Barely three weeks after being elected chief of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping began a visit to south China on Dec. 7, proclaiming to the world that his regime was taking steps to build up the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as the cutting edge of “the great revival of a strong Chinese nation” backed by “a powerful military.”
Xi’s speeches during a five-day inspection tour of the Guangzhou military region—the first he made outside Beijing since the party leadership change on Nov. 15—were the strongest declaration of China’s expansionist and confrontational ambitions so far amid rising tensions over territorial disputes in the South China Sea between China and its smaller and weaker neighbors in Southeast Asia.
His declaration was quickly perceived in the Asia-Pacific region as a warlike message, as saber-rattling aimed at coercing its neighbors disputing China’s claims of hegemonic sovereignty over several islands in the East and South China Sea, including the Philippines.
It also came in the face of an emerging alliance of former enemy countries—including the United States, Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam—that are standing up to the increasingly assertive actions of China in pursuing its territorial claims.
The Philippines refers to its territory in the disputed waters as the West Philippine Sea, while Vietnam refers to its territory as the East Sea.
The United States and Japan, two of the strongest military and economic powers in the Pacific region, have recently been increasing their military assistance to the Philippines to enable the country to stand up to Chinese incursions in waters claimed by Manila.
The Philippines may be the weakest military nation in the region, but when and if Chinese maritime patrols attack the small Philippine Navy and Coast Guard vessels, the Filipinos will not be sitting ducks; their ships can fire back and sink some vessels in the Chinese flotilla, including sampans.
China, pressing its annexationist bullying, scorns weakness and will respect only those who can bloody its nose.
The entire propaganda machine of the Chinese government was deployed to publicize Xi’s bluster during his expedition to China’s coastal region and make sure the rival claimants in the South China Sea—the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan—would hear.
Xinhua, China’s official news agency, saturated the world press with dispatches, which were amplified by the Western wire services and transmitted to international newspapers. The Inquirer, too, received those dispatches.
According to the Xinhua dispatches, newspapers such as International Herald Tribune (IHT), reported that official news media gave prominent coverage to Xi’s visit with troops of the Guangzhou military region, including a trip aboard the Haikou, a destroyer that belongs to the fleet patrolling disputed waters in the South China Sea.
If one still has doubts about Chinese warmongering, one can examine this quote from Xi’s speech to the troops in Guangzhou as reported by Xinhua: “We must insist on using battle-ready standards in undertaking combat preparations, constantly enhancing officers’ and troops’ thinking about serving in battle, leading troops into battle and training troops for battle; and we must insist on rigorous military training based on the needs of actual combat.”
The IHT reported that Xi, speaking to soldiers in the city of Huizhou, emphasized the military aspects of the “Chinese dream.”
He said: “This dream can be said to be the dream of a strong nation; and for the military, it is a dream of a strong military. We must achieve the great revival of the Chinese nation, and we must ensure there is unison between a prosperous country and strong military, striving to build and consolidate national defense and a powerful military.”
Xi is quickly consolidating his power. He took over as chair of the Central Military Commission in the seven-member Politburo after President Hu Jintao abdicated the chair on Nov. 15, the day Xi was elected party leader. Hu retired as president on that date. This transfer of power puts Xi in control of the PLA.
In his talk to the troops in Huizhou, Xi emphasized that the military is subordinate to the Communist Party: “First, always remember that resolutely obeying the party’s command is the soul of a strong military, and there must be utterly unwavering adherence to the party’s absolute leadership of the military. Under all circumstances, the party’s word must be obeyed and followed.”
While Xi was broadcasting the annexationist direction of China’s foreign policy involving territorial disputes, the Philippines, which had taken the brunt of Chinese pressure in the West Philippine Sea, was not sitting idly by.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario told the Financial Times in an interview that Manila would strongly support a rearmed Japan shedding its pacifist constitution “as a counterweight to the growing military assertiveness of China.”
Del Rosario’s statement came on the eve of Japan’s elections, which were expected to see the return as prime minister of Shinzo Abe, who is committed to revising Japan’s pacifist constitution and to strengthening the Japanese military.
Experts on Japanese affairs say that a constitutional revision that upgrades Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to a fully fledged military would allow it far more freedom to operate and could change the military balance in Asia.
Despite official pacificism, Japan’s armed forces “do not lack for hardware and the Navy has about 50 large surface ships, compared with China’s odd-70.”
The Philippines, together with Vietnam, has objected strongly to China’s announcement that maritime police from Hainan province would intercept ships entering what it claims as its territorial waters next month.
The aggressive moves of China, including Xi Jinping’s visit to the south, have spurred US and Philippine officials to consider plans to accelerate US military presence in waters surrounding the Philippines.
Although the United States has declared neutrality in the territorial disputes, officials are considering more frequent joint military exercises and presence of US forces and ships in the area as the tensions rise.
A US official was reported as saying that the United States was holding consultations with Japanese and Philippine officials on the US commitments in its mutual defense treaties with Japan and the Philippines.
These two countries are the cornerstone of US strategic and security alliance in the Asia-Pacific region. The enforcer of these security arrangements remains the US Seventh Fleet. Xi Jinping’s provocative statements have increased the risks of naval encounters in the South China Sea.