In August, Chinese fighter jets took off from China’s eastern coast and roared across the Taiwan Strait to engage in military drills with Chinese warships around the self-ruled island of Taiwan.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has committed to unifying Taiwan with mainland China and the mobilisation of planes and ships is part of increasingly frequent military exercises as Beijing practises the use of force in ending Taiwan’s separateness – should it be necessary.
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A month before the exercises, Chinese leader Xi Jinping had toured the military’s regional headquarters in Nanjing and told his armed forces of their need for courage and the ability to fight.
Xi said that enhanced war planning, a strengthened command structure and stepped-up training would ensure that China’s military could not only fight but also win in a fight with Taiwan.
Taiwan is not the only rival that China considers in terms of future conflict. The West is in Beijing’s sights too.
But some members of China’s People’s Liberation Army do not share the same concerns as their country’s political leaders in terms of potential enemies, friends and relatives of members of the country’s armed forces told Al Jazeera.
“In a larger sense President Xi wants China to be prepared for a struggle against the so-called Western world,” said Christina Chen, a research fellow at the Taiwanese security think tank Institute for National Defense and Security Research (INDSR).
‘A strong China will threaten their power’
Chinese society has witnessed a rise in nationalism and anti-Western sentiment in recent years.
Western companies have struggled in the face of new government restrictions on their business practices and the public is growing more suspicious and hostile towards foreign entities and influences.
In the military, hostility towards the West is being inculcated in recruits, too.
Song Chun* from Zhanjiang in southern China told Al Jazeera how since joining the military her cousin now believes that China must be far more aggressive towards Taiwan’s separatists and the United States.
“He also said to me that the West, and especially the United States, wants to weaken China because they are afraid that a strong China will threaten their power,” the 36-year-old said.
But the military is not monolithic. Relatives and friends of current and former members of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) told Al Jazeera that some in China’s military disagree with casting the West as Beijing’s foremost enemy and preparing the country for future conflicts that it might not win.
Selena Fu from Quanzhou in eastern China has a cousin and uncle in the military. Like many people in China, Fu said, neither of them holds hostile views towards Taiwan or Western countries.
Though such sentiments would be unwelcome among PLA leaders and the central government, the 29-year-old believes her two relatives are not alone in their positive opinions of the West nor in their scepticism that a victory would be assured should tension turn to conflict with the US.
“There are officers, like them, that also believe that if war breaks out, the Chinese military won’t win,” Fu said.
But, the Chinese military wants their officers and recruits to “believe what they tell them to believe”, she said.
Yang Zi, a PhD student at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, whose research has focused on Chinese security issues, agreed that there are differing views on strategic threats among personnel within the Chinese armed forces.
That has led Xi to initiate numerous “indoctrination campaigns” to ensure that members of the military align their thinking with the Central Military Commission’s views on external threats, Zi told Al Jazeera.
But such indoctrination campaigns have failed to align the views of officers like Fu’s uncle and cousin with those of the central leadership.
“They don’t see anyone looking to invade China, so it makes no sense that the Chinese military have to be ready to fight now,” she said.
Her uncle is stationed at a naval base in Fuzhou, and Fu describes him as someone who generally holds quite positive views of the Western world.
“And he still stays in touch with a couple of American friends that he met when he was younger,” she said.
Fu insists that her uncle’s relationship with friends in the US does not make him unpatriotic.
“He doesn’t want war to break out between America and China and he thinks the best way to do that is by maintaining relations,” she said.
China’s military ‘serves a political party, not the nation’
James Shih from Wuhan has a close friend who works with China’s military logistics as a supply coordinator.
Like Fu’s uncle and cousin, Shih’s friend does not view Western countries as a threat to China and sees it as a mistake that China cut most military engagement with Washington after then-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan last year, infuriating Beijing.
According to Shih, his friend believes that China’s military would operate better and develop faster if it had access to experiences from abroad.
“He told me that a much bigger threat to China is no cooperation with the West because it will be harder for China’s military to modernise,” Shih explained.
According to Yang from Nanyang University, Xi fears that officers with such unaligned perspectives might coalesce into a faction that could challenge his hold over the Chinese military.
The PLA was, after all, founded primarily to provide unconditional military support for the CCP.
“Unlike in other countries, the Chinese military serves a political party, not the nation,” said Chen from INDSR.
The removal of the influential retired PLA Air Force General Liu Yazhou, who advocated for political reforms and cautioned against an invasion of Taiwan, illustrates Xi’s zero-tolerance stance against dissenting views, according to Yang.
Liu Yazhou was removed along with Xu Zhongbo from their leading roles in the military’s elite rocket force which oversees China’s conventional and nuclear missiles.
The following month China’s defence minister Li Shangfu disappeared from the public eye.
According to Chen, such shakeups indicate that Xi does not completely trust the Chinese armed forces. In some ways, that sentiment is mutual, according to Fu from Quanzhou.
“People in the military like my uncle and cousin do not trust that the government can lead China to victory in a potential invasion of Taiwan,” Fu said.
Shih from Wuhan agreed, noting that pressure from Beijing will only push Taiwan and the US to grow closer in the future.
In terms of adversaries, Shih’s friend in the Chinese armed forces also believes that the US has “a lot of allies and a lot more fighting experience than China”.
The US has participated in several military engagements in recent decades, while the PLA has not seen actual combat since it fought a short border war against Vietnam in 1979.
Shih’s friend does not believe that China will win if it starts a fight with Taiwan, which is supported by the US and its allies.
Fu agrees, recounting how her officer uncle once recited a quote to her from the famous Chinese general, Sun Tzu, who lived in the 6th century BC:
“If a battle can’t be won, don’t fight it.”
“My uncle believes those words apply in the Taiwan Strait today,” Fu said.
“So why prepare for a battle over Taiwan that we are going to lose?”
*The names of sources were changed to respect their requests for anonymity given the sensitivity of the topic.
Source: Al Jazeera