China: Naval Drill and Regime Legitimacy

11 May, 2018    ·   5463

Palden Sonam weighs in on the drivers that motivated the largest naval exercise in the country's history

Palden Sonam
Palden Sonam
Researcher, China Research Programme (CRP)

President Xi Jinping reviewed the largest naval exercise in China’s history in the disputed South China Sea (SCS) on 12 April, barely two days after the USS Theodore Roosevelt sailed through the same troubled sea as in what the US called normal routine training. The timing and venue of the military drill appears to challenge US’ regional presence, but this is a premature reading. The US enjoys naval supremacy over 95 per cent of the world’s oceans while China is still in the process of developing a strong navy. China’s naval display is thus aimed more at its domestic audience, other claimants of the disputed sea, and to some extent, Taiwan, rather than the US. For the single-party state, such a visible demonstration of power is largely to burnish the regime’s image at home, as an assertive posture can easily play into a powerful nationalist narrative around the rise of a strong China.

In his address to a gathering of 100,000 naval officers, Xi said that the need for China to build a strong navy “has never been more urgent than today,” and that it is required for China’s national rejuvenation. According to recent Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda, while Chinese people became prosperous under Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, under Xi, China has become a strong country. Making China powerful as a state is an important element of Xi’s ‘China Dream’, and a massive show of military might thus may have to do with the development of his own cult of personality. What can also be gathered from this drill and Xi’s speech to the military is that there is a clear paradigm shift in the conduct of Chinese foreign policy, from Deng’s low profile and cautious approach to a more assertive and demonstrative one.

First, in his speech as the indefinite president of China at the conclusion of the 2018 National People’s Congress, Xi said that any attempt to undermine China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity will receive the “punishment of history.” After the Roosevelt sailed through the SCS, Xi had to take measures to match his words with action, especially with the passage of a US carrier through waters to which Beijing lays such strong claims. The ensuing Chinese actions would thus convey to the country its intent to safeguard territoriality and sovereignty, while bolstering the nationalist narrative.

Second, as the chief of the armed forces and as an exhibition of the long strides made by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) under his leadership, the drill was important for Xi at a personal level. By overseeing the largest Chinese naval drill till date, Xi projected himself as a hero figure in the development and modernisation of what he called a “first class navy.” This message also further underlines the nationalist sentiments the CCP wishes to strengthen, as well as Xi’s desire to project his own power within the party and the PLA, given that this was the first military exercise after the abolition of his term limit.

Third, this show of naval force serves as a warning to China’s smaller neighbours in Southeast Asia who disagree with its claims to the SCS and protest against its activities in the sea, such as construction of artificial islands and the area’s militarisation. It displays China’s determination and preparedness to guard its interests.

Fourth, China looks determined to unify Taiwan, and often warns Taiwan about the dangers of going a “separate way.” China’s naval exercise could thus also be a reminder to Taiwan to respect Beijing’s red lines and the futility of resisting eventual national reunification. Taking over Taiwan is a significant part of Xi’s mission for national rejuvenation. In fact, a week after the drill, China again launched a live-fire exercise in the Taiwan Strait, and Chinese media hailed it as a warning to those who advocate Taiwan’s independence. The US had recently passed the Taiwan Travel Act, which is seen by China as yet another attempt to damage cross-Strait relations.

Legitimacy has always been an important issue for the CCP, with implications for regime survival in the long-term. With economic growth slowing down in the midst of rising income disparity, ecological degradation and unemployment rates, the party state is likely to tap more into nationalism as the bedrock of its pursuit of legitimacy. In the event of widespread public discontentment within and outside the party, China may engage in some foreign adventures to divert public attention to an external enemy. Chinese nationalism today emphasises the idea of a strong China that can stand up to any big power, rather than a weak China that still bemoans a “century of humiliation” at the hands of Western and Japanese imperialism. Today’s proud China is also increasingly an assertive China as well.