While addressing the function to mark the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party on July 1, President Xi Jinping warned that “the Chinese people will never allow foreign forces to intimidate us… Whoever harbors illusions of doing this will break his head and spill blood on the Great Wall of steel...” (Translation, The New York Times). Towards the end he stated, “resolving the Taiwan question and realizing China's complete reunification is a historic mission and an unshakable commitment.” But in the official English translation of the speech the part about ‘blood and broken head’ is missing. There are multiple interpretations of why this happened: some say the English translation is toned down, while others argue that these four-word idioms are used to express exaggerated consequences, and most are not to be taken literally. I tend to go with the second argument. Usually, a word-by-word translation of Chinese idioms doesn’t make sense.
However, sensing whom it was directed at, the US delivered an answer through Japan’s Deputy PM Taro Aso on July 6: “If a major incident happened [in Taiwan], it would not be strange at all if it touches on a situation threatening survival. If that is the case, Japan and the US must defend Taiwan together.” Now, this could make some of you who rely on the western “liberal” news sources feel that China is on a collision course with the world and militarism has taken over China. Or, it is planning a military move on Taiwan. Relax. It’s not happening. At least not for the next 20-plus years.
Despite the alarming news reports and Western think tanks’ analyses, China would want to resolve its issues with others without having to fire a single bullet. No, it has nothing to do with the ancient military strategist Sun Tzu’s maxim, often translated as “the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” It has more to do with China's social and military realities.
According to a news report published in the Beijing Evening News on 15 August 2011, a big chunk of China’s military is made up of soldiers from one-child families. It quotes Prof Liu Mingfu of the National Defense University as saying, approximately 70 percent of the Chinese military and 80 percent of its combat troops belong to one-child families. Another news report “Soldiers of the one-child era: are they too weak to fulfill Beijing’s ambitions?” published in the South China Morning Post (SCMP) 6 Feb 2014 and translated by many news portals in China, further quotes experts on whether the one-child recruits are best suited to advance China's security interests. It too mentions Prof Liu and his data, but this time as having stated those numbers “in a public report to the central government in 2012... the high proportion of only-child soldiers is a strategic fear to China's long-term security despite the military coming up with special training for spoiled children to strengthen combat effectiveness.” The importance of this report is evident from the fact that the translated version was uploaded on the People's Daily website and is still accessible.
Let's not get into the other points raised in the aforementioned pieces such as “the soldiers from the single child family are spoiled and weak” or the “parents don't want to send their children to battlefields”. There's no reason to doubt the patriotism of Chinese soldiers. They don't and won't hesitate to defend their country’s interests. But the Chinese government would not want to send these soldiers to battlefields unless and until it is absolutely necessary, for one simple reason: Soldiers die in wars.
Even with the advanced weapons and the changes in the nature of warfare brought about by technology, the infantry is still a major component that decides the war’s outcome. And soldiers die fighting—a given in any warfare.
But for the Chinese government it could lead to anti-government forces encouraging the parents of fallen soldiers to protest. Not doubting the patriotism of the Chinese people, but even if a handful of the fallen soldiers’ parents and grandparents start protesting against the government for the death of their only hope for the continuation of the family line, it could lead to untoward situations. And the Chinese society is no stranger to plotters and secret societies always cooking something against the government. Also, the government would have to look after the dead soldiers’ aging parents. And for the CCP it could backfire in an entirely different way.
If the Chinese government makes a military move against Taiwan, it would only embolden the ultra-nationalist voices and there would be calls to use the military to resolve issues with India, Japan and the US. Either the government has to start a bloody war with everyone, or it could be ousted by popular ultranationalist protests for not starting wars.
As the CCP is pragmatic it is not going to risk its own survival, China’s growth and global peace by emboldening ultranationalist voices. And the world doesn’t want it either because the nationalist CCP with its occasional belligerent rhetoric is much easier to deal with than any irrationally hot headed ultranationalist force that replaces it. This explains why the US is still firm on its one China policy and doesn’t want to change the status quo on Taiwan.
Therefore, we need to understand that President Xi was not saying anything new. He was only reiterating what all the Chinese leaders since 1949 have been saying. It helps pacify the hawkish factions in the government and the military that believe in “power unexercised is like unused money, it has no value” and at the same time remind the people that their aspirations of having Taiwan reunited with the mainland is high on the government’s agenda.
But, China would not want to reclaim Taiwan militarily for at least 20 years. The year 2041 would mark a significant departure in China's foreign policy. It would be the year when China can confidently flex its military muscle, if things come to that. And just like it is now, neither China nor the world is looking forward to it.
It was only in 2016 that it allowed couples to have two children, and this year, it allowed them to have three. And as is the trend in all countries experiencing economic growth, not many couples are interested in having more than one child and it affects the military as well (“Chinese military faces challenges from falling fertility rate,” 30 May 2021, SCMP).
The age of entry to the military is 18, and that means the first batch of two-children recruits would join in 2035/36. Add two years of training and that's 2038. And if there aren’t enough recruits from two-child families, the Chinese military would have to wait until 2039/40 to get its first batch of the three-children recruits. By the time they complete their training, it will be 2041. Going by this calculation, the Chinese government would not feel comfortable embarking on a major military adventure until 2041—exactly 20 years from now.
If China is forced to use the military to protect its interests in the interim, that would have more to do with forces beyond its borders—and control. Or if it starts a fight on its own, it would be minor border skirmishes with what it views as weak countries to calm the nationalist faction in its government, military and society. But it's not going to fight a full-fledged war with the “weak" either. China would be fighting short “half wars” until 2041.