputes. Because of this policy, China has lost almost all the goodwill that it had acquired in South-East Asia since the 1980s, thereby giving the advantage to the US and Japan, now seen as the only protectors against the PLA.
Over the year that he has been in office, Hu Jintao’s successor Xi Jinping has taken a tough line against official corruption, jailing several top officials, including such key figures as the Mayor of Nanjing. Many of those within the higher echelons of the CCP who have become dollar millionaires and billionaires belong to the Jiang Zemin faction. This faction prevented Hu from implementing his favoured policies to the extent that he wanted, and Xi seems determined that he will not be similarly hobbled. The anti-corruption drive has, therefore, had the effect of weakening the Jiang faction to a level where it is no longer a hindrance to policy. However, the Catch 22 in such a process of consolidation of power has been the need for Xi to tack to the military, lest that institution veer to the side of Jiang the way some of its key commanders became admirers of Bo Xilai. Such deference to those in uniform has led to policy errors such as an Air Defence Zone over the China Seas, that has the potential to cause war between China on one side and the US and Japan on the other. Such a conflict would, within a decade, bring China’s economy back to where it was under Mao Zedong. Although he is now in prison, his dreams of supreme power shattered, Bo Xilai must be chuckling at the mess that he has got his rivals within the CCP into. Should China abandon the strategy of peaceful rise, its own rise is likely to stall.