Chinese President and Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping reviews the troops. Photo AFP / Vyacheslav Oseledko

A set of trial outlines on China’s military operations other than war (MOOTW) takes effect today, Wednesday, to provide the legal basis for deployment of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to suppress riots or secure oil transport during emergency. 

Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is also general secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and chairman of the Central Military Commission, has signed trial outlines to standardize the PLA’s missions, including disaster relief, humanitarian aid, escort, and peacekeeping and other operations that aim to safeguard China’s national sovereignty, security and development interests, Xinhua reported.

Some political commentators said it was possible that the PLA could block the Taiwan Strait by suddenly launching a so-called non-war military operation in a bid to disrupt energy supply to Taiwan, Japan and South Korea.

It is unclear precisely why Xi signed such a document at this time; its full text has not been available. However, the issue is by no means a new one, so there is hardly an element of surprise here. Some Chinese military experts had said for decades that MOOTW ought to be used to suppress Taiwanese independence moves.

Noisy issue

The announcement came as leaders of the United States and China clearly were failing in efforts to keep the Taiwan issue low-key.

Those efforts were visible on November 16, 2021, when Xi and US President Joe Biden held a three-hour virtual meeting with the Taiwan issue being under the spotlight. Xi said China was prepared to take “decisive measures” if Taiwan made any moves towards independence that crossed Beijing’s red lines.

Biden said the US strongly opposed “unilateral efforts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.” He emphasized that the United States “remains committed to the ‘one China’ policy,’ guided by the Taiwan Relations Act, the three Joint Communiques, and the Six Assurances, and that the United States strongly opposes unilateral efforts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”

Despite the two sides’ verbal efforts to signal a modicum of agreement, since then the PLA has continued to deploy fighter jets to Taiwan’s southwest air defense identification zone (ADIZ) while the US has kept sending politicians to visit Taiwan and selling weapons to the island.

The Biden administration has also proactively pushed forward the formation of the Quad, an informal alliance with Japan, Australia and India, this year.

The US Navy said on May 31 that the biennial Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise would take place in and around the Hawaiian Islands and Southern California between June 29 and August 4.

It said 26 nations, 38 surface ships, four submarines, nine national land forces, more than 170 aircraft and approximately 25,000 personnel would participate in the world’s largest drill. Neither Taiwan nor mainland China is included in the exercise.

Military helicopters carrying large Taiwan flags do a flyby rehearsal on October 5, 2021, ahead of National Day celebrations amid escalating tensions between Taipei and Beijing. Photo: AFP / Ceng Shou Yi / NurPhoto

On June 9, Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe and United States Scretary of Defense Lloyd Austin met at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.

Wei accused the US of being a bully in the Info Pacific region while vowing that China would fight to the very end to stop Taiwan independence. Austin said the US was committed to maintaining the status quo and that it recognizes Beijing as the sole government of China. On Saturday, however, he called China’s military activity near Taiwan “provocative, destabilizing.”

Xinhua’s report, on Monday, said Xi had signed a set of outlines that were aimed to prevent and neutralize risks and challenges; handle emergencies; protect people and property; and safeguard national sovereignty, security and development interests, world peace and regional stability.

It said the outlines had important meanings for the Chinese armed forces to carry out their duties and missions in the new era, as they would make innovations in the ways military forces were used and standardize the organization and implementation of the armed forces’ MOOTW.

In scores of chapters, according to Xinhua, the outlines summarize experiences accumulated from past missions and practices, draw results from both military and civilian research and standardize basic principles, organization and command, types of activities, activity support and political work, thus providing the legal basis for the troops to carry out MOOTW.

On the same day, Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said China has sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the Taiwan Strait as Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s territory.

“There is no legal basis of ‘international waters’ in the international law of the sea,” Wang said. “It is a false claim when certain countries call the Taiwan Strait ‘international waters’ in order to find a pretext for manipulating issues related to Taiwan and threatening China’s sovereignty and security. China is firmly against this.” 

An unnamed Chinese military expert told the Global Times, a unit of the ruling party’s People’s Daily, that China’s MOOTW referred to disaster relief and humanitarian aid as well as operations that limit the scale of the use of force like maritime escorts and peacekeeping.

The report added that with the outlines, the Chinese troops could prevent spillover effects of regional instabilities from affecting China, secure vital transport routes for strategic materials such as oil or safeguard China’s overseas investments, projects and personnel.

In 2017, China surpassed the US to become the world’s largest crude oil importer, according to data from BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy. The country mainly sources oil from the Middle East and Angola and 80% of China’s oil has to pass through the Strait of Malacca, according to a report published by the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.

An old idea

In fact, faculty at the Academy of Military Sciences, a research institute of the People’s Liberation Army, had first called for using non-war military operations to suppress Taiwan independence efforts two decades ago.

Tian Yueying, a researcher at the academy, wrote in an article in 2002 that the then Taiwanese leader Chen Shui-bian from the Democratic Progressive Party had pushed for Taiwan independence by refusing to accept the one-China policy stated in the 1992 Consensus.

Tian said it would be a good option for Beijing to use non-war military operations against Taiwan if such a trend continued. However, he did not elaborate on what kinds of operations the PLA should launch.

He Lei, also a researcher at the Academy of Military Sciences, wrote in an article in 2009 that MOOTW were usually launched after natural disasters and transport accidents. He said they could also refer to anti-terrorist operations, such as the suppressions of riots in Tibet’s Lhasa in March 2008 and Xinjiang’s Urumqi in July 2009.

He said the PLA would usually work with local armed forces in domestic operations and cooperate with other countries’ armies in overseas operations.

He said as many countries, including the United States, Japan, Russia and Indonesia had already launched their MOOTW outlines, it would be good for China to launch its own to provide the legal basis for its domestic or overseas non-combat military operations.

Read: China lures Pacific nations to counter the Quad

Read: Biden, Xi agree to disagree on Taiwan

Follow Jeff Pao on Twitter at @jeffpao3