On the eve of China’s Pres. Xi Jinping’s arrival for an elaborate state visit to the U.S., a testy little incident has taken place over the Yellow Sea. A week ago two Chinese fighter-bombers made what the Pentagon calls “a dangerous interception” with a slow-moving U.S. spy plane on its regular patrol of the area.
Republican U.S. Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the incident “shows that China feels emboldened to continue its pattern of aggressive behavior in the Asia-Pacific region.” Timing of the incident ahead of the Chinese president’s visit “raises further questions about China’s intentions and the Obama administration’’s response thus far,” McCain said.
Aside from the possibility it could have turned into a major incident, it appeared to confirm earlier statements that Beijing has unilaterally taken the Yellow Sea out of the sphere of international waters to claim it as Chinese territory. Those Chinese claims have gone virtually unnoticed in the Western media, but now become one more evidence of the aggressive nature of China’s growing military stance. The Yellow Sea between the China Mainland and the Korean Peninsular is the northern part of the East China Sea, and U.S. surveillance is an essential part of the defense of South Korea including the 30,000 American troops stationed there as part of Washington’s commitment to its defense. .
It could be, of course, that the incident was only coincidental with Xi’s travel plans. Another possible explanation is that military “hawks” were intent on embarrassing Xi in his effort to exploit his visit to the U.S. to enhanced his prestige for his increasingly grab for power. There are reports in Chinese circles of growing friction between Xi and the People’s Liberation Army over the Chinese leader’s aggressive anti-corruption campaign. However accurate in identifying the ubiquitous corruption among the leadership as well as lower echelons of the Communist Party and government, it is also seen as a weapon in an intra-Party struggle. And Xi has extended the campaign to high members of the military where their operation of non-military enterprises has been a source of vast corruption.
To compound all these possible areas of friction, Xi has moved, according to Chinese sources, quite suddenly, to axe the military numbers. On Sept. 7 at a ceremony commemorating China’s participation in the victory in World War II, he announced that China would chop some 13% off Beijing’s 2.3 million in uniform. Xi’s move came suddenly with no consultation outside of the all-important Central Military Commission which like the other Party and state offices he heads.
Such a move was long contemplated along with a massive reorganization of old Soviet organizational patterns and allocation more resources to air and naval forces. But commentaries in the People’s Liberation Army daily, spokesman for the senior military, have warned that the move will be hard to implement. Finding new jobs for the cashiered officers and men will be all the more difficult given the downturn in the Chinese economy with a rapidly diminishing overall growth rate. One commentator acknowledged opposition to the cutback because “[S]ome units suffer from inertia and think everything is already great. Some are scared of hardships, blame everyone and everything but themselves … They shirk work and find ways of avoiding difficulty.”
China has seen protests by demobbed soldiers – the latest in June including veterans of China’s short border wars in 1969 with the then-Soviet Union and with Vietnam in 1979. Although unreported in the controlled press, some demonstrations were said to have taken place in front of the Central Military Commission August 1st Building in western Beijing. And although most military analysts agree the cutback was a part of a long overdue modernization, continued friction will test Xi’s control over the military at a time of aggressive strategic projections against Japan in the East China Sea and the building of a tier of new bases confronting Southeast Asian neighbors in the South China Sea