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Chinese Succession and Chinese Foreign Policy

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on CNN’s website on April 19, 2012. It can be found here. It is reprinted here with the authors’ permission.

By Neil K. Shenai & Bernard Geoxavier

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 canreassert 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.

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