Over the last several months, Chinese leader Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party have repeatedly exhorted the People's Liberation Army to "be ready to win a war." Xi has repeatedly called for greater military modernization, increased training, and enhanced overall readiness of the Chinese army, navy, and air force.
These repeated calls have alarmed China's neighbors from New Delhi to Washington. The question on everyone's mind: what is all this preparation for?
Is the Chinese leadership preparing for something? Are they gearing up for a military operation, or merely the option to carry one out? Or is there a more innocent explanation for all of this?
One credible explanation is that the Chinese leadership is pushing military readiness as part of the ongoing, national anti-corruption drive. Military anti-corruption efforts have been highlighted by the arrest and imminent court martial of Xu Caihou, a former high level military officer. Xu faces charges of embezzlement, bribery, misuse of state funds, and abuse of power, and is thought to have made at least $5.9 million by selling officer promotions.
Corruption in the Chinese military is thought to be widespread. Although the true effects are not known, it has resulted in ineligible officers being promoted, diversion of state funds, and sweetheart deals between military contractors and officials. Perhaps most importantly, time spent by corrupt officials making money is time not spent training the troops for conflict.
Although the Communist Party's message to "prepare to win a war" may seem bellicose, the government may simply be telling the military to stop making money on the side and just do their jobs.
Another possibility is that Xi and the Party are pushing for the Chinese military to adopt readiness levels on par with the Pentagon. The U.S. military, which is frequently deployed around the world, often on short notice, trains to a relatively high standard. Much of a typical deployment, such as operating planes from an aircraft carrier flight deck, is dangerous work that can only be safely accomplished by training to high level of proficiency.
It's quite possible that China wants the military to achieve this skill level too, for no other reason than to have it. This on the face of it does not imply aggressive intent, only a desire for a prepared military.
Of course, it's possible that the Chinese government has something more sinister in mind.
The Party may desire the ability to conduct military action overseas as a diversion from domestic issues. In recent years, China has used territorial claims in the East and South China Seas and the Taiwan issue to divert public attention from problems at home, even going so far as to organize protests. Political grievances, environmental pollution, food scandals, government land grabs, lack of affordable healthcare, and, most importantly, government corruption are all issues that have sparked civil unrest.
As the Chinese economy slows down, the Communist Party may be worried that decreased economic activity could lead to more domestic unhappiness. A military expedition that united the country behind the government could be an option they'd consider.
In 1982, the generals that ruled Argentina invaded the nearby Falkland Islands, a United Kingdom territory, in a bid to co-opt anti-government dissent. The junta ruling the country believed that invading the Falklands, regarded by Argentines across the political spectrum as belonging to their country, would rally the country around the government.
Unfortunately for the generals, military adventurism is a two-edged sword. The U.K. sent a naval task force to retake the Falklands and Argentina's ensuing defeat proved the downfall of the regime.
Thanks to its recent territorial spats, China has a wealth of option for adventurism, such as sending naval vessels to the Diaoyu Islands (known as Senkaku Islands to Japan) in the East China Sea, making a demonstration of force near Taiwan, or even picking a fight with smaller countries such as the Philippines. Well-trained armed forces are necessary even in operations short of war; a show of force can quickly become a demonstration of incompetence.
We don't really know what is pushing Xi and company's seemingly bellicose exhortations. Much of the decision-making taking place in the Chinese military is a black box opaque to the outside world. Maybe China is preparing for something. Maybe it isn't. Maybe they're preparing for something and even they don't know what it is.
Or maybe they're just telling their people to do their jobs.