Beijing has ramped up the threats not just on Taiwan and the United States, but others such as Japan and India. These countries would risk “harming . . . bilateral relations and peace,” Beijing admonished, were they to assist Taipei with technologies needed to build an indigenous diesel submarine.
Japan and India are both well accustomed to verbal bullying and operational taunts, especially since Xi’s political ascent began earlier this decade. After Japan nationalized three of the five Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands, Xi dubbed the action “a farce” and putatively spontaneous public outbursts ensued. As one retired soldier explained why he traveled from Shanxi Province to Beijing to march against Japanese actions, “I came here so our islands will not be invaded by Japan,” Wang told the Associated Press. “We believe we need to declare war on them because the Japanese devils are evil. Down with little Japan!”
No less foreboding have been some of the actions taken under Xi’s watch. These include the first publicly known deployment of a drone and a submarine within the vicinity of the Senkaku Islands. In the summer of 2016, China took to swarming boats around the Senkakus to illustrate Beijing’s determination to stake its claim over the remote islands and highlight Tokyo’s long-term challenge of fending off a quantitatively superior aggressor.
China also has recently used both words and actions against India, most notably in 2017 when the two countries engaged in a seventy-three-day standoff in the eastern Himalayas. The Chinese sought to extend an unpaved road on the high-elevation Doklam Plateau where the borders of India, China, and Bhutan converge. While both sides eventually withdrew, the volume of Beijing’s analysis evoked Beijing’s thrashing of Prime Minister Nehru’s troops in the 1962 Sino-Indian border war. As an editorial in the Global Times characterized it, “The Chinese public is infuriated by India's provocation. We believe the Chinese People's Liberation Army is powerful enough to expel Indian troops out of Chinese territory . . . India will suffer greater losses than in 1962 if it incites military conflicts... This time, we must teach New Delhi a bitter lesson.”
Beyond Doklam, China leads the world in cyber attacks on India, China has remained mum on its ally Pakistan’s accusation that implicated India in a November terror attack on its consulate in Karachi, and China’s Ministry of Public Security has issued a public warning concerning the allegedly growing threat from Indian cults.
When Beijing references “China threat theory,” it’s a red flag signaling both a strawman argument to push back on a development antithetical to China’s interests and a double entendre hinting at a potential threat. Take a recent article in China Military Online that on the surface is a straightforward defense of PLA naval deployments to the Indian Ocean. India should not exaggerate the China threat to justify establishing a new naval base in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the article contends, because “China has always advocated enhancing strategic mutual trust with India at all levels.” At the same time, the article suggests that PLA submarine and missile deployments in the Indian Ocean aim “to protect the safety of ships of all countries.” Assuming the author of the article does not wish to exaggerate the threat of pirates, how can this be read as anything but a latent threat to the United States, India, and other navies that from Beijing’s view may interrupt China’s shipping? Where’s the threat?
Even when it comes to human security, China is securitizing its investments and citizens overseas. “China will kill to send a message,” former Reuters journalist Ethan Lou wrote in response to the death sentence meted out to a Canadian man convicted of drug smuggling. Whatever the truth about the Canadian's actions, the sentence seems aimed at gaining retribution against and leverage over Canada after it detained Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou on charges of violating international sanctions. China’s Foreign Ministry has issued repeated warnings, telling the United States and Canada it “will take action” in response to any extradition of Meng Wanzhou. Beijing's language is becoming unhinged over the Meng affair. In a coarsely crafted op-ed, Chinese ambassador to Canada Lu Shaye wrote that Meng's arrest sprung from “white supremacy.”
If racism is the issue, then China need not look further than its ongoing efforts in Xinjiang.
Chinese officials have stretched credulity to defend the “mass internment and coercive indoctrination of Muslim minorities” as a benign jobs program. And China’s ambassador to the United States, the usually urbane Cui Tiankai, cautioned Washington that it would “have to retaliate” if the United States imposed sanctions in protest to the crackdown in western China. Asked Cui: “Can you imagine (if) some American officials in charge of the fight against [Islamic State] would be sanctioned?”
Why is China under Xi sounding the alarm? There are multiple explanations. One rationale could have more to do with China’s domestic politics than about international affairs. Various officials, advisors, and institutions within China may be seeking to curry favor at a time when Xi has consolidated more power than any Chinese leader since Mao. Besides, as is true worldwide when good governance appears so difficult to achieve, words remain an abundant and cheap commodity. Indeed, the price of words seems to drop further every day thanks to the destructive tendencies perpetuated in social media.
A second rationale for the harsh warnings emanating from Beijing could transcend bureaucratic and domestic politics and point to strategic design. Without trying to make disparate comments and operations seem part of a single master plan, the pugilistic pattern fits with the CCP’s desire to achieve psychological victories aimed at bolstering China’s influence, diminishing U.S. power, and intimidating smaller or less advanced neighbors. Saber rattling is a longstanding practice in international relations.
To illustrate a strategic purpose behind escalated rhetoric and action, consider the argument that Beijing appears to be edging closer to kinetic action. To impose its maritime claims in the “First Island Chain” as a means of projecting military power, China appears to be gravitating from coercive grey-zone operations to hybrid warfare that integrates both unconventional and conventional means. This possible trend has some analysts asking whether Beijing is contemplating a significant use of force, perhaps even an invasion of Taiwan.
Talk of the use of force against Taiwan prompts a third rationale that might explain noisier threats. China wants to send clarion signals about its red lines, possibly to strengthen to deterrence and dissuasion, but also to be better prepared to mobilize the military to triumph in local wars if necessary. China’s interest in being prepared for combat is a point made repeatedly in last year’s annual Department of Defense report on the PLA.
Just because the PLA has no recent combat experience, does not mean that it will not gain some soon. The mobilization of land forces in Doklam was the largest undertaken by Beijing against a neighbor since 1979 when the PLA did not precisely acquit itself well in an attempt to punish Vietnam. Even absent sinking aircraft carriers or attacking Taiwan, recent counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan suggest how the Chinese may acquire fresh combat experience.
The three rationales of domestic politics, strategy, and mobilization are neither exhaustive nor mutually exclusive. Chinese players are vying for influence within Beijing, and they seek to argue for how to win without fighting or, if necessary, how to prepare for and prevail in a fight.
Some will dismiss these comments as the ranting of well-known Chinese hawks or government mouthpieces. But U.S. officials should not overlook the rising crescendo of words of war out of Beijing. Under Xi, this trend has become manifest, and it shows no signs of dissipating, not even if the trade and economic frictions ameliorate. America may be unwilling to declare China a threat (vice a strategic competitor), but increasingly Beijing appears less inhibited.
The old saw that, if all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail, always seemed to apply more to the United States than to China. Increasingly, as China’s military power and confidence ascend, concomitant with expanded economic and soft power, Beijing is swinging a hammer.