Xi’s CCP congress speech indicates a major push towards military intelligentisation
21 Oct 2022|

The party congress report is a highly official statement of the Chinese Communist Party, and General Secretary Xi Jinping delivered a lengthy version this week to the 20th national congress in Beijing.

There is value in looking at the key words in the party report, though interpretation is needed. One way to make sense of it is to reflect on the context in which the CCP has used this language in the past.

The overall tone of the 20th congress report clearly expressed the party leadership’s sense of crisis over the deteriorating international environment—for instance, the reference to ‘external attempts to suppress and contain China’ that ‘may escalate at any time’. While Xi didn’t name countries, he was clearly referring to the West, particularly the United States. He stressed strengthening ‘mechanisms for countering foreign sanctions, interference and long-arm jurisdiction’, seemingly with long-term strategic competition with the US in mind.

However, along with a sense of crisis, Xi also sees strategic opportunities in the area of technology—and made it clear in the report that he means for China to seize those opportunities by achieving dominance in key sectors. ‘At present, momentous changes of a like not seen in a century are accelerating across the world,’ he said. ‘A new round of scientific and technological revolution and industrial transformation is well underway, and a significant shift is taking place in the international balance of power, presenting China with new strategic opportunities in pursuing development.’

He named seven sectors as ‘emerging strategic industries’ that are central to this opportunity. Those are next-generation information technology; artificial intelligence; biotechnology; new energy; new materials; high-end equipment; and green industry.

On defence, the previous party congress report in 2017 laid out plans for reform and modernisation of the military by 2035. The military section of this week’s report, however, was more of a stocktake, providing a review of reform measures implemented over the past decade. The emphasis is on continuity rather than change.

That said, Xi pointedly articulated goals set to be reached by the centenary of the People’s Liberation Army in 2027. The report didn’t specify what those are, but a reasonable interpretation, which matches the reported conclusions of US intelligence agencies, is that Xi intends for the PLA to have the capability to take control of Taiwan by force by then.

Regarding military strategy, Xi this week called for implementation of a ‘military strategy for the new era’ (新时代军事战略方针). Military strategy for the new era is something China has been laying out since January 2019. It defines the overall war principles in the medium to long term. In the defence white paper released in 2019, the Chinese government demonstrated its recognition of the rapid evolution of warfare, saying that intelligentised warfare (智能化战争) is on the horizon. The report of the 20th congress was much more specific about particular key trends such as the development of unmanned intelligentised operational capabilities (无人智能作战力量). This aligns with the Chinese government’s significant efforts to train drone pilots, and may reflect the fact that the PLA’s leadership is determined to expand the use of drones in waging war. On the other hand, the report proposes studying the characteristics of informatised and intelligentised warfare and innovating ‘military strategic guidance’ (军事战略指导). This suggests that despite the enthusiasm for drones as platforms of the future, the military leadership has yet to set an operational doctrine for waging intelligentised warfare.

Indeed, another interesting point is that the reference to accelerating the development of military intelligentisation in the 19th congress has changed to a somewhat more moderate statement in the current report. This time it refers to the continued integrated development of military mechanisation, informatisation and intelligentisation (机械化信息化智能化融合发展). This is curious given that mechanisation was supposed to be completed by 2020. The new language suggests that some in the PLA are still cautious about intelligentisation and feel that it shouldn’t get ahead of the need to consolidate mechanisation and informatisation. Alternatively, this might simply be related to the politics of competing interests in the allocation of defence spending.

The report also suggests that China continue to expand the role of the PLA. It mentions not only defending national sovereignty and security, but also securing ‘development interests’ (发展利益) as among the PLA’s missions and tasks. As China’s economic power and weight have grown, its companies and their employees have expanded across the world. During the Libyan civil war in 2011 and the Yemeni civil war in 2015, the PLA conducted large-scale convoy operations to rescue Chinese expatriates. These conflicts were wake-up calls for China’s leadership to recognise the importance of the PLA’s overseas deployment to support Chinese workers abroad. As one of the lessons from these conflicts, the PLA has had personnel permanently stationed at its naval base in Djibouti since August 2017. This week’s report indicates that the PLA will continue to expand its global reach.

Another key passage is Xi’s remark that China will become ‘more adept at deploying our military forces on a regular basis and in diversified ways and our military will remain both steadfast and flexible as it carries out its operations’. This language was not used at the 19th congress, and Xi’s use of it this week might point to China’s growing awareness of the potency of hybrid warfare. The 2013 defence white paper, which detailed the diversified operation of the armed forces, emphasised the use of paramilitary forces such as armed police and militia. In light of this, the word ‘diversification’ (多样化) can be seen to indicate a policy of actively using paramilitary as military forces.

On top of this, ‘regularisation’ (常态化) indicates a policy of applying pressure on other countries to progressively expand China’s claims—including territorial claims—without provoking a response that might lead to war. We can expect the PLA to continue to use military police and militia for operations in ‘grey zone’ situations on a regular basis.

Xi didn’t mention military–civil fusion in his speech. However, that doesn’t mean it has been downgraded as a strategy. The CCP leadership has promoted military–civil fusion as a national strategy since 2015 but stopped mentioning it in official documents in 2019 because of the international backlash.

To understand what’s going on, it’s helpful to look back to the report of 19th congress, which referred to both military–civil fusion and an ‘integrated national strategic system and capacity’ (一体化国家战略体系和能力). These are actually similar concepts in that they both seek to remove barriers between the commercial and defence industrial sectors. Xi continues to mention the latter—as he did in this week’s report—and also continues to promote the sharing of resources and production between the military and civilian sectors, as well as to champion the transformation of science and technology into combat capabilities. This indicates that China is continuing with the development of the military–civil fusion strategy—just without using the name.

The 20th congress report suggests a major trend towards military intelligentisation as a pathway to developing the PLA into a world-class military. That pathway may also lead to new friction with China’s neighbours and other countries across the region.