April 19th, 2012
10:21 AM ET

Chinese succession and Chinese foreign policy

Editor's Note: Neil K. Shenai is a Ph.D. Candidate at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Bernard Geoxavier is a M.A. Candidate in International Studies researching the domestic political determinants of Chinese foreign policy. He also runs the China Leadership Watch, a blog about Chinese domestic politics. This is the third installment of a three-part series on Chinese succession. The first article is available here and the second article is available here. 

By Neil K. Shenai and Bernard Geoxavier - Special to CNN

Two weeks ago, Chinese President Hu Jintao published an editorial in The People's Liberation Army Daily reaffirming the PLA’s loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party. His article pressed the PLA to “resolutely resist the incursion of all kinds of erroneous ideas,” and to “not be disturbed by noise or be affected by rumors.” Another PLA Daily article told the PLA to “strictly observe and maintain the Party discipline” and that the PLA must “stay resolute in resisting non-Party erroneous political perspectives.”

By making public pronouncements about the Army’s subjugate relationship to the Communist Party, Party officials have drawn a line in the sand, renouncing PLA members who are pushing for greater independence from the Party. These statements come on the heels of upheaval within the upper ranks of the Communist Party last month: the ouster of Bo Xilai and arrest of his wife, Gu Kailai, for the murder of Neil Heywood, a British businessman, led many to conclude that the Party is showing major signs of internal strife and dissension leading up to November’s much-anticipated first meeting of the Eighteenth Communist Party of China National Congress in Beijing.

Recent pronouncements by numerous PLA Political Commissars reflect the Party’s desire to shore up support for itself among the armed forces as the unquestioned leader of the Chinese state. Despite the asymmetry of power between Party and Army, China’s military is a key instrument of the Party’s hold on power. Without support of the military, the Party could not survive.   

China: Threat or Theater?

Some Western observers tend to view China’s rise in a single, solipsistic lens: they believe that China’s military modernization is designed so China can reassert itself in the Western Pacific. Many analysts believe that China’s military modernization is motivated by their fear of the United States. While China is certainly motivated in part by external factors, it also acts according what will keep the Party in power. Viewed from this lens, we can see that China’s military modernization is partially a symptom of the Party’s desire to buy loyalty from the PLA to preserve its own perch atop the Chinese state.

Pronouncements like the ones that appeared in the PLA Daily show that the Communist Party is trying to reassure military cadres that despite the ensuing leadership change this fall, the Party’s power structure and chain of command vis-à-vis the military will remain intact.

Although many in the West tend to conflate the military and the Party, these two bodies sometimes act out of concert with one another, highlighting the potential for discord among Chinese civilian and military authorities. The last five years has born witness to several subtle military bouts of showmanship that happened without the advanced knowledge of Beijing.

The 2011 test flight of the J-20 fighter plane during former Defense Secretary Robert Gates' visit to China and China’s 2007 anti-satellite missile test were prime examples of military displays that took both U.S. and Chinese Communist Party leaders by surprise. Far from being coordinated acts of showmanship, the Party’s stilted response after both events shows that the military sometimes takes actions beyond that exceed their mandate from Beijing, often leading to embarrassing ramifications for China internationally.

To buy the loyalty of the military and bring them into the Party structure, outgoing Party Chairman Hu Jintao pushed for marked increases in the PLA's budget for pensions, salaries, and pet projects, while China’s national military budget officially increased over eleven percent annually in real terms from 2000 to 2011. President Hu has ensured that each of the PLA branches receive funding for bold and expensive new projects, including aircraft carriers, establishing cyber-warfare units, and developing both stealth and drone aircraft technologies.

Where the Military Goes, So Goes China

In our first article, we argued that a loose equilibrium existed atop the Chinese state, in which the Party, military, and technocratic elites favored the maintenance of the status quo. Economic growth and to a lesser extent, nationalism, holds China together today. As long as the Chinese economy keeps growing, the Party can continue to make positive-sum compromises with the military and other bureaucrats, thus ensuring their hold on power. The growing Chinese military-industrial complex operates much like its counterpart in the United States: even though arguments for military modernization are often couched in the language of looming threats to national security, old-fashioned rent seeking better explains these defense expenditures.

