“Let China sleep, for when she wakes the world will shake.” So said Napoleon Bonaparte. Right now, we see a different China. On August 1, President Xi Jinping delivered a tough speech in Beijing marking the 90th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
It is important to emphasize how China, the world’s foremost technological power between 1100 and 1800, made the West’s emergence possible. It was only by borrowing and assimilating Chinese innovations that Western nations were able to make the transition to modern capitalist and imperialist economies.
Moreover, China’s dominant global position was challenged by the rise of British imperialism, which had adopted the advanced technological, navigational and market innovations of China and other Asian countries in order to bypass the earlier stages of becoming a world power.
China has shown to the world that it will never permit the loss of “any piece” of its land to outsiders, knowing that the PLA has been a key pillar of support for the ruling Communist Party since 1927 and is the world’s largest standing military, with 2.3 million members.
What makes Xi’s comments so powerful is the fact that he stressed his country’s military might in the mainstream. In fact, he made no reference to any specific conflicts or disputes during his address, which focused largely on the PLA’s growth from a scrappy guerrilla force fighting Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists and Japanese invaders into one of the world’s most powerful, if largely untested, militaries.
Meanwhile, we can see how China’s military is politicized by nature. It appears that China is just using its military to underscore its main function, supposedly as a political shield, to protect the bureaucracy from any external and even internal influence and threat. In fact, Xi also emphasized that the military’s highest loyalty was to the ruling Communist Party, underscoring the PLA’s key role as preserver of the regime through crises such as the bloody suppression of 1989 pro-democracy protests at Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
Moreover, one thing that makes this approach effective is the repetition of process. Xi commands the PLA as chairman of the Central Military Commission, and has frequently spoken of his “China dream” to restore the country to a leadership position in international affairs with a modern, far-reaching military force to match.
This has taken a lot of engineering, whereby a radical upgrading of the PLA’s capabilities through years of double-digit percentage increases in the defense budget – making China the world’s second-largest military spender after the United States – although growth has slowed alongside a cooling of the overall economy.
In terms of war experience and modern armaments, China is far behind; a lone aircraft carrier cannot effectively attack another country. But should a war scenario occur, China’s ability to inflict substantial damage can’t be simply ignored. If a ground war is ongoing, the PLA’s sheer numbers will give it some edge. But in terms of war experience and advanced armaments the US is still the country it would need to defeat.
Now, if the US together with the Anglo-Saxon axis were successfully to blockade China’s access to the Malacca Straits like the Americans and British did to Japan using the ABCD (American-British-Chinese-Dutch) blockade before World War II, that would probably push China to strike first, similar to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. That is one of the reasons even the US can’t simply provoke China.
In the meantime, the US still needs other countries to counter China. Obviously if there is a war, the Americans will prefer it to be on someone else’s soil, and Asian countries allied with the Western coalition would bear the brunt of China’s retaliation.
On the other hand, China will think twice before making war. Its billions of dollars in investment in other countries would be wiped out. Direct talks with other countries are its preference; the Chinese can control the negotiations through business matters, which is why they prefer bilateral over multilateral talks.