How to Read Xi Jinping
Is China Really Preparing for War?
By John Culver; John Pomfret and Matt Pottinger
June 6, 2023
John Pomfret and Matt Pottinger’s recent article (“Xi Jinping Says He Is Preparing China for War,” March 29) deserves attention for highlighting the rising risk of war between China and the United States. Relations between the two countries, which have the largest economies and the most powerful militaries in the world, are so fraught that experts strain for a comparison short of actual conflict. Each is preparing itself for strategic rivalry, building up military forces, and aligning partners for future economic, diplomatic, and potential military contestation. But the drivers are now long-standing and increasingly structural, not the result of a handful of speeches that the Chinese leader Xi Jinping has delivered since February and that Pomfret and Pottinger focus on in their piece. Indeed, it would be strange if Xi’s authoritative guidance didn’t reflect this reality.
As the authors note, “It is too early to say for certain what these developments mean. Conflict is not certain or imminent.” But the article could leave many readers with the impression that Xi has already made a decision to go to war (he almost certainly hasn’t); that he is confident that his military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), is ready to fight and win such a war (he’s likely not); and that his country’s population and economy are prepared for years of austerity, combat losses, and damage to infrastructure by missiles, cyberattacks, or crippling resource shortages (they aren’t).
FIGHT OR STRUGGLE?
Pomfret and Pottinger write that Xi told his generals to “dare to fight.” The phrase was apparently part of an overall directive upon the opening of China’s legislature on March 6—not a directive just to the PLA. (Moreover, according to Chinese language experts I consulted, a more common translation of the phrase “敢于斗争” is “dare to struggle”; the character used to denote “fight” is not the one typically used to refer to military conflict, 战斗.) Xi has used martial language in speeches to military leadership gatherings since at least 2012. The key phrase is usually translated as “to be able to fight and win battles is the key to being a strong army”—with the unstated implication that “at present, the PLA is not and cannot.’’ Xi’s interactions with the army since he assumed leadership in 2012 is left out of Pomfret and Pottinger’s discussion. He jailed the two most senior officers, prosecuted thousands of officers for corruption, and drove the PLA into a wrenching, and ongoing, reorganization. One might surmise that Xi does not yet trust the military, which has not fought in a major conflict since 1979, and that he still doubts it can “fight and win’’ against a strong military opponent.
More telling than Xi’s guidance to the army is, as Dennis Blasko has written, that “the PLA’s general assessments of its own capabilities have become, if anything, more acute during Xi’s tenure as Central Military Commission chairman, especially concerning the state of leadership at the operational unit level. The totality of these criticisms implies a lack of confidence in PLA capabilities and a failure of the PLA’s educational and training systems to prepare commanders and staff officers for future war.”
Pomfret and Pottinger also note that Xi’s government “announced a 7.2 percent increase in China’s defense budget, which has doubled over the last decade.” The PLA has indeed built a formidable, modern military in terms of equipment, facilities, and defense industrial base, and by some measures it now has the largest or second largest navy in the world. But it did this over 20 years, and annual defense budget increases averaged almost 15 percent prior to the global financial crisis, doubling every five years. Since 2009, real growth in the PLA budget has been halved as China’s economic growth has slowed. The resources available to the military as a percentage of China’s GDP have been flat since the 1990s, and the PLA budget has declined as a percentage of total central government spending. China’s spending on police and other security services is larger than its military spending. This doesn’t negate the threat posed by the PLA, but the growth in its capabilities has been a long process, not crash preparation for war.
Pomfret and Pottinger describe recently approved or proposed laws governing military affairs and mobilization, including the regulation of reserve forces and criminal law administration by the military during wartime. They cite the opening of new mobilization and recruitment centers, including those in cities on China’s eastern coast opposite Taiwan. But they omit mention of at least eight laws enacted since 1997 to codify military rights and responsibilities, military service, and civil-military relations. Many appear designed to improve China’s ability to conduct a prolonged war or deal with other major challenges and to adapt to the restructured PLA and enhance the military’s adoption of civilian technological innovations. But they don’t appear to signal a decision to go to war in the near term (which would be evident in a variety of moves toward mobilization that I outlined in a recent paper for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace).
Pomfret and Pottinger rightly note Xi’s aggressive closing comments in March at the National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, directed at the United States: “Western countries headed by the United States have implemented containment from all directions, encirclement and suppression against us, which has brought unprecedented severe challenges to our country’s development.” But they don’t mention the most likely reason for Xi to “break the practice” of not naming the United States as an adversary: a month earlier, President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address had called out Xi by name twice, breaking an even stronger practice and warning that “winning the competition [against China] should unite all of us.” Biden closed by asking, “Name me a world leader who’d change places with Xi Jinping? Name me one. Name me one”—a personal taunt that Xi chose not to return.
