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Chinese aircraft perform during a massive military parade in Beijing on Sept. 3, 2015.

Why Xi Jinping is fanning the South China Sea crisis

TOKYO -- Chinese President Xi Jinping has continued to up the ante in the South China Sea dispute in a bid to overhaul a military whose dominant army has vehemently resisted change.

"To put it simply, Xi Jinping's major reforms of the People's Liberation Army are a form of 'army bashing,'" said an old cadre of the Chinese Communist Party. "They are closely related to his hard-line stance on the South China Sea issue."

The veteran official made the remarks when details of Xi's bold military reshuffle plan emerged. The military shakeup took effect earlier this year. As things turned out, the old cadre was right on the mark.

By "army bashing," the official meant stripping the army of its long-standing vested interests and preventing China's traditional seven military regions from becoming virtually independent kingdoms.

In the past few years, China has been dangerously provocative in the South China Sea, where it is locked in territorial disputes with a number of its neighbors.

In the summer of 2014, it set up a large-scale oil drilling facility in waters also claimed by Vietnam, resulting in clashes between ships from the two countries.

China has also aggressively carried out land reclamation on reefs under its control in the South China Sea, making islands out of them and further escalating tensions in the region.

The simmering South China Sea rows have also brought the U.S. and Japan into the fray.

China says it has historic claims to most of the South China Sea.

Although the U.S. and Japan do not claim any islands in the area, the two countries' governments have denounced China's "militarization" of the sea as a threat to "freedom of navigation."

The series of provocations began when Xi, behind the scenes, was preparing to embark on a massive reorganization of the military.

Xi was facing extremely strong resistance from senior officials of the powerful army trying to protect their vested interests. For Xi, staging a military crisis was an effective way out of a quagmire.

The South China Sea crisis has given the embattled Chinese president an ideal pretext to push ahead with a military reshuffle. The pretext? Making China's military combat-ready.

Military reform slogan

Xi came to power as the Communist Party's general secretary at the party's last national congress, in the autumn of 2012. He assumed the country's presidency in the spring of 2013.

When Xi took the helm of the party in the autumn of 2012, he also became chairman of the Central Military Commission, the top military organ that supervises the People's Liberation Army, or PLA.

President Xi Jinping is about to review troops during a massive military parade in Beijing on Sept. 3, 2015. (Photo by Takaki Kashiwabara)

Soon after becoming chairman of the Central Military Commission, Xi advocated for turning the military into "a people's military that follows the command of the [Communist] Party and is capable of winning wars."

Ironically enough, that slogan itself showed there was a risk of the military disobeying the Communist Party and orders from the civilian head of the Central Military Commission.

What Xi feared most was a money-hungry army.

After taking the military's reins, Xi quickly started translating his reform slogan into action. In carrying out his plan, he purged two former top uniformed army officers, Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong.

Xi, Xu and Guo all served as vice chairmen of the Central Military Commission between 2007 and 2012.

Since being inaugurated, President Xi has wielded a blistering anti-corruption campaign in a power struggle with former Chinese President Jiang Zemin and other political foes.

Guo and Xu were key military members of Jiang's faction. The duo had dominated the military for years.

Many other influential members of the Jiang faction have fallen victim to Xi's anti-corruption drive, but the punishment of the two military strongmen was unprecedented: It represented a complete rejection of army control of the military.

On July 25, a military court sentenced Guo to life in prison for taking bribes. Xu was also indicted on corruption charges in 2014, but died of cancer in March 2015 before his trial began.

Guo Boxiong, a disgraced former vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, is seen during the Communist Party's national congress in November 2012.

Guo and Xu long controlled personnel affairs in the army-dominated military by selling promotions. It was customary to pay huge amounts to be moved into the "general officer" ranks.

General officers include generals, lieutenant generals and major generals.

In its ruling on July 25, the military court said Guo received particularly large amounts of bribes in doling out promotions. It did not specify how much apparently because the total amount of bribes he took was so huge that making it public would send jitters through the military.

The military court apparently wanted to prevent low-ranking soldiers working for peanuts from becoming demoralized amid China's confrontations with the U.S. Navy in the South China Sea.

Culture of corruption

Why did the custom of paying one's way into the "general officer" ranks go unchecked for so long? A quick look at China's traditional system of "regionalizing" its military helps to answer this question.

Before the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949, the Communist Party's Red Army, the predecessor of the PLA, had only ground forces.

After 1949, China set up general departments, such as the General Staff Department and the General Political Department, as the army's core organs. Military regions were then established under these general departments.

The military region system continued, although the regions themselves have been partially redrawn and the number of regions changed. Before Xi's drastic reforms came into force earlier this year, there were seven regions.

The system was created by Mao Zedong, the revolutionary leader who led China to communism. Mao wanted to make sure China was fully prepared for a nuclear war with the Soviet Union.

The thinking was that even if the military regions in charge of defending Beijing, China's capital, and the northeastern parts of the country were annihilated by a Soviet nuclear attack, a remote military region might survive.

