Xi Jinping may have to wait two years to gain control of the world’s largest army after he takes the Communist Party’s top job this week, a delay that may weaken China’s ability to address tensions with Japan and the U.S.
In China’s past two transitions of power, the departing leader kept hold of the military for about two years. That pattern would keep President Hu Jintao atop the party’s Central Military Commission, which has direct oversight of the armed forces, even after he steps down as party general secretary.
Hu could complicate Xi’s efforts to consolidate power and create new room for political jockeying after China’s leadership transition was roiled by the downfall of former Politburo member Bo Xilai. A confused chain of command may muddle China’s handling of territorial disputes with Japan, at a time when the U.S. is concerned that Chinese leaders are using nationalism to paper over domestic tensions.
“When the party leadership is united, it’s obvious the party controls the gun,” Huang Jing, a political science professor at the National University of Singapore who expects Hu will stay on as military chief, said in a phone interview. “But when the party is divided or weak, whoever has the gun has the last say.”
Officials have given no indication of whether Hu will remain as Central Military Commission chairman. The South China Morning Post reported today that he plans to step down from the position at the end of the congress this week. The newspaper cited people it didn’t identify.
China’s relations with Japan reached their lowest point since at least 2005 in September over islands in the East China Sea claimed by both sides. Demonstrators marched in cities across China and attacked Japanese businesses after Japan’s government bought the islands from a private owner.
China has also viewed a strategic shift by the U.S. toward Asia with wariness. The official Xinhua News Agency said in September that Washington’s “unruly allies” in the region, including Japan, had been emboldened by the so-called pivot.
“In light of the U.S. pivot to Asia, China will want to maintain stability,” Lee Dongmin, an assistant professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said by phone. “This is an important time. It’s likely that Hu will stay on for the next several years.”
Hu continues to put his stamp on the military commission even as he prepares to exit the post of Communist Party general secretary, according to Lee. He oversaw the Nov. 4 promotion of two generals, Xu Qiliang and Fan Changlong, and it’s logical they’ll pledge their loyalty to him, Lee said. Hu is projected to step down as president in March after handing over party leadership to Xi at the congress that concludes Nov. 14.
In the run-up to the political transition, Chinese military officials have issued disparate remarks on the country’s defense posture. In an appearance in Beijing with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in September, Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie, a general and commission member, warned of “further action” over the disputed islands.
Addressing a military conference in Australia earlier this month, Lieutenant General Ren Haiquan, vice president of the People’s Liberation Army Academy of Military Science, highlighted Japan’s past as a fascist nation that had bombed the northern Australian city of Darwin. He said territorial disputes could trigger open war, according to The Australian newspaper and two attendees at the meeting who requested anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly.
Ren struck a different tone in an official interview with Xinhua on Oct. 31.
China won’t imitate “past emerging powers in history that sought hegemony by military expansion and resources plunder,” he said. “China will develop itself in peaceful and cooperative ways and rely mainly upon itself.”
That development is happening fast. China’s People’s Liberation Army, with its 2.3 million active-duty soldiers, is working on more sophisticated fighter jets, naval vessels and cyberwarfare technology. A draft report by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, obtained by Bloomberg News, concludes that China is “the most threatening actor in cyberspace.”
Defense spending, projected to be 670 billion yuan ($107.3 billion) in 2012, has more than doubled since 2006, tracking a rise in nominal gross domestic product to 47.2 trillion yuan from 21.6 trillion yuan. As a percentage of GDP, it was 1.3 percent in 2011.
China commissioned a refurbished aircraft carrier and performed its first manned space docking this year. China’s military shipyards may commission enough ships over the next three years to make it the No. 2 builder of warships since 1990, behind the U.S., according to China military experts Gabriel Collins and Andrew Erickson, co-founders of the China SignPost website, which provides analysis of the country. Erickson is an associate professor at the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute.
China is also playing a larger global role. It has conducted piracy patrols off the coast of Somalia and deployed 1,922 peacekeepers in United Nations missions as of September -- more than any of the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council combined.
Should Hu stay on at the military commission, he’ll be following precedent. Jiang Zemin ran the body until 2004, two years after he ceded the post of party general secretary to Hu.
Jiang’s own predecessor at the military commission, former leader Deng Xiaoping, resigned from all his positions except Central Military Commission chairman in 1987, a job he didn’t give up until 1989.
Jiang stayed on at the request of the Politburo, which wrote him a letter saying he should remain to preserve stability amid tensions with Taiwan, the island that’s regarded as a renegade province by China, according to Tai Ming Cheung, an associate professor at the University of California, San Diego, who studies China’s military high command.
The real reason was that Jiang didn’t want to let go of power, Cheung said, adding that the decision spurred criticism and confusion among China’s top military brass.
“It seemed to be an excuse,” Cheung said. “There were hints about two power centers for the next two years -- people didn’t know who was in actual charge. So it was a relief when he finally stepped down.”
Cheung said the post is “one of the key bedrocks for whoever is in charge of the rest of the country.”
Jiang, now formally retired, was able to retain influence over Chinese politics that he keeps to this day, further complicating the current transition, according to Huang at the National University of Singapore.
“What makes this even more unpredictable is that it’s a three people game -- it’s Jiang, Xi and Hu,” Huang said. “People in the military look at what’s going on in the leadership and they want to know who’s in control.”
Even so, Xi may be better positioned than Hu was to earn the military’s loyalty. His father fought in the revolution that brought Chairman Mao Zedong to power, and, unlike Hu, Xi had a staff job in the People’s Liberation Army as a young man. His wife is Peng Liyuan, a folk singer who has the rank of PLA major general.
Xi has been vice chairman of the military commission since 2010,giving him time to forge ties with the country’s generals. Not taking the chairmanship immediately could even make Xi more powerful in the long run, said Jianwei Wang, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
“He can focus on things one by one, instead of having to take care of everything: the party affairs, as well as the presidency and military affairs,” Wang said. “It could be kind of overwhelming for him if he has to take over these functions simultaneously.”
Underscoring the seriousness of the stakes, a delegation of former U.S. officials recently submitted a confidential report to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saying that the dispute between China and Japan over the islands could spin out of control unless the countries involved communicate better. Two members of the delegation said the U.S. was concerned that Chinese leaders may fan nationalist sentiment to deflect attention from domestic problems.
Clinton had dispatched the mission in an effort to assess ways to ease mounting tensions. Members of the delegation described their findings on the condition of anonymity because their meetings and report are confidential.
Further confusion could come in China’s communication with the U.S., said Oriana Skylar Mastro, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington. She said China has escalated “coercive diplomacy” in the South China Sea as it responds to other countries’ territorial claims.
“The U.S. has problems with China as it is -- they don’t answer their phone when we call,” Mastro said. “Crisis management could be complicated by other countries not being clear which elite is in charge or who is holding the reins of the military at the time.”
— With assistance by Nick Wadhams