IT TAKES TWO
I agree with Pomfret and Pottinger’s warning that we should take Xi seriously when it comes to Taiwan and prospective war with the United States. But China hasn’t yet made the decision to go to war, and Taiwan remains for Xi a crisis to be avoided, not an opportunity he should seize.
Xi and other Chinese officials certainly take Biden and even more extreme voices in the United States seriously. The Pentagon’s top Indo-Pacific official, Ely Ratner, testified to the Senate in December 2021:
“In addition to the provision of defensive arms and services to Taiwan, the Department [of Defense] remains committed to maintaining the capacity of the United States to resist the resort to force or other forms of coercion that may jeopardize the security of the people on Taiwan. Let me be clear that this is an absolute priority: The PRC [People’s Republic of China] is the Department’s pacing challenge and a Taiwan contingency is the pacing scenario. We are modernizing our capabilities, updating U.S. force posture, and developing new operational concepts accordingly.”
This seems at least as pointed as anything cited by Pomfret and Pottinger emanating from Beijing in recent months.
If Taiwan or the United States ignores Chinese redlines, Beijing will quickly move to conduct hostilities in order to compel a return to the status quo or, failing that, to compel unification between Taiwan and the mainland by force. U.S. policymakers should take that risk very seriously, but this has been true for decades and will remain true for the foreseeable future. Today, China, Taiwan, and the United States are much closer to conflict than at any time since at least the 1970s. The growing preparedness of the PLA may, whether by 2027 or later, make Beijing more likely to take risks. But going to war with the United States over Taiwan would remain fraught with danger for the Chinese Communist Party and for China—a step Xi would take only if other options are exhausted.
Pomfret and Pottinger Respond
John Pomfret and Matt Pottinger
We read with interest the former intelligence analyst John Culver’s essay responding to our piece “Xi Jinping Says He is Preparing China for War: The World Should Take Him Seriously.”
Culver points out that the Chinese Communist Party’s formidable warfighting capability is the result of a decades-long effort that started before Xi Jinping’s rise to paramount leader. This is true.
Culver writes that the drivers of U.S.-Chinese strategic rivalry “are now long-standing and increasingly structural.” We wholeheartedly agree. Culver quibbles with Beijing’s common official translation of the phrase 敢于斗争 as “dare to fight.” Here, too, we agree with Culver that an even better translation would be “dare to struggle”—though the meaning of douzheng often encompasses violence and war, including in the context in which we quoted it in our article.
Culver’s primary point is that even though Beijing has built—and continues to build—a fearsome war machine, and even though Xi has made recent speeches emphasizing the importance of preparing for war and has advanced laws that would facilitate wartime mobilization, none of this means that Xi has already made a decision to go to war in the near term. It’s hard to argue with that point, either. Indeed, we wrote (as Culver notes) that “it is too early to say for certain what these developments mean. Conflict is not certain or imminent.”
From a policymaking perspective, however, we think it would be wise for Taipei, Tokyo, Washington, and other capitals to assume there is a serious possibility that Xi will decide to wage war during his reign as supreme leader. Dictators sometimes commit aggression exactly when outside observers think they couldn’t or wouldn’t. Witness the debacle unleashed against Ukraine by Russian President Vladimir Putin, the man Xi calls his “best, most intimate friend.” Putin has destroyed much of his own army and made Russia a virtual vassal of China, as some people predicted might happen if he launched a major war in Ukraine. Yet he did it anyway.
Given the collective failure by Europe and the United States to deter Putin’s war, Washington and its allies should hurry to shore up deterrence in the Western Pacific so that Xi thinks thrice, as the Chinese saying goes, before committing aggression against Taiwan or anyone else. It is here where we might differ sharply with Culver’s thinking. In his essay, Culver quotes a Biden administration official stating that the U.S. Department of Defense has made it a priority to maintain Washington’s capacity to resist a Chinese attack or other form of coercion against Taiwan. The statement, which struck our ears as responsible and in tune with decades of U.S. policy, seems to be regarded by Culver as highly provocative—“at least as pointed as anything cited by Pomfret and Pottinger emanating from Beijing in recent months.” That’s quite a statement, considering that we cited a proposal in Beijing by a delegate to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference recommending the assassination of Taiwan’s vice president and other elected officials for their “pro-independence” leanings.
Culver also criticizes Biden for mentioning Xi Jinping by name in his most recent State of the Union address. But Culver may be confusing Washington for the provocateur and Beijing for the guardian of the status quo in the Taiwan Strait, even though Washington’s long-standing commitment to defending the status quo, and Xi’s recent efforts to undermine it, should make plain that it is the other way around.