BEIJING – China's government has demanded talks with Japan in their latest dust-up over a set of tiny islands, but a high-ranking Chinese military officer has suggested drastically more belligerent responses.
Dispatch hundreds of fishing boats to fight a maritime guerrilla war, says Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan. Turn the uninhabited outcroppings into a bombing range. Rip up World War II peace agreements and seize back the territory, now controlled by Japan but long claimed by China.
"A nation without a martial spirit is a nation without hope," Luo declared at an academic forum this month in the southern city of Shenzhen while officials in Beijing continued to urge negotiations.
Luo's remarks reflect a challenge for China's leadership from a military increasingly willing to push the limits of the ruling Communist Party's official line on foreign relations, territorial claims and even government reforms. It's a challenge that will need to be carefully managed if a once-a-decade leadership transition beginning Nov. 8 is to go smoothly, with China's global reputation and the party's credibility both at stake.
Backed by what is now the world's second-largest military budget behind the U.S., the People's Liberation Army is bristling with new armaments and is becoming increasingly assertive. That has distressed neighbors such as Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines, all locked in disputes with China over island territory potentially rich in oil, and has prompted the U.S. to send more military assets to the region.
Presiding over this force will be a new generation of military leaders taking power at the same time as the new crop of political leaders.
Up to seven of the 10 uniformed members of the Central Military Commission, which oversees the armed forces, are set to retire. Members of the new panel are expected to demand an even greater say in decision making — and a tougher line in disputes with other nations.
While President Hu Jintao's absolute command over the armed forces had at time been questioned, his presumed successor — Vice President