PLA leader purged scores of generals causing instability in world’s largest military
BEIJING—Gen. Xu Qiliang is China’s most powerful military boss and as vice chairman of the all-powerful Central Military Commission was the last meeting for Defense Secretary Jim Mattis during a two-day visit to China last week.
Xu greeted Mattis warmly at the ceremonial Chinese Defense Ministry building known as Bayi. The general showed little emotion and few clues to the growing tensions with the United States over Beijing’s buildup of missiles on disputed islands in the South China Sea.
“I believe the two of us can become good friends,” a smiling Xu told Mattis at the start of what would become an hour-long meeting Thursday morning at the Bayi ceremonial defense ministry building in central Beijing.
Mattis, for his part, made clear during his first visit to China that the meeting was about strategic interests, not friendships. The defense secretary delivered a clear and unambiguous message that differences between two of the world’s most powerful militaries must be managed carefully or both nations could face a devastating conflict.
The Americans fear China’s military leaders—untested in combat—combined with an array of new high-technology weaponry is increasing the danger that a careless or reckless act by an overzealous Chinese regional commander will accidentally put the two nuclear-armed powers on the path to war.
Potential triggers of a conflict could include a Chinese anti-ship missile attack against a U.S. warship sailing in a freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea, or the downing of a U.S. surveillance plane over the sea from a long-range air defense missile.
The Pentagon recently detected the deployment of both advanced anti-ship and air defense missiles on several of the Spratly islands near the Philippines.
“Our relationship with China will be defined by our ability to competitively coexist,” Mattis said during a stop in Japan a day after meeting Xu. “We look to cooperate where and when possible, and we will compete vigorously when we must.”
China Refuses to Back Down on Maritime Grab in S. China Sea
A day earlier, Mattis met China’s supreme leader Xi who defiantly stated that China would never give up “one inch” of Chinese territory—in the South China Sea or elsewhere.
The Mattis visit comes against the backdrop of a six-year political purge that ousted scores of PLA generals, including some of the most senior leaders. Analysts say the firings have left the Party-led military increasingly unstable.
The combination of internal PLA dissatisfaction and increased military tensions regionally is a potentially volatile mix.
Xu, in the meeting, squared off against Mattis over the islands and reefs in the South China Sea, insisting the maritime domain there is and will remain Chinese territory.
The Spratlys, called the Nansha by the Chinese, are claimed by several other nations, including U.S. ally Philippines and Vietnam. China also has deployed military forces on the Paracels in the northern part of the sea.
American defense officials said the meeting between Mattis and Xu began with Xu’s recitation of official anti-U.S. talking points but then shifted to some off-script comments and a candid exchange of views.
After listening to Xu’s diatribe, Mattis, a blunt-spoken, war-hardened retired Marine Corps four-star general, informed Xu of American positions on China that emphasize U.S. military strength, commitment to supporting regional allies and freedom of flight and navigation, and engaging in strategic competition with China.
Mattis made frequent references during his visit about the need for honest military dialogue as a means of avoiding miscalculation in the South China Sea and elsewhere in the region. Miscalculation has been used as a euphemism for a possible shooting incident or military collision that could set off a larger conflict.
Xi Continues to Purge PLA Generals, Consolidate Power
Xi-Xu Alliance Threatened by Growing Political Unrest Among PLA Soldiers
Xi and Xu also are said to fear the potential political impact of growing divisions within the PLA over how to handle the current campaign of stepped up military and diplomatic pressure against Taiwan. They also are concerned about internal differences within the military over China’s ongoing efforts to take control of the South China Sea through the disputed island campaign—one of the key talking points for Mattis during his visit.
Magnifying those fears is another major worry for the Xi-Xu alliance: Growing political unrest among the 57 million former PLA soldiers. For the past year thousands of former PLA officers and troops have taken to the streets in mass protests demanding better retirement benefits and an end to the harsh treatment the protesters have received from the government.
Days before Mattis’ Air Force E-4B jumbo jet—used for nuclear command and control—touched down in Beijing on Tuesday, thousands of PLA veterans turned out for five days of public protests in eastern China. The ex-soldier voiced anger at inadequate retirement benefits and harsh treatment by security forces in response to the appeals.
