Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photo: Reuters
Xi Jinping has become China's president for life after a clause restricting presidential terms is removed from the Chinese constitution. Photo: Reuters

Just two days after giving a keynote speech at the Boao Forum, dubbed the Asian Davos, in China’s southern island province of Hainan on April 10, in which he denounced the Cold War confrontational mentality, Chinese President Xi Jinping boarded a destroyer to preside over a huge military parade in the disputed South China Sea, just off the forum venue.

Xinhua billed the naval display, which involved “10,000 service personnel, 48 vessels and 76 aircraft” — including the country’s sole aircraft carrier Liaoning, the latest submarines, vessels and fighter jets — as “the largest of its kind in the People’s Republic of China since its founding in 1949.”

According to China’s official news agency, Xi, clad in camouflage military fatigues, oversaw the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy’s unprecedented event on April 12 and then gave a speech, in which he emphasized that the need to build a strong navy “has never been more urgent than today.”

Commenting on the sea parade and Xi’s remarks, the Global Times said that China was faced with “two essential strategic questions” – namely how to show other countries its “determination in defending national interest under the thesis of ‘China’s peaceful rise’” and how to communicate its “simultaneous dedication to world peace and resolution to fight aggression.”

This isn’t the first time the nationalistic and influential party-backed paper has raised such questions. About two months ago, the publication by the Communist Party of China’s mouthpiece, People’s Daily, editorialized, “While China should carry forward a sense of national pride and stand firm on safeguarding national interests, it also needs to stay modest, advocate the spirit of internationalism and sincerely push forward the construction of a community with a shared future for mankind.”

It then remarked, “How to strike a balance between the two is a test for the Chinese nation.”

Undeniably, under Xi Jinping’s rule, there are two opposing Chinas. One is forceful and nationalistic and the other is painted as peaceful and internationalist. Such contradictions are evident in Xi’s public pronouncements.

China the benign

The first China is mostly present in Xi’s addresses to the domestic audience. For instance, in his speech to mark the PLA’s 90th  anniversary last August, he vowed that his country “will never allow [anyone] at any time or in any form, to attempt to separate any part of Chinese territory, and nor shall anyone expect that we will brook any attempt to compromise our national sovereignty, security, or development interests.”

Two months later, in a marathon address to open the five-yearly congress of the CPC, he plainly stated that the Asian power “must put [its] national interests first” and “will resolutely safeguard [its] sovereignty, security, and development interests”, reiterating: “No one should expect China to swallow anything that undermines its interests.”

Addressing the National People’s Congress, the PRC’s rubber-stamp legislature, which constitutionalized his extended power and prolonged rule last month, he swore that China would protect “every inch” of its territory and was ready “to fight bloody battles” against its enemies.

In all these statements, the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong also portrays another China, which is a very peaceful, responsible, cooperative and rules-based nation that will not only “never seek hegemony or engage in expansion” but will also “continue its efforts to safeguard world peace …  and uphold international order.”

Xi particularly and vehemently pictures such a benign, if not altruistic, China – that is committed to building “a community with shared future for mankind” and “a clean and beautiful world with everlasting peace, universal security, common prosperity, openness and inclusiveness” – when addressing international audiences.

China the forceful

Yet judging by many of Beijing’s actions, notably in the contested South China Sea, in recent years it is often the case that the forceful and nationalistic China prevails over the peaceful and internationalist one.

At a massive military parade to mark the PLA’s foundation – the first such an event overseen by Xi and the first military parade held by the PRC to commemorate its Army Day since 1949 – the Chinese leader urged the world’s biggest standing army to be ready to fight and win wars.

Without doubt, over the past few years, China’s PLA and its navy in particular have radically modernized and improved their readiness for war. Xinhua reported more than half of the vessels joining last week’s maritime military parade were commissioned after the CPC’s 18th Congress in 2012, when Xi came to power.

His remarks about the urgency to build a strong navy, which was already powerful, weren’t new and surprising. Addressing the ruling party’s conclave last autumn, he stated that building a mighty military force would help the country realize its dream of national rejuvenation.

The PLA’s naval muscle-flexing move and Xi’s remarks are further evidence that controlling the South China Sea is seen as part of Beijing’s realization of the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation and that Beijing is prepared and willing to use force to protect “every inch of its territory” in this hotly disputed, resource-rich and strategically vital region.

In fact, under him, the Asian giant has massively expanded and militarized in the 3.5-million-square-kilometer sea, which is one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

For years, Beijing denied its controversial maritime expansionism. However, it has now not only admitted, but also hailed it, with Xi boasting at the CPC’s 19th congress that China’s “construction on islands and reefs in the South China Sea has seen steady progress.”

The Chinese Defense Ministry has also recently acknowledged militarization of its man-made bases in the Spratly Islands, with its spokesman quoted as saying the islands “are Chinese territory, and China’s establishment of a ‘necessary military garrison and equipment’ on its islands is within its natural right as a sovereign nation.”

The problem is that the reefs over which China has built massive artificial islands and then installed military-related equipment are also claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines and other neighboring nations.

Indeed, in July 2016, a United Nations tribunal unanimously invalidated many of China’s contentious statements and unlawful actions – including its claim of historic rights to resources within its so-called Nine-Dash Line, which covers almost the entire sea.

However, as China has become so powerful and the arbitral tribunal formed under the auspices of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) has no power of enforcement, Beijing rejected the ruling and used its new-found power to force other countries and organizations to sideline it.

Thus if Beijing’s claims and actions in the South China Sea in recent years are any guide, the assertions by Xi and others in China that their country is a benign, responsible and peaceful nation that respects international institutions and rules or that never seeks hegemony or engages in expansion are merely rhetorical at best and deceitful at worst.

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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