Just days into the new year, Chinese President Xi Jinping has ordered his country’s military to improve its combat readiness and prepare for the possibility of war while also warning of “unprecedented risks and challenges” in 2019.
Xi’s warning comes amid territorial disputes in the South and East China seas and rising tensions with the United States over issues ranging from trade to Taiwan.
The Chinese president told a meeting Friday in Beijing of the Central Military Commission, the country’s top military authority, that the armed forces must devise strategies in the coming year and take on more responsibilities in readying for and waging war.
“The world is facing a period of major changes never seen in a century, and China is still in an important period of strategic opportunity for development,” the official Xinhua News Agency quoted Xi as saying.
He stressed that the military should focus on improving its ability to respond quickly and effectively to contingencies, as well as upgrading joint operations capabilities and fostering new combat forces and training under “combat conditions.”
Xi also signed a mobilization order for the training of the armed forces, the CMC’s first order of the year, which requires all units of the People’s Liberation Army “to welcome the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China with ‘excellent performance,’ ” according to the state-run Global Times newspaper.
Experts say a military parade scheduled to be held in Beijing’s iconic Tiananmen Square to mark the anniversary will be one of the most important events of the year for Xi’s ruling Communist Party.
“A military that can fight and win a war will be presented then,” the Global Times quoted Beijing-based military expert and commentator Song Zhongping as saying.
“Excellent performance means the capability to always effectively safeguard national security when the military is summoned at any time,” Song added.
The challenges Xi spoke of echoed a New Year’s Day editorial published by the People’s Liberation Army Daily, the military’s official newspaper.
“Drilling soldiers and war preparations are the fundamental jobs and work focus of our military, and at no time should we allow any slack in these areas,” the newspaper wrote, according to the South China Morning Post.
“We should be well prepared for all directions of military struggle and comprehensively improve troops’ combat response in emergencies … to ensure we can meet the challenge and win when there is a situation.”
Xi told the Communist Party’s 19th Party Congress in 2017 that China will complete the modernization of its armed forces by 2035, and achieve a “world-class” military by 2050 that can fight and win wars across all theaters — a vow he has repeatedly reiterated.
Last week, acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan told civilian leaders of the U.S. military to remember “China, China, China,” singling out Beijing as a key priority in a “great power competition” with the Asian giant.
In an editorial published Thursday, the Global Times said the statement likely meant Beijing would have to guard against “more military provocations … in the Taiwan Straits and the South China Sea.”
Beijing claims most of the South China Sea, which includes vital sea lanes through which about $3 trillion in global trade passes each year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have overlapping claims.
The United States, which does not having any claims in the waterway, has sent warships and bombers to the area as part of what it says is its “long-standing commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific.”
This has become a particularly sensitive issue for Beijing, which has been angered by the presence of U.S. military forces in the skies and waters near Taiwan and its man-made islands in the South China Sea, some of which have been built up into garrisons with radar installations and military-grade runways. Beijing says its facilities in the waters are for defensive purposes, but some observers say this is part of a concerted bid to cement de facto control of the South China Sea.
Thursday’s editorial offered up one possible solution to the fraying ties, saying that “China needs to hold onto its principles while staying calm.”
“China must understand that Washington is strategically on guard against Beijing,” it went on. “It is trying to stop China’s ‘expansion’ through tactical harassments and warnings. What China and the U.S. need to do now is sound each other out, explore one another’s tolerance and form a new balance in the current phase.”
Still, it also noted Beijing’s ability “to make Washington pay an unbearable price if the U.S. infringes on China” — specifically mentioning the 70th anniversary and the possible public debut of “Chinese deterrence’s trump card,” the Dongfeng-41 intercontinental ballistic missile, which is believed capable of striking all of the U.S.
The editorial also urged China to carry out more maritime combat exercises with live ammunition, “especially training to strike aircraft carriers,” an implicit threat to the U.S.
“There is no need to worry that doing so would make Washington unhappy,” it said. “Making them concerned is the whole point of the exercise.”