China’s Military Modernization: Why It Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means


The National People’s Congress is wrapping up in Beijing this week, but the final meetings are still attracting widespread attention. On March 11, Chinese President (and Chairman of the Central Military Commission) Xi Jinping attended a meeting of NPC delegates from the People’s Liberation Army.

Interestingly, both Chinese and Western media focused on similar themes from Xi’s remarks. Xinhua’s English language article used the title “Xi vows no compromise on national interests” (the Chinese language article, while far more thorough in its coverage of Xi’s speech, used a similar title). The Wall Street Journal also focused on Xi’s comments regarding defending national interests. Both articles gave prominent position to one of Xi’s comments in particular: “We expect peace, but we shall never give up efforts to maintain our legitimate rights, nor shall we compromise our core interests, no matter when or in what circumstances.”

These sorts of comments should not surprise anyone. For one thing, we’ve heard them already, as recently as last week when China was defending a double-digit increase in its military budget. For another thing, militaries around the globe exist to do exactly what Xi tasked the PLA with doing: protecting national “rights” and “interests,” however the people in charge choose to define them. China’s military goals are complicated, of course, by the fact that in the South and East China Sea areas that China claims as its sovereign territory are disputed by other nations, making it tempting to read remarks like Xi’s as an implicit threat.


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