Xi’s Army: From “Hiding and Waiting” to Building China’s Dream | China

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When Covid-19 swept across Iran last March, killing more than 1,000 people, including the commander-in-chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, it was to the Chinese military that Tehran turned to seek help. On March 19, 2020, batches of test kits, PPE and face masks arrived in the Iranian capital.

In February of this year, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China began donating Covid-19 vaccines to its counterparts overseas. The Cambodian armed forces received two batches of 300,000 vaccines; The Sierra Leonean army received 40,000 doses; United Nations peacekeepers have secured 300,000.

The million-strong PLA proudly publicized its achievement, touting it as the latest example of the military helping China become a “responsible stakeholder.” The Ministry of Defense website promoting PLA activities in Sierra Leone displayed the flags of the two countries with the slogan: “Rough seas or calm waters, we sail together”. In Zimbabwe it was: “In difficult times, we look out for each other. “For Rwanda:” The fate of two fingers is to live together. “

Historically, the Chinese military has played a minor role in Beijing’s foreign policy. But since President Xi Jinping came to power nearly a decade ago, Beijing has moved away from the “hide and seek” doctrine to “actively accomplish something” on the world stage. In 2015, Xi urged his forces to play a larger role in supporting China’s foreign policy agenda.

A Senegalese soldier receives the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine in Dakar. Photography: Léo Corrêa / AP

That year, the Chinese military sent a team of 163 medical experts to Liberia to assist the besieged West African country in its efforts to contain Ebola. But since Covid-19, the role of the PLA has grown to serve both China’s strategic and operational objectives, according to Meia Nouwens, senior researcher for Chinese defense policy and military modernization at the Institute. International Strategic Studies Institute (IISS) based in London.

Shortly after the global pandemic was declared last year, Nouwens began to notice an increase in the LPA’s help in the fight against viruses from their foreign counterparts. In the month following the declaration of the pandemic in March 2020, China’s medical donations increased 400% compared to the same period the previous year.

According to the Chinese energy project of the Washington-based think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the PLA has provided medical aid to more than 50 military counterparts since early 2020.

“An opportunity to capitalize on the story of China”

China isn’t the only country that has used Covid as an opportunity to expand its diplomatic influence. But Beijing’s Covid diplomacy, which is conducted amid its confrontational and wolf-warrior style of diplomacy, has worried some Western commentators.

“If China is seen as the only country to offer assistance, this may become another opportunity for China to capitalize on its south-south narrative and emphasize that only Beijing has the interests and welfare of the people at heart. other countries, ”Nouwens said.

Yet it was also an opportunity for Western leaders to come up with their own alternatives, Nouwens added. “At a time when the West is trying to push back the Chinese narrative and improve partnerships with countries to offer alternatives to the belt and road initiative or digital infrastructure, the West should point out that it is not just talking about partnerships, but that it matches words with actions.

Bonny Lin, director of CSIS’s electricity project in China, went further. “It will be particularly important for Western countries to increase vaccine donations to countries in need – this would contrast starkly with China’s decision to provide the bulk of its vaccines through commercial sales,” he said. she declared.

Wan Dong (right), Defense Attaché at the Chinese Embassy in Sri Lanka, and Kamal Gunaratne (second from right), Secretary General of Defense of Sri Lanka, bang their fists when handing over a prize of Sinopharm vaccine.
Wan Dong (right), the defense attaché of the Chinese embassy in Sri Lanka, and Kamal Gunaratne (second from right), the secretary general of defense of Sri Lanka, bang their fists during the handover of ‘a batch of Sinopharm vaccine. Photograph: Xinhua / Rex / Shutterstock

” Work in progress “

The enhanced role of the PLA in Chinese diplomacy is amplified by the modernization of the armed forces themselves. By the end of this year, Beijing will increase its defense spending by 6.8 percent to 1.35 billion yuan ($ 208 billion). In recent years, Xi has also expressed his “dream of strong armed forces” in his “China’s dream” thesis. It means modernizing its military by 2035 and making it world-class by mid-century. In other words, being able to face the mighty US military.

Some in Washington see this trend as alarming. Although China’s total military spending this year is still less than a third of that of the United States, it is nonetheless the largest in the Asia-Pacific region. They say China’s growing nationalism would eventually push the rulers to grapple with targets like Taiwan – an island of 24 million that Beijing considers its breakaway province.

China’s defense budget in 2020 was less than a third of U.S. military spending

In March, Washington’s top military officer in the Asia-Pacific region, Admiral Philip Davidson, said: “I’m afraid they [China] accelerate their ambitions to supplant the United States and our leadership role in the rules-based international order… by 2050. Taiwan is clearly one of their ambitions before that. And I think the threat is evident over this decade, in fact, over the next six years. “

There is also hindsight. Last week, the US, UK and Australia unveiled a landmark trilateral security partnership that observers say is aimed at keeping China in check. And Taiwan has put into practice the skills that would be needed in the event of an attack from China during its annual exercises. Island President Tsai Ing-wen praised her forces for their “splendid combat skills and swift, real actions.”

Since his tenure, Xi has also called on his forces to increase their “articulation” – the ability of the military, navy and air force to collaborate quickly and transparently in real and complex combat. This is a tall order, as the PLA has had no combat experience since its 1979 war with Vietnam. Its troops are therefore largely untested and it is unclear how well they could fight if a war breaks out, according to Timothy Heath, senior international defense researcher at the U.S. public policy think tank Rand Corporation.

Meanwhile, according to Heath: “Military discipline and regulatory compliance remain uneven at best, due to still rampant corruption and weak enforcement. This means that the military leadership cannot be sure that the entire military force can conduct operations in a consistent and predictable manner. “

Perhaps the most difficult thing for the PLA – as the armed forces have also publicly admitted – is that it continues to struggle to absorb the latest technology and recruit as well as to prepare its personnel to fight effectively using weapons. high-tech equipment.

“The PLA performs better today in military hardware than it has been since the 1990s. However, the milder elements of warfare are still a work in progress,” Nouwens said. “What China ‘can’ do militarily does not correspond directly or immediately to what China ‘will’ do. It is important to keep in mind the political decision-making on when China will be willing and able to risk conflict. “

PLA tank at 2021 International Army Games near Moscow
An PLA tank at the 2021 International Military Games near Moscow. The Chinese armed forces continue to struggle to recruit and absorb the latest technology. Photography: Vladimir Gerdo / TASS

Building partnerships

Beijing understands its weakness and is working hard to alleviate it. In recent years, Heath said, China has stepped up its military training on an impressive array of topics – from Taiwan to threats against Chinese citizens and infrastructure investments in other countries. She had also conducted more frequent exercises with her partners, such as Russia.

In May, the 73rd PLA Army Group Armored Division conducted a day of live fire drills and amphibious landings on the beach, in a demonstration of determination and ability to unite Taiwan. In early August, around 10,000 Chinese and Russian troops carried out joint exercises to test some of the PLA’s newest weapons and to signal the unity of the two countries.

In addition to these high profile activities, the PLA is building partnerships and military capabilities in developing countries. This includes training in missile and drone technology, for example, as well as basic technical and other training.

“Although partner countries recognize that the US and Western military provide the most advanced and sophisticated training,” Lin said, “countries still value Chinese military training and benefit from the more basic training offered by the PLA. “.

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