Chinese media is reporting President Xi Jinping has told his military commanders to “concentrate preparations for fighting a war” as tensions continue to grow over the future of the South China Sea and Taiwan.
China Central Television presented a speech from President Xi, who earlier this year claimed the position in perpetuity, at the weekend — several days after it was made during a tour of Guangzhou province.
“We need to take all complex situations into consideration and make emergency plans accordingly,” President Xi told the officers of the Southern Theatre Command.
State-run media organisation Xinhua also reported President Xi had “underlined the importance of preparing for war and combat”.
President Xi’s words represent a significant ramping-up of the rhetoric being exchanged between Beijing and Washington.
China has been angered by US sanctions on its military for buying weapons from Russia, and by what Beijing sees as renewed Washington support for democratic Taiwan.
Earlier this month, US Vice-President Mike Pence took the tensions between Washington and Beijing to a new level: “Using that stolen technology, the Chinese Communist Party is turning ploughshares into swords on a massive scale,” he said.
Amid growing economic concerns triggered by an escalating trade war with the United States, President Xi is touring his country to bolster confidence.
His speech was given during a tour of the Southern Teature Command Post on Thursday. Its release was delayed by several days.
In it, he reportedly stated the command was having to bear a “heavy military responsibility” as it was responsible for operations in the South China Sea.
Xinhua reports President Xi “stressed the need to focus on combat research and commanding, to advance work in all areas and accelerate developing strong and efficient joint-operation commanding institutions for theatre commands to comprehensively boost the military’s battle-winning ability.”
The president obliquely instructed his military to ramp-up opposition to ‘freedom of navigation’ exercises being undertaken by the US, Australia, France, the UK, Japan and others through the waterway through which arterial shipping lanes have grown since the end of World War II.
“He ordered the troop to keep a close watch for changes in the situations and to strengthen analysis to firmly protect border stability and safety of the people’s life and property,” Xinhua reports Xi as saying.
“After hearing a report on their work, he underlined the importance of preparing for war and combat, while taking consideration of various complex situations, improving response plans and focusing on real-combat training.”
President Xi was not the only ruling Communist Party member to up the ante last week.
The Hong Kong based South China Morning Post reports State Councillor General and Defence Minister Wei Fenghe said that Beijing would never give up “one single piece” of its territory. He warned that “repeated challenges” to China’s sovereignty over Taiwan would lead to military action.
The South China Morning Post quoted military observers as saying President Xi’s words were likely aimed at an internal audience, boosting morale in the face of growing economic and international pressures.
“It’s likely intended as a signal to the US in particular and any parties that Beijing perceives to be causing provocation,” Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said.
Beijing-based military analyst said he expected further clashes to come in the South China Sea.
“The United States is expected to conduct more freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea region, and because it does not recognise (Beijing’s) rights to artificial islands, like Mischief Reef, there will probably be more military friction between the two countries there,” the Post quoted him as saying.
Earlier this month a Chinese destroyer almost rammed a US warship in an effort to force it to leave disputed waters. Shortly after the event, the Chinese defence ministry criticised the US for “gravely threatening China’s sovereignty and security, severely damaging relations between the two militaries and significantly undermining regional peace and stability”.
The UN considers much of the South China Sea to be international waters, and refused to recognise that Beijing’s artificial island fortresses give it any legitimate claim to the region.
Beijing, however, continues to stick by its claim — despite it being rejected by an international court — that it has historical dominance over the sea between Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.
US Secretary of Defence James Mattis cancelled his trip to Beijing in response to rising tensions. Last month, the Chinese government revoked permission for a US warship to visit Hong Kong and recalled its leading naval official from Washington.
Chinese relations with Taiwan have been tense since the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party won elections in 2016. Those tensions have increased as the United States moves to strengthen its diplomatic and military ties with the last outpost of China’s pre-revolution government.
Last week, China’s Foreign Ministry said it had ‘expressed concern’ at the recent passage of two US warships through the narrow water way between China and Taiwan.
“China has closely followed the passing of US warships through the Taiwan Strait and monitored the whole process,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said.
“We urge the US to strictly abide by the three China-US joint communiques and properly handle Taiwan-related issues so as to avoid impairing bilateral relations as well as peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,” Hua said.
Beijing has been quick to use its massive economic influence to quell any progress Taiwan — a democracy of 23 million people — has been making on the international stage. President Xi’s government has repeatedly stated that it intends to ‘reunify’ with Taiwan, and refused to rule out the use of force to do so.
In the meantime, Defence Minister Wei says his military will take action “at any cost” to prevent Taiwan from separating any further.
“The Taiwan issue is related to China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and touches upon China’s core interests,” Wei said at the opening of the Xiangshan Forum in Beijing last week.
“On this issue, it is extremely dangerous to repeatedly challenge China’s bottom line. If someone tries to separate out Taiwan, China’s military will take the necessary actions at any cost.”
The strength of China’s navy has been dramatically increased in recent years. It now has more warships and submarines than the United States. The US navy remains technically more advanced with many powerful units including their nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.
That quality gap, however, is rapidly closing. China has brought into service with surprising speed new stealth fighters and long-range missile-carrying bombers. Its warships are also now equipped with advanced radars and control systems.
Two relatively small aircraft carriers are being used to test and practice naval aviation warfare, and military analysts believe a further four carriers currently being built will be much larger and possibly nuclear powered.
Most significantly, however, has been Beijing’s leapfrog ahead of the West in the arena of hypersonic weapons. It has demonstrated the capabilities of its ballistic guide vehicles and electromagnetic-rail guns, both of which have the capacity to overwhelm existing defensive systems.