Xi Jinping, named Communist Party general secretary in November, reflects a new militancy. On Tuesday, he delivered a hard-edged speech to the Politburo in which he effectively ruled out compromise on territorial and security issues. His tough words were in keeping with the ever-more strident tones of his messages to the People’s Liberation Army about being ready to plan, fight, and win wars. Chinese leaders have traditionally addressed the army and urged improvement in general readiness, but, as veteran China watcher Willy Lam notes, Xi has put a special emphasis on it. Moreover, his calls on preparing for conflict go well beyond those of his two predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.Unremarked is the extent that this rising militancy is being inadvertantly stoked by the Obama administration. In recently announcing its "Shift to the Pacific", this administration has directly called out China as our primary military adversary. While the policy is mostly correct on its merits, it is also something that the President of the US shouldn't be saying out loud. China is a highly nationalistic, militarized country with an unfulfilled self-conception as a global superpower. Rumsfeld's previous "lillypad" strategy had the benefit of boxing in China (by establishing basing agreements fully surrounding them), while ostensibly keeping the eye on global Islamic terrorism--purposefully offering an excuse against inflaming nationalist sentiment in China.
In the past, the military’s war talk contrasted with soothing words from senior civilian leaders. Now, with Xi, the aggressive comments from flag officers are consistent with what he, as top leader, is saying. Worse, as the Financial Times notes, Xi’s words of war are now “being bundled” with his rhetoric, which seems calculated to “fan nationalism.”
In this environment, Chinese military officers can get away with advocating “short, sharp wars” and talking about the need to “strike first.” Their boldness suggests, as some privately say, that General Secretary Xi is associating with generals and admirals who think war with the U.S. might be a good idea.
China looks like it is taking one of its periodic wrong turns.
The Obama administration seems intent on letting domestic politics drive foreign policy. This administration wants to put the War on Terror behind them, thus driving their recent, regrettable policy that puts China in our sights. This is similar to the policy of closing Guantanamo to try terrorists in civilian courts--which could only guarantee acquittal or devastate domestic civil rights protections. This administration is rushing to "Move On" from George W. Bush, thinking tactically, not strategically, and leading to some dramatic policy blunders.