Beijing's Global Ambitions: China Seeks Role as Second Superpower

By Erich Follath and Wieland Wagner

Next week, Beijing will open its 18th party congress at which the Communist Party will select the country's new leader. One of the core issues at the meeting will be the role in China of a military that has gained considerable influence. Some in the party are unhappy with its powerful position.

Photo Gallery: China's Rising Power Photos
AP/ Xinhua

Everyone who attended the event later said that this sort of thing had never occurred before, not once since the communists assumed power in China 63 years ago and the party assumed control of the military. It also happened when everyone was in a mood to relax, at a "holiday banquet" in honor of top generals.

The Communist Party in Beijing had organized the banquet in February to emphasize harmony between politicians and the military. When a senior officer in the air force was about to make a toast to his comrades in the political camp, General Zhang Qinsheng pushed him aside and shouted: "Enough of this cajolery! There are pigs in the party who are plotting against me!" Then he berated President Hu Jintao, who was also sitting at the table, and accused him of being part of the conspiracy against him. The outraged Hu stormed out, and the military officers still in the room had trouble controlling Zhang, who allegedly kept yelling obscenities.

Half a dozen of the attendees confirmed the incident, and their report was leaked to the New York Times and SPIEGEL. What is unclear is how inebriated the general was, and what has happened to him since then.

Zhang, 64, was suspended in May without any official explanation. It was the preliminary end of a stellar career. A member of the People's Liberation Army since 1968, he had worked his way up from commander of the Guangzhou military region to the rank of first deputy general chief of staff. Until a few months ago, he was even mentioned as a possible defense minister. But there was also talk that Zhang was politically unpredictable and not always willing to accept the primacy of the party.

Currying the Generals' Favor

He isn't the only one. In the run-up to the 18th party congress, which begins in Beijing next Thursday, the Communist Party leadership is experiencing substantial turnover. Of the top nine members of the leading body in the People's Republic, the Standing Committee of the Politburo, seven are to be replaced. A struggle is underway over the country's direction -- and for power.

Hu Jintao, 69, will step down as party leader and, at the end of his term in March, will hand over the presidency to current Vice President Xi Jinping, 59. But in all likelihood, he will not give up his chairmanship of the Central Military Commission, thus retaining control over the military until at least 2014. His two predecessors took the same approach. In addition, Hu has promoted at least 45 officers to the rank of general in the last eight years, in an attempt to secure their loyalty.

This must be an annoyance for China's new strongman, Xi. Without control over the military, his political latitude is diminished. Ironically Xi, unlike Hu, has had military experience and maintains close contacts within the armed forces. As a young man, he worked in the office of then-Defense Minister Geng Biao, a friend of his father from their days as guerilla fighters. And he is married to Peng Liyuan, an influential performer of soldier's songs who is adored nationwide, and who holds a civilian rank equal to that of a major general.

Xi has self-confidently allowed himself to become involved in a game of shadowboxing with his current boss. He has met with senior military officials several times in recent months. His closest allies include members of various schools of thought: General Liu Yuan, considered a hardliner and advocate of an aggressive policy, and General Liu Yazhou, who seems to support a political liberalization of his country based on the Singaporean model.

The struggle for the generals' favor increases their self-confidence. Alongside substantial increases in China's military budget (more than 11 percent for 2012, for example), some hardliners envision greater independence for and a depoliticizing of the army. This is a red rag to the Communist Party, which fears such shows of independence and, through the government press, warns nervously against "false ideas" with "hidden motives." These ideas, the Beijing propaganda tool Global Times writes, are being disseminated by the West and are a "strategic tool" to undermine the systems of socialist nations.

A Menacing Ring of Fire?

For the agitators in the army, it is more than a question of increasing their role within the domestic interplay of forces. They feel that China is surrounded, and argue for a new, sharper tone towards its Asian neighbors and, most of all, the United States. In the words of influential Communist Party official Li Qun, Washington has "strategically encircled" the People's Republic. As evidence, he cites the fact that the US Navy plans to station about 60 percent of its warships in the Pacific by 2020, putting more ships there than in both the Atlantic and the Persian Gulf.

Li is also convinced that the White House is making a concerted effort to form military alliances with China's neighbors. "Their real goal is not protecting so-called human rights," says Li. "They are using it as an excuse to constrain China's healthy growth and prevent China's prosperity and power from threatening their global hegemony." This, says Li, is why American military bases are being built from Afghanistan to perhaps even Vietnam soon, forming what the Chinese see as a menacing ring of fire. American military spending is still five times as high as the amount Beijing spends on its armed forces.

In this scenario, it isn't China that is torpedoing any progress toward peace, both in the Syrian civil war, through its United Nations Security Council veto, and with its hesitant position on Iran. The Chinese believe that with their military superiority, the hawks in Washington could shine a light on China's vulnerability in the event of a crisis, blocking seaways and thus cutting off access to the raw materials that are vital to the country's survival. Taiwan, which Beijing sees as nothing but a province of the People's Republic, is being armed and "used as a pawn to stop China's rise," writes retired General Luo Yuan in the US magazine Foreign Affairs.

Territorial Disputes

Chinese military leaders are especially upset about the United States meddling in the South China Sea, a region they view as their maritime backyard, in much the same way as the Americans view the Caribbean. The Far Eastern waters are believed to hold enormous oil and gas reserves, and China is claiming sovereignty over almost every group of islands in them. This has already led to territorial disputes with Vietnam and the Philippines.

Beijing's biggest territorial conflict at the moment is with its old archenemy Japan, over the uninhabited Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, in Japanese hands since 1895. But China contends that historic maps from the Ming era prove that it owns the islands, known as the Diaoyu Islands in Chinese. The dispute threatened to escalate in mid-September, when Beijing sent patrol boats to the region. American diplomatic pressure in early October helped defuse the situation somewhat, with US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta urging Beijing to exercise moderation. Almost concurrently, American and Japanese forces held a joint maneuver on the Pacific island of Guam.

It's highly unlikely that a full-blown armed conflict will erupt in the East China Sea, even though the Communist Party leaders recently had their ships advance into the vicinity of the disputed islands for "exercises." Most China experts in the West see Beijing's boastful generals as rational strategists, more interested in increasing their own power than actual battles.

But tensions with foreign powers can lead to economic wars. When the Japanese seized a Chinese fishing vessel near the disputed islands two years ago, Beijing limited the sale of the rare earth metals that are so critical to Japanese industry. And in September 2012, as a result of the current tensions, trade between the two countries declined by more than 14 percent compared with the same month in 2011.

In recent years, verbal disputes with Japan have led to several violent protests in cities like Beijing, Qingdao and Chengdu. But this nationalist fervor that the party likes to arouse could also become difficult to contain. When angry Chinese protesters attack Japanese facilities and set Toyotas and Hondas on fire, the situation threatens to spin out of control. Moreover, protests against foreign companies can quickly turn against China's Communist leaders in troubled regions with separatist movements, like Tibet and Xinjiang.

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