In anticipation of the 96th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Chinese President Xi Jinping called for accelerated modernization of China’s armed forces. This statement comes after months of intensified and ambitious military exercises aimed at projecting power.
In his address, Xi said the military must broaden its combat capability and readiness, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
“We need to push for new equipment and new forces to accelerate forming combat capabilities and integrate into the combat system,” Xi told the Peoples Liberation Army Air Force’s western theatre command during a visit last Wednesday, Xinhua reported on Sunday.
Marking the anniversary on Tuesday, an editorial in the official PLA Daily newspaper said the military had “enhanced its ability to carry out diversified military tasks in a wider space”.
China has flaunted its military might this year, ramping up military manoeuvres and drills, signalling that its third and most advanced aircraft carrier will soon start sea trials, and tightening its military relationship with Russia.
Some analysts say that the moves reflect China’s perception of increased external threats from the United States and its allies and that Beijing is flexing its military muscle to send political messages.
“The reason is simple: the world is not peaceful and the external environment that China faces continues to deteriorate,” said Chinese military analyst Song Zhongping, noting the increasing intensity and frequency of Chinese drills.
The U.S. is also expanding regional deployments and tightening ties with longstanding allies and newer friends – sparking calls from Chinese officials that Washington should steer clear of China’s coasts if dialogue between the two militaries is to resume.
Drew Thompson, visiting senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, told Reuters that China’s drills represent more of a political message than a military one.
“Everything the PLA (People’s Liberation of Army) does is inherently political,” Thompson said. “When the Chinese military conducts an exercise, it is showing force – it is bestowing or sending a message to other countries,” he said.
Starting with the military drill in the Taiwan Strait after Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s meeting with U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Kevin McCarthy in April, China has conducted at least a dozen exercises and patrols from the Sea of Japan to the Western Pacific.
At sea, China is readying its aircraft carriers to extend and assert its power beyond its home waters. Although they remain in training mode, Beijing has deployed the Shandong farther into the Pacific than previous sailings.
Regional military attaches and analysts will be scrutinising the expected sea trial of the more advanced Fujian carrier for signs of technological and operational progress.
State broadcaster CCTV said in June that the sea trial would start “soon” but no date has been fixed.
In the sky, China is fortifying its long-range abilities.
Videos posted online showed China’s J-20 stealth jet fighter taking off with domestically produced WS-15 engines, the South China Morning Post reported in early July, while another report said the new engine will put U.S. military bases in South Korea, Japan, and Guam within the range of J-20.
China has worked for decades to build high-performance jet engines that can compete with Western and Russian models, but the capabilities of the WS-15 are not publicly known.
The refuelling variant of its long-range Y-20 cargo aircraft was also displayed in a formation with jet fighters at a recent air show.
“It delivered a positive signal that Chinese air forces can conduct distant sea training and its systematic and long-distance combat capabilities are getting stronger and stronger,” state media cited Shi Yunjia, a J-20 pilot, as saying last week.