China’s military prowess set for starring role at annual parliament

President Xi Jinping has pledged to make the military world-class by mid-century

China’s President Xi Jinping inspecting People’s Liberation Army soldiers at a barracks in Hong Kong in June 2017. Photograph: Dale De La Rey/AFP/Getty Images

China’s President Xi Jinping inspecting People’s Liberation Army soldiers at a barracks in Hong Kong in June 2017. Photograph: Dale De La Rey/AFP/Getty Images

 

Domestically produced aircraft carriers, new stealth warplanes and improved rocket capabilities are among the military highlights that look set to dominate the rhetoric at China’s annual parliament, which opens this weekend.

President Xi Jinping has promised to make the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) a world-class military force by 2049, when the People’s Republic celebrates its centenary.

Along with combatting corruption and improving the general happiness of ordinary Chinese, beefing up the military was a key driver behind plans to repeal presidential term limits, which could see Mr Xi’s tenure stretching beyond 2023.

Strains are growing with neighbours over China’s territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and there is increased pressure from the PLA’s generals to compete with the US military for regional strength, so a strong increase in spending looks likely at the National People’s Congress (NPC), which opens on Saturday.

The increase in defence budget spending is generally released the day before the rubber-stamp parliament starts.

Last year’s increase was seven per cent, the lowest in more than a decade, but military analysts believe much of China’s defence spend is not included in the headline figure, with funding for military projects diverted through other sectors.

China points out its defence spend is about one-quarter of that of the US. Also, it insists its spending is focused on defence – China has not fought a war since an ill-fated incursion into Vietnam in 1979.

Military drills

Certainly the military has been busy. During the Lunar New Year holiday, the PLA’s fighter jets staged manoeuvres over Tibet, while the navy staged drills close to the disputed Diaoyu Islands.

Military prowess is being talked up by People’s Daily, the official organ of the Communist Party, and the paper’s English-language feed on Twitter ran a flurry of tweets about China’s growing military might.

These included a propaganda video featuring China’s home-grown J-16 fighter jets, “which the air force says are ‘good partners’ of its J-20 aircraft and will further strengthen China’s air attack and defence capabilities”.

The feed, ironically on a social media platform banned in China, also included a link to “never-seen-before” footage broadcast on Chinese television of three DF-10 cruise missiles being fired in rapid succession.

Then there was a message saying: “China will step up efforts to develop its own nuclear-powered aircraft carrier”, citing a strategic plan from the shipbuilding conglomerate China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation.

Also on Wednesday, the People’s Daily tweeted that the Long March-11 carrier rocket would carry out its first sea-launch mission this year, according to the country’s main space programme contractor, China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp.

Taiwan warning

The Twitter feed also ran a warning to businesses on self-ruled Taiwan not to support independence moves. China considers Taiwan a breakaway province that its newly expanded military could be used to take back by force.

In a separate development, local media in Hong Kong reported that the English-language service of the state news agency Xinhua had made a major gaffe for sending out an alert saying “China Communist Party proposes change on Chinese president’s term in Constitution”. The alert was sent out two hours ahead of the Chinese-language version, which buried the news of the plan to abolish term limits on the presidency deep in the text.

The Apple Daily reported that the editors involved were dismissed for “political misconduct” and the leader of Xinhua was required to write a self-criticism.