Surge in China’s military operations reflects ‘new normal’ under Xi Jinping

A rush of Chinese military activity across the region this month has capped off a year of increased aggression, as President Xi Jinping displays China’s increased military might despite economic struggles and the impact of the zero-Covid policy and its sudden end.

This month the People’s Liberation Army – the Chinese Communist party’s military wing – has broadened its aerial incursions into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone (Adiz), come to blows with Indian troops in the Himalayas, run military drills near Japan and participated in major joint exercises with Russia.

Analysts say the activity is a sign of a “new normal” under the increasingly militaristic rule of Xi, who has made huge efforts to overhaul and modernise the PLA.

“Three of the five [PLA] theatre commands are involved in operations centred around their specific mission areas, which is definitely an impressive feat,” said an independent defence analyst, Ben Lewis. “I think this is a clear demonstration of how far along the PLA is in its development process, which is based on its desire to conduct operations in support of its wide variety of objectives simultaneously.”

On Wednesday the PLA sent 39 warplanes and three naval vessels into Taiwan’s Adiz, with many on a path around the south-east corner of the island. Such a trajectory used to be rare but this year they and other escalated acts have become more common.

After the US House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, visited Taiwan in August, the PLA surrounded the main island with massive live-fire exercises, repeatedly crossing the median line, an unofficial maritime border between Taiwan and China. Such crossings have continued, significantly raising the bar of what is considered regular activity.

Last week a record number of 16 nuclear-capable H-6 bombers were among the PLA aircraft crossing into the Adiz.

“Taiwan is clearly a focal point for PLA modernisation, and the PLA is a political tool applying intense, continuous military coercion towards Taiwan and its neighbours,” said Drew Thompson, a visiting senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew school of public policy and a former US state department official.

This week Chinese state media reported “unprecedented” Chinese naval exercises in the Philippine Sea, crossing the Osumi and Miyako straits between Taiwan and Japan. The flotilla contained a record number of destroyers, according to the Global Times, including the Liaoning aircraft carrier, which had not been spotted in any public exercises for months, even during the post-Pelosi drills.

It came just days after Japan announced a defence budget increase and new defence strategies in which China was labelled an unprecedented “strategic challenge”. Chinese state media characterised the mission as crossing “beyond the first island chain” to send a message amid “Japan’s recent militaristic moves”.

And on Monday Russia announced joint naval exercises with China, to begin on Wednesday. The Russian defence ministry said the Varyag missile cruiser, the Marshal Shaposhnikov destroyer and two corvettes of Russia’s Pacific fleet would take part in manoeuvres in the East China Sea, and that the Chinese navy planned to deploy several surface warships and a submarine for the exercise.

The drills are a sign of China and Russia’s strengthening military ties. This year, Xi and Vladimir Putin announced a limitless friendship, weeks before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Xi has had to balance that friendship with global condemnation of the invasion, but the Chinese Communist party has largely been supportive of Russia – at times explicitly endorsing the invasion – and the two have grown closer militarily.

In November the two air forces flew joint patrols over the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea, with Russian bombers landing in China for the first time and Chinese bombers flying to an airbase in Russia. In September, China for the first time sent forces from three branches of the military to participate in joint exercises with Russian troops.

Visitors tour past military vehicles carrying ballistic missiles at an October exhibition in Beijing highlighting Xi Jinping and China’s achievements under his leadership. Photograph: Andy Wong/AP

“Diplomatically, the exercises are a clear demonstration that China regards Russia as a security partner and will not be breaking relations because of the Ukraine invasion,” said Bill Hayton, the author of The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia.

“The Indian government may, however, be unhappy that its main strategic partner, Russia, is exercising with its adversary, China, at a time of confrontation.”

Last week it was revealed that Indian and Chinese troops had fought in disputed Himalayan border regions in the most serious confrontation since the Galwan Valley clash in June 2020, when dozens were killed in hand-to-hand combat.

Lewis said the clash, which occurred around the line of actual control (LAC) in Arunachal Pradesh, shared similarities with the Taiwan Adiz flights in that they appeared to be attempting to raise the bar of normal activity.

“The PLA has diverted significant resources to develop military infrastructure and forces near the LAC,” he said. “They used this attack to change the status quo in the area while pretending that their high number of forces pulling back from the LAC was a de-escalation.”

At the same time as the heightened military activity, China is experience a surge in Covid cases, and likely deaths, after abruptly lifting restrictions. The health system is straining, the economy is facing new struggles with widespread reports of absenteeism due to sick employees, and there is fear and confusion among the population.

“I think it’s worth considering in the light of ending zero-Covid that operations are still clearly a priority and that the PLA is managing Covid sufficiently to keep their operational tempo at this level,” said Blake Herzinger, a nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute thinktank.

“But to some extent it’s also just what we should expect from the military that Xi wants to build.”

Analysts also said all the activity potentially served a propaganda purpose while Covid surges through China and causes political problems for Xi, as well as serious social and health problems for the population.

“For China watchers/western media, military exercises do better in the news cycle than Covid because they are relatively novel,” Lewis said. “For state-run media, it keeps up the strong China message that Beijing is hoping to push.”

M Taylor Fravel, a professor of political science and director of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s security studies programme, noted that state media reporting of PLA exercises was traditionally selective and never gave a full picture of the “operational tempo”.

“Now, all the state media attention to these various exercises may have another purpose,” he said. “Namely, to show that despite the outbreak China remains a strong and capable military power, lest anyone might think China would soften its position in various international disputes.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report