The large protests by PLA veterans were held in Zhenjiang, Jiangsu province and included public denunciations of violent attacks by Chinese security forces on protesting PLA veterans in other parts of China.
On June 24, police in the province sent in hundreds of security forces to break up the demonstrations.
Around 10,000 veterans are being held in detention centers in a bid by Chinese authorities to keep the unrest from spreading to areas of Beijing. Authorities feared the protests at the Bayi building would coincide with Mattis’ visit and undermine China’s plan for a smooth visit.
One former PLA soldier told the South China Morning Post he was upset by the authorities’ crackdown on protesters. “We had to make a compromise but we are still very angry,” the retiree said. “Assaults on veterans [are] a public humiliation of China’s military, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg on the issue.”
Another former PLA soldier, Chen Wuliang, told the New York Times: “The problem is that there’s too much corruption at the local level.”
News of the protests was blacked out in official print and online state media.
PLA Leaders Fearful of Exposing Xu’s Corruption
So far there are no signs leaders in the Chinese military have tried to push back against Xu, fearing retribution if they were to expose his corruption and the many charges leveled purged officers revealed as trumped up.
The lack of any resistance from within the PLA has raised questions among some U.S. analysts about whether the PLA as a military force is capable of taking on an advanced military force like the United States without certain defeat.
PLA leaders also are viewed as conflict averse over concerns any major conflict would cost the lives of their sole sons or daughters—an outgrowth of the decades long Chinese population control policies.
Another deficiency of the PLA is that military leadership is dominated by the political class rather than professional military leaders. Since the purge began, the percentage of officers promoted to senior positions based on political connections rather than military merit has been reduced from 75 percent to around 50 percent. But if half the senior officers were promoted due of their Party connections, that does not bode well for the professionalism of the PLA and ability to wage modern war.
Xu Gained Power As He Consolidated PLA’s Spy Service
Xu was able to rise to power by leveraging the PLA’s vast intelligence system.
Once divided into two PLA general staff departments, known as 2PLA and 3PLA, to discourage political spying on Chinese leaders, the PLA’s formidable spy services were combined into one unit in late 2015. Xu as CMC vice chairman is now in charge of the powerful spy service and is said to be abusing the force to identify PLA generals and admirals who might be regarded as threats to Xi’s rule.
The consolidation of the military spy service also is designed to support Xi’s announced policy in October 2017 that he will assume near total dictatorial power in China. The elimination of the 10-year limit means Xi has taken more power than any leader since the personality cult of Communist founder Mao Zedong.
Xu Instrumental in Improving China’s Relationship with Russia
The PLA official newspaper under Xu’s control obediently supported the power grab by Xi, calling the elimination of the two-term limit on leaders “very necessary.”
Like the many other new generals promoted by Xi as replacements for purged officers, Xu is a vehement critic of the United States. His animus toward America is both professional and personal.
Like many of the senior military in China, Xu had many relatives in the United States and directed their removal because of his animosity. They were sent abroad instead to Australia, Hong Kong, and Britain.
Anti-U.S. sentiment also was part of other meetings arranged for Mattis last week.
As part of the anti-American sentiment, Xu has been the driving force behind the PLA’s effort to develop a Chinese-Russian military entente. Xu was given wide authority from Xi to build relations with the Russian military and makes frequent visits for meetings with Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu. The meetings are often held in a luxurious private residence in the Russian mountains owned by Shoygu.
China’s handling of the Mattis’ visit also highlighted the priority Beijing places on its ties to Moscow’s military. The defense secretary had been scheduled to make his first the trip to Beijing in March. But the visit was postponed when the purge within the PLA ensnared PLA Gen. Fang Fenghui, chief of the general staff.
Fang and Mattis first met in person at the summit between President Trump and Xi in Mar-a-Lago, Florida. During an exchange, Fang asked Mattis what kind of enemy he preferred to fight. Mattis, who has an exquisite knowledge of military history, replied that he likes to fight militaries that train a lot but lack combat experience—a veiled reference to China’s untested PLA.
Full article: China’s Most Powerful General, a Xi Jinping Henchman, Meets Mattis (Washington Free Beacon)