On 30 July 2017, as part of the 90th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Chinese President Xi Jinping reviewed more than 12,000 soldiers, airmen, sailors, rocket, and strategic support troops at the Zhurihe military training base 250 miles northwest of Beijing. While most China “experts” focused on the unprecedented holding of a parade at a remote military base in Inner Mongolia or on the different kinds of military forces on display, this community once again missed the forest for the trees. From my vantage, the most important thing to happen at this event was Chinese President Xi Jinping’s declaration that the “PLA has the confidence and capability to defeat all invading enemies and safeguard China’s national sovereignty, security, and developmental interests” (emphasis mine).
In addition to declaring that the PLA has these capabilities, President Xi’s speech reasserts the notion that the People’s Republic of China has a timeline for the restoration of China to its former glory. For instance, during the same speech, President Xi stated, “China needs to build strong armed forces more than any other time in history as the Chinese nation is closer to the goal of great rejuvenation than ever.”
For too long in our hallowed halls of government, academia, and media we have been told, “Don’t worry. China takes the long view and would rather kick the can down the road than confront a dispute head on.” That belief has been the accepted conventional wisdom for the past 40 years, but the falseness of this view now is becoming incontrovertible.
Understanding this reality is critical for the U.S. military—and the U.S. Navy in particular—when it comes to how and when Taiwan will be attacked from the Chinese mainland. The question no longer is a theoretical, open-ended affair; President Xi’s words in Zhurihe do not stand alone as an empty proclamation. Instead, they are a reminder of the continuity of Chinese leaders’ devotion to the reunification of the motherland, and when it comes to reunification, Taiwan stands at the top of the list of unrestored territories.
One should not forget that in 2013, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense reported that China’s leaders had recommitted themselves to “continue the 2020 Plan,” whereby they would be able to “build and deploy a complete operational capability to use force against Taiwan by that year.” By implication, these leaders believe that by 2020, the PLA also will be able to fend off U.S. forces and thus be able to successfully invade Taiwan.
As such, President Xi’s Zhurihe speech can and should be interpreted as certifying that the PLA (all Chinese military forces) has achieved the capability to “safeguard China’s national sovereignty”—two years ahead of schedule.
So, what does this mean strategically?
It means a count-down clock has been started. The PLA has been judged by the paramount leader as being ready to achieve military victory that would allow China to restore all of its claimed sovereign territory. In a larger sense, it also means the Communist Party of China believes it has the military capability to take Taiwan, the Senkaku Islands, and other unresolved land features in the South China Sea by military force.
Beijing certainly would prefer to acquire its perceived outstanding territory without firing a shot, as it did at Scarborough Shoal and with the creation of the seven “New Spratly Islands.” However, following President Xi’s “certification” of the PLA at Zhurihe, there will be increasing pressure within China to use military force as diplomatic, economic, and informational warfare efforts fail to provide a solution. This pressure will culminate in what I term the “Decade of Concern.”
Central to this theory is the belief that China is calculating a timeline for the latest possible moment it could use military force while still being able to conduct a grand ceremony commemorating its national restoration in 2049. (See Figure 1.)
I believe China’s leaders have a template for calculating that date: the time period from Tiananmen Square to the 2008 Olympics.
In 1989, the international community largely condemned Beijing’s slaughter of its own citizens at Tiananmen Square. Yet, just 19 years later, the world’s leaders flocked to Beijing to attend the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Remember the scene on 8 August 2008 at Bird’s Nest stadium? Tens of thousands of people were in the seats watching one of the most impressive Olympic opening ceremonies in history. At the top of the stadium, in an air-conditioned skybox, were the nine members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo. At the center was President Hu Jintao. And what did President Hu see below him in the seats, in the 95-degree heat and 95 percent humidity?
Why, it was the President of the United States, who went on to describe the event as “spectacular and successful.”
What was the strategic message Beijing took from this event? Likely, that the West has a short attention span regarding issues such as crimes against humanity and the threatened use of military force. In short, it seems certain Beijing believes the West can be counted on to forget even the most horrific of actions after about a 20-year time span.
Given that logic, Chinese leaders likely assess their last opportunity for using military force to physically restore their perceived territory as around 2030. This would allow for two decades of “peace” before Beijing would conduct a grand ceremony to memorialize the “second 100”—the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China.
Which leads back to President Xi’s “certification” at Zhurihe and the start of the “Decade of Concern” two years early. His declaration should be a clarion call to the United States and the rest of the world. The clock is ticking and conflict is on the horizon—unless we take decisive action now.