Mao also thought China would be able to launch a counterattack, say, from Chengdu, in southwestern China, where steel and other industries related to making nuclear weapons were located, albeit on a smaller scale.

Over the decades, each military region became increasingly independent-minded in terms of budget, personnel and strategy. And each gained greater autonomy.

As a result of the concentration of power in the four general departments and the seven regions, military corruption became rampant. The situation remained unchanged during the leadership of Jiang and Hu Jintao.

Xi, like his two immediate predecessors, concurrently serves as chairman of the Central Military Commission. Xu and Guo were Jiang proteges and could do whatever they wanted in the military.

Xu Caihou, left, a disgraced former vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, is seen at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in September 2012. He died of cancer in March 2015.

Xu, who was born in the northeastern province of Liaoning, was nicknamed "The Tiger of the Northeast," while Guo, who was born in the northwestern province of Shaanxi, acquired the nickname of "The Wolf of the Northwest."

Guo also spent many years in the Lanzhou Military Region, located in the northwest of the country. Guo directly commanded forces for many years.

Bo Yibo, the father of Bo Xilai, a disgraced former Communist Party chief in Chongqing, was an influential figure in the military. The elder Bo laid the foundation for the 14th Group Army in Yunnan Province.

In one episode illustrating how potentially dangerous the military region system was, there were indications that the younger Bo tried to put up resistance using the 14th Group Army when his fall from grace became certain.

In early 2012, the younger Bo visited Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province, to inspect the troops of the 14th Group Army. If the Chengdu Military Region, which also covered Yunnan Province, had fallen into the hands of the younger Bo, civil war could have broken out.

Drastic military shakeup

Under Xi's military reform drive, the four general departments were replaced by 15 functional sections. The seven military regions were reorganized into five "theater commands," and massive personnel changes were also made.

The navy and air force, which had played second fiddle to the army and kept low profiles, have now seen their powers significantly increased.

In any future modern war involving China -- whether it be the South China Sea, East China Sea, Pacific Ocean or elsewhere -- the PLA's navy and air force, not its army, would play key roles.

China's strategic missile force, which was formerly called the second artillery corps and is now called the rocket force, also plays an extremely important role in the country's strategy regarding the U.S.

The primary goals of Xi's military reorganization were to strengthen the navy and air force, create the rocket force and establish an integrated chain of command.

The navy and air force have now been granted powers similar to the army's. In addition, the creation of the rocket force and the strategic support force as new entities independent of the army has also reduced the army's powers.

Since becoming chairman of the Central Military Commission in November 2012, Xi has promoted as many as 23 military officers to general, the military's highest rank.

A group of aides to the Chinese president is becoming increasingly powerful within the military. Xu Qiliang, one of the current vice chairmen of the Central Military Commission, hails from the air force. Unlike his predecessors, Xi has promoted many air force officers to important posts.

End of political fortunes

On July 12, an international tribunal, which was set up under the auspices of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, handed down a ruling rejecting China's territorial claims in the South China Sea. The case was brought by the Philippines.

Xi has ignored the humiliating verdict. If he shows any sign of budging, he could face a revolt from within the military -- from the navy and the air force as well as the army. This would effectively drive the final nail in Xi's political coffin.

When they met in Washington in September 2015, Xi pledged to U.S. President Barack Obama not to "militarize" the South China Sea. Xi made the pledge in connection to China's land reclamation on reefs in the sea.

But after the arbitration tribunal's ruling against China, Wu Shengli, the navy's commander, said China will "continue construction work on islands and reefs in the South China Sea as planned."

Wu made the remarks during his July 18 meeting with Adm. John Richardson, the U.S. Navy's top official, who was visiting China.

Wu was the first high-ranking Chinese official to declare that construction on the reefs-turned-islands would continue. Wu would not be able to make such remarks without first getting approval from Xi.

His words seem to reflect something else that had been unspoken -- the island projects have been implemented under the navy's initiative.

Xi held a meeting with many senior army officials on July 27, two days after Guo was sentenced to life for taking bribes and ahead of the Aug. 1 anniversary of the military's foundation.

It is clear that Xi convened the meeting to calm jitters within the army in the wake of Guo's sentencing.

Xi wore a soft expression as he shook hands with senior officials, one after another. But the message he wanted to indirectly convey was something harsher: "Come to heel."

The meeting also came ahead of the Communist Party's annual conclave in Beidaihe. China's current leaders and retired elders get together every summer in the seaside resort in Hebei Province for the closed-door Beidaihe meeting to informally discuss issues of the day.

At this year's meeting, participants will make preliminary preparations for top-level and other personnel changes that are to be announced at the Communist Party's next national congress in the autumn of 2017.

These changes, however, are at the center of a behind-the-scenes tug-of-war between Xi and his political foes. If Xi takes full control of the military, he will be immovable.

To that end, Xi has no choice but to stick to his guns in the South China Sea.

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