All of this goes to show that the Party is acutely aware of its relationship with the military. Like all closed political systems, single-party rule in China depends on control of the military and domestic security apparatus. Without the support of both the PLA and People’s Armed Police (PAP), the Chinese Communist Party could not control the Chinese state. As long as economic growth continues, the Communist Party will be the de facto leader of the armed forces. But it is much harder to tell where allegiances will lie if and when the Chinese economy suffers a hard landing.

For these reasons, one should remember that Chinese foreign policy is not always motivated by fear of the United States. China faces numerous potentially destabilizing internal ethnic conflicts and must satisfy rural discontent with cronyism and corruption. External pressure and paranoia inflamed by U.S. foreign policy could embolden those in China who are pushing for an aggressive, nationalistic, PLA-led foreign policy, in turn potentially leading to a self-fulfilling cycle of animosity between the U.S. and China.

The way forward for the United States will require carefully weighing hard power balancing (President Obama’s Asia ‘pivot’) with robust diplomatic engagement. It is up to both the Party’s leaders and their American counterparts to carve out the space necessary for China’s rise, all the while acknowledging that the tensions inherent in the Chinese authoritarian model could bring about radical change inside of China if economic growth contracts.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Neil K. Shenai and Bernard Geoxavier.

soundoff (15 Responses)
  1. j. von hettlingen

    the site is jammed!

    April 20, 2012 at 5:59 am | Reply
    • M Houston

      Its probably not the only "China related" site out there.
      What China doesn't like China jams.

      April 20, 2012 at 4:03 pm | Reply
  2. j. von hettlingen

    No doubt the CCP makes sure that nothing would foil the sucession in autumn. Such a plot would be futile.

    April 20, 2012 at 11:13 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      China is not Mali and the PLA doesn't have a Pervez Musharraf who came to power after a military coup in Pakistan in 1999.

      April 20, 2012 at 11:16 am | Reply
  3. venze

    By saying one should remember that Chinese foreign policy is “not always” motivated by fear of the United States, the writers are betraying their ignorance and superficiality.
    Why would China, the largest benefactor of the US, be ever motivated by fear of the latter?
    Utterly senseless if not disgusting statement. (mtd1943)

    April 20, 2012 at 10:23 pm | Reply
  4. Tom Poteet

    What is bothersome is a possible Naval confrontation with China over excersises between US Navy and Phillipine Navy in waters China is claiming as theirs. I haven't seen any news coverage of this. We are more concerned with political campaigns, secret service nonsense, and this possible confrontation begins in 2 days.

    April 21, 2012 at 7:44 pm | Reply
  5. S

    It is an insightful article addressing the sensitive yet burgeoning issues China is facing today; it is such a defining moment of China's twentieth-century history.

    Beautiful writing!

    April 22, 2012 at 2:55 am | Reply
  6. Glenn

    China is claiming the whole of the West Philippine Sea from the coast of Vietnam to Malaysia to the coast of the Philippines. I could say up to the coast of Taiwan but they already claim that Taiwan is part of china. Currently there is a standoff between china and the Philippines which started when the Philippines caught Chinese fisherment poaching giant clams, corals and sharks less than 200 miles from the main island of the Philippines. They already annexed Tibet. China want to change how we draw our maps.
    No matter what the motive is for china to develop their weaponry, once they have it changes the game. The US couldn't refrain from using its military, how can china do it when clearly it has expansionist ambitions.

    April 22, 2012 at 3:08 am | Reply
  7. Joe Wang

    Our policy toward China shows that we lost our principle for the idea as the America. The incident for the Chinese mayor seeking his safety from the US, and the denial of any acknowledgement from the Obama's official, send a signal to the world that the American can not be trusted and America is no longer an idea for freedom. In some way, our high official could be corrupted as the Chinese Communists bring their practice to the US. No wonder, Obama was cited as a communist.

    April 22, 2012 at 10:14 am | Reply
  8. Voiceinthedesert

    China is playing with fire. The "fire" are pension plans for a half-billion workers. It's our equivalent of Social Security. China does not want to raise the value of the Social Security for its workers. Wants to keep paying them in the useless renminbi. The West wants something else. Chna is thorn inside itself. She "built a paradise" on a quicksand. Her only hope is to make some accommodation with the U.S., which will involve "a humbling going back to reality," recognizing that she isn't as rich as she thought.

    April 23, 2012 at 7:53 am | Reply
  9. Kaitlinu Dinax

    I really appreciate this post. IЎ¦ve been looking all over for this! Thank goodness I found it on Bing. You have made my day! Thanks again

    July 28, 2012 at 9:42 am | Reply

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