Written by Michael Reilly.

Among all the announcements during and surrounding last week’s meetings in Beijing of the National People’s Congress, referred to colloquially as the liang hui, two in particular had foreign policy analysts reaching for their tea cups to read the leaves.

On the eve of the Congress, the Central Military Commission published the names of 14 senior officers who had been placed under investigation for corruption. Coming after the arrest of former CMC vice-chairman Xu Caihou last year, also for corruption, this was the clearest possible sign of Xi Jinping’s determination to assert his control over the PLA and ensure it is answerable to him. But then on Wednesday came the announcement of another double digit increase in China’s defence budget. One day clamp down hard, the next day give a reward? On first glance, hawks in Washington and elsewhere will no doubt argue that the spending increase will fuel a regional arms race, while tackling corruption will see the PLA gradually become a tougher, more effective and therefore still more threatening military. After almost twenty years of large budget increases, China’s defence spending is now exceeded only by that of the USA (although the latter’s budget is still over three times larger).

Whatever the underlying reasons for the arrests, Xi Jinping arguably deserves at least two cheers for his stance. Analysis of clashes in the East and South China Seas between Chinese boats and those of its neighbours in recent years shows a worrying pattern of initial low level provocation by Chinese vessels. In one notorious example, the row with Japan in September 2010 after the latter arrested a Chinese fishing boat captain for entering territorial waters illegally, the captain was widely reported to have been drunk at the time his boat was detained. Subsequent incidents in the Diaoyutai/Senkakus and the Spratlys may not have arisen from such ill-discipline but they were scarcely more welcome for the government in Beijing, which had to manage the consequences.

Under Hu Jintao, four distinct organisations had supposedly differing responsibilities around China’s coasts. These were the Marine Surveillance Agency, the Coast Guard, the Fisheries Administration and the Anti-Smuggling Police. All were separate from the PLA Navy and each was accountable to a different Ministry. Rivalry between them was fierce, co-operation limited and the most effective way of securing a bigger budget from central government was by showing the organisation’s importance in protecting national interests. What better way of doing this than by sending ships from the organisation in defence of an incident or ‘provocation’?

Xi Jinping sent an early signal of his intent to bring this semi-anarchic state of affairs under control with the announcement early in 2013 that they would be brought under the umbrella of the State Oceanic Administration, which would be given sole responsibility for maritime law enforcement activities. Expectations that firmer central control would mean fewer incidents were initially dashed, when boats from the new Chinese Marine Police forced a Japanese Coast Guard vessel away from waters surrounding the Senkakus in August 2013. Subsequently, in May 2014, a Vietnamese vessel was rammed and sunk during protests about Chinese drilling near the Paracel Islands. Arguably it was this incident that marked a low point in regional tensions, followed as it was by anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam.

But it may also have served as a wake-up call to the Chinese administration of the price it was paying in terms of influence and standing for its policies. Since then, China and Vietnam have moved to patch-up relations and bilateral relations with Japan, while still frosty, are at least once again on a working basis. Behind this appears to lie recognition in Beijing that confrontations with its neighbours were proving increasingly counter-productive. But Xi needed to move carefully so as not to upset domestic opinion and above all, the military. That he now feels secure enough to take on the latter is clear from the first of last week’s announcements. But Xi must also recognise that the military’s loyalty cannot be taken for granted and even more importantly, that if it is to do its job effectively, it must have the tools to do so.

In most areas, the PLA remains many years behind its western counterparts in technology terms. This is especially true of the PLA Air Force, which remains dependent on Russia for its most advanced fighters, and the PLA Navy, whose ships a western defence attaché recently described as ‘glorified car ferries.’ A better equipped, more disciplined PLA Navy would not be a force to be trifled with. But it would also be a force with a better understanding of the importance of agreed ‘rules of engagement’ and codes of conduct to ensure to avoid misunderstandings that could spark a much more serious conflict. Presumably too, this more disciplined approach would cascade down to the Coast Guard. If so, we ought to be able to look forward under Xi Jinping to more ‘quiet diplomacy’, fewer ‘provocations’ and an accompanying reduction in regional tensions. But not to any wider agreements of the various territorial disputes.

Michael Reilly is a non-resident Senior Fellow at the CPI, a former Director of the British Trade and Cultural office in Taipei and until recently the chief representative in China of a major international aerospace company. Image Credit: CC by James Vaughan/Flickr.