Will 'strongman' Xi Jinping lead China into armed conflicts with rival neighbours?
President's assertive tone and focus on military power of growing concern in region, experts say
China has become more willing to show off its military might since President Xi Jinping came to power as he wants to send a message to people at home and abroad that he is a strongman willing to take touch action, military and political analysts said.
But international relations experts fear this is raising concerns that China might use force to solve its territorial disputes with its Asian neighbours.
“Xi said his personality and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s were very similar when he visited Moscow early last year, hinting that he would be as strong as Putin when dealing with domestic and foreign affairs,” Beijing-based political commentator Zhang Lifan said.
“When looking back at what he has done over the past year or so, I think Xi is trying to abandon the party’s long-standing collective leadership tradition designed by Deng Xiaoping during the 1980s economic opening and intends to make himself a master of neo-authoritarianism.”
Xi, the son of the revolutionary hero Xi Zhongxun, served as personal secretary to former defence minister and Central Military Commission secretary-general Geng Biao early in his career and has a closer relationship with the People’s Liberation Army than his two predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao .
When he became chairman of the military commission, the army’s top brass, in November 2012 he called on the PLA to turn itself into a modern combat force through intensified military drills, the upgrading of technology and weaponry and by overhauling the way it is commanded.
Under his leadership, the PLA, the world’s biggest army with 2.3 million personnel, has become more high-profile and willing to show off its achievements in modernising its military on land, air, and sea.
This has included giving details of some of the latest military technology developed in China, such as the J-20 and J-31 fighter jets; its first unmanned combat aerial vehicle the Lijian or “Sharp Sword”, as well as the so-called “aircraft carrier killers” the YJ-12 supersonic anti-ship missile and the YJ-100 anti-ship cruise missiles.
Beijing also announced at the end of last year that it has set up another aircraft carrier base at Sanya on Hainan island, close to disputed regions of the South China Sea.
This comes after China took delivery of its first carrier, the Liaoning in September 2012 which is normally based at the eastern port of Qingdao .
A naval expert described the new base as a launching point in the south for future aircraft carrier fighting groups.
The PLA also appears to be have intensified its naval drills since Beijing announced in December it had set up an air defence identification zone close to disputed areas of the East China Sea. At least four naval drills have been held since then.
“As a ‘second generation red’, Xi needs to show he is different to Jiang and Hu because they were too flabby and timid when dealing with territorial disputes during their terms,’’ Shanghai-based military expert Ni Lexiong said.
“He wants to be a strong leader like Mao Zedong who worshipped violence. That’s why Xi repeatedly urges the PLA to be well-prepared for real combat and for victory.”
Xi’s tough political style has worried many of China’s neighbours in the Asia-Pacific region, foreign military experts said.
“Any country near China has been particularly concerned about China’s growing military might,’’ said Dr Richard Bitzinger, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
“Even countries that are normally not afraid of China such as South Korea may be having second thoughts and certainly increasingly see China as a real threat.
“I think Xi is very much playing the nationalism card of late. It allows China to be intransigent and uncompromising,’’ he said.
Dr Rajeswari Rajagopalan, a defence analyst at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation think tank, said India has also raised concerns over China’s growing military might, although she said its naval reach was still limited.
“China thinks it no longer needs to hide or be reticent about its capabilities,’’ she said
“China’s capability acquisitions and new strategies have a direct bearing on India especially because there is an unresolved border issue. The air defence identification zone initiative is one more example of the Chinese opaque decision-making process that has repeatedly led to strategic surprises for those dealing with China,’’ she said.