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Protect period of strategic opportunity

By Zhou Bo | China Daily | Updated: 2017-08-17 07:03

Protect period of strategic opportunity

Soldiers load ammunition onto a tank on Aug 4 during the International Army Games 2017 in Korla, Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region. ZOU HONG/CHINA DAILY

Just before the 90th anniversary of the founding of the People's Liberation Army, top leader Xi Jinping told the parading troops on July 30 at the military training base in Zhurihe in the Inner Mongolia autonomous region that the PLA had to build itself into a world-class elite force that can fight and win. The question is-how can it accomplish that?

Excellence of weaponry is no longer a big issue for the PLA. Thanks to decades of strenuous efforts and supported by the robust Chinese economy, the Chinese defense industry has cleared the technological bottleneck and the arms embargo of the West to produce some of the most advanced weapons in the world. When a trio of Chinese destroyers passed through the Strait of Dover for a drill with the Russian Navy in July, one British netizen remarked how "Drake and Nelson must be turning in their graves" to see the Chinese destroyers looking so modern and effective, unlike "our tired old" HMS Richmond, the frigate that monitored the Chinese ships.

However, the PLA has not been war-tested in nearly four decades. Since 1979, China has focused on economic development, and it considers the first 20 years of the 21st century a "period of strategic opportunity" that should be maintained with minimal disturbance. China's patience, resilience and restraint over such incidents as the US bombing of the Chinese embassy in former Yugoslavia, which killed three Chinese, and the collision between a Chinese fighter jet and a US surveillance plane in which the Chinese pilot died, have paid off. Today, China wears many hats, such as being the largest trading nation, the biggest trading partner of more than 120 countries and, above all, the second-largest economy in the world.

No one can deny that China's rise has been peaceful. And China has reason to maintain and even extend the period of strategic opportunity well beyond 2020, as it aims to realize the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation by 2049 when the People's Republic of China celebrates its centenary. If China can rise smoothly to the top of the world without firing a single bullet, it will certainly be able to claim the moral high ground.

But such an achievement, however desirable, is far from certain. Today the leader of the Democratic Progressive Party in Taiwan is dodging the consensus on one China, and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea's nuclear weapons program has added uncertainty on China's periphery. At the same time, there have been quite a few incidents and close unplanned encounters at sea between Chinese and US naval vessels. And China's Belt and Road Initiative covers the "arc of instability" stretching from Sub-Saharan Africa into the Middle East, the Balkans, the Caucasus, and South and Central Asia, to Southeast Asia. All reasons why, as Xi said, we need to build a stronger PLA than ever before.

The ongoing stand-off between Chinese and Indian troops in the Donglang area is a litmus test. India is at a moral disadvantage in that it admits this is not a territorial dispute between India and China, and it has not been requested by Bhutan, at least overtly, to become involved in its territorial dispute with China. Sending its troops to trespass in Chinese territory is not justifiable on security grounds either. No country can make use of its security concerns to challenge the sovereignty of another nation. So should China use force if India continues to refuse to withdraw its troops? If yes, on what scale? And what price is it prepared to pay?

So far, China has chosen to conduct military operations that are humanitarian in nature under the United Nations umbrella, such as peacekeeping and counter-piracy missions requiring the minimal use of force. This is laudable, but is it sustainable? Unlike in the past, when the use of force was only allowed in self-defense, quite a few UN resolutions have authorized peacekeepers to "take all necessary means" and even "use force" in protecting civilians. In the blockbuster Chinese movie, Wolf Warriors II, a Chinese destroyer launches three cruise missiles at rebels who have kidnapped Chinese and African workers.

The stand-off in Donglang is a reminder of how crises and even wars can start in totally unexpected places and sooner than might be expected. China has reason to continue to exercise the utmost restraint as it wishes to extend its "period of strategic opportunity". However, it should also prepare for the worst-case scenario and be ready to fight and win. This may sound harsh, but the truth is that peace is not a godsend. It often has to be earned, sometimes at the cost of war.

The author is an honorary fellow with Center of China-American Defense Relations at the PLA Academy of Military Science.

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