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Xi’s army has the numbers but not the know-how to trigger a full-scale war


Chinese resident Xi Jinping

Chinese resident Xi Jinping

Chinese resident Xi Jinping

China’s fury over Taiwan has meant tensions are at their highest in years, but it’s unlikely missiles fired will trigger a war – for now.

By the numbers, the People’s Liberation Army is impressive – the world’s largest, with two million soldiers.

Xi Jinping, head of the Communist Party and chair of the central military commission, has prioritised bolstering prowess, calling on troops to always be “combat ready”. But behind the rhetoric, the truth is that the military lacks fighting experience.

The PLA is a “military that hasn’t actually fought a war, or had this opportunity to practise its missile and joint capabilities since modernising in the last few years”, said Meia Nouwens, a senior fellow on Chinese military and defence for the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think tank.

China’s drills this week are instructive rehearsals in whether the military could indeed operate effectively if push came to shove. In other words, Beijing is literally  learning whether the phone lines are working and if things will boom on command as programmed.

China needs to figure out whether its newly reformed chain of command is effective – the Eastern Theatre Command is responsible for most of the east coast and was formed in 2016 after a major restructuring. It also wants to know whether its missiles fired are hitting their targets, and if they could be launched not just from land but from air and sea.

At home, the firepower allows Mr Xi to bolster nationalism and justify billions spent on defence despite a Covid-ravaged economy.

“To show strength at a time of domestic concern is certainly an added bonus,” Ms Nouwens said.

It also means Mr Xi can shore up his support ahead of a twice-in-a-decade party congress this autumn, when he’s expected to stay in power for an unprecedented third term.

“China had to do something major, novel, it hadn’t done before, so Xi Jinping could say he stood up to the West, that they are one step closer toward ‘reunification’ [with Taiwan],” said Oriana Skylar Mastro, an expert on the Chinese military at Stanford University. Intimidating Taiwan then becomes the icing on the cake.

The island’s democratically elected government welcomed Nancy Pelosi, the US House speaker, in the most high-profile visit by an elected American official in a quarter of a century.

Beijing claims Taiwan as its territory, so the trip was seen as a direct challenge. And it provided cover for the drills, which done without reason would be far more alarming.

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But they could harden anti-mainland sentiment in Taiwan to the point where Beijing could no longer win hearts and minds, leaving force as the only option.

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