Editor’s note: A version of this story appeared in CNN’s Meanwhile in China newsletter, a three-times-weekly update that looks at what you need to know about the country’s rise and how it’s affecting the world. Sign up here.
The roles of “action men” in China’s new military leadership may suggest a greater threat of war with Taiwan, although analysts suggest Xi Jinping’s stated preference for a peaceful takeover of the island should be overruled, at least for now.
China announced the schedule for its Central Military Commission (CMC) last weekend, just days after Xi opened the Chinese Communist Party’s National Congress with a speech in which he vowed to bring Taiwan under Beijing’s control. To thunderous applause, the Chinese leader said this could be done peacefully but – repeating Beijing’s long-standing position – refused to rule out the use of force.
The new leadership of the military commission – the main authority responsible for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) – includes a number of officers seen as “men of action” because of their expertise in areas that would be key to any invasion. And this has raised concerns that this move could be immediate.
Over the past year, China has sharply increased its intimidation of Taiwan, a democratically-ruled island of 24 million that the Chinese Communist Party considers its sovereign territory despite never having controlled it.
Beijing has sent dozens of planes and ships near Taiwan, and has also fired a missile over the island.
Earlier this month, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen said she was ready to work with China to find “mutually acceptable ways” to maintain peace in the Taiwan Strait, saying there was “no room for compromise” on the autonomous island’s sovereignty.
The rhetoric on both sides and Beijing’s recent maneuvers have fueled fears that an attempted Chinese military takeover of Taiwan could be on the next horizon.
But many experts say it doesn’t have to be.
The six-member military commission chaired by Xi does not look like a “war council”, analysts said, but a body created to continue the methodical modernization of the world’s largest army, a goal the Chinese leader set in 2015.
“A hot war in Asia remains unlikely in the near future,” said James Char, a research associate at the China Program at Singapore’s Institute for Defense and Strategic Studies.
“The PLA will continue to try to achieve China’s national goals by operating at a level below the threshold of war in the near to medium term,” Char said.
One of these main goals has been to make the PLA a world-class fighting force (essentially equivalent to the US military) by 2049. All branches of the PLA working as one in times of conflict would be essential to any invasion of Taiwan.
Hear the stark warning delivered to Xi Jinping in his speech to loud applause
The appointment of General He Weidong, former commander of the PLA’s Eastern Theater Command, as one of two vice presidents under Xi in the CMC military leadership shows a commitment to joint operations, analysts said.
When he assumed command of the Eastern Theater in 2019, he oversaw the integration of PLA operations across the Taiwan Strait.
Earlier this year, the results of these efforts were evident when, shortly after US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, the PLA staged a show of force in a joint operation involving naval, air and missile units while simulating a blockade of the island. and sending ballistic missiles over it.
This experience was a new one for the main decision-making body of the Chinese military.
Rod Lee, director of research at the China Aerospace Studies Institute at the US Air Force Air Force One, said he was the first PLA officer in the Central Military Commission to lead the joint command and his experience would be invaluable in any operations around Taiwan.
In addition to assembling the army, navy, air and rocket forces, it will learn how to establish a national mobilization plan and integrate auxiliary units such as the People’s Armed Police, Lee said.
“All these reforms that Xi Jinping has imposed on the PLA, He Weidong is the first one that has had to deal with it on a level in an operational sense,” Lee added.
In addition to this joint command experience, he has another key quality sought in PLA leadership: field experience in hostile situations. He led the army forces of PLA’s Western Theater Command on the Doklam border with India in 2017.
Carl Schuster, former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center, said he was one of Xi’s “action men” on the military commission. Another “man of action” was his vice president, General Zhang Youxia.
Zhang, whose father served alongside Xi’s father in China’s civil war, is seen by many as a loyal ally of the Chinese leader. Zhang served on the previous military commission and has been retained and promoted despite reaching the unofficial retirement age of 68.
Zhang reflects “two important aspects that Xi seems to value: loyalty and war-fighting experience, being a veteran of the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese war,” said Meia Nouwens, senior China fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Joel Wuthnow, a senior fellow at the China Military Affairs Center at the US National Defense University, said Zhang brings another key experience: He is a former director of the commission’s equipment department, which oversees the PLA’s acquisition of advanced technology and hardware. .
“This is a clear priority for Xi. “The (Party Congress) work report is about the need to increase the proportion of ‘intelligent’ equipment, a category that includes things like unmanned systems, artificial intelligence and hypersonic missiles,” Wuthnow said. Zhang’s committee member, Gen. Li Shangfu, also buys has played a role, as Wuthnow points out.
But while these “men of action” and advanced arms procurement specialists sit on Xi’s board, analysts do not expect fighting in the Taiwan Strait any time soon.
Too much work needs to be done with Xi’s military modernization to have a good chance of success, they said.
“The PLA is well aware of its operational shortcomings and knows that it still lacks the capability to launch an armed invasion of Taiwan in the medium term,” said Singaporean researcher Char, noting a lack of equipment and personnel. trained in amphibious landings.
Lee, director of research at the US Air Force College, said the political imperative to invade is also absent.
“There’s probably still enough room (breathing) in (the commission’s) mind that we can work toward a peaceful restructuring option,” Lee said.
“I don’t think what we see today is a council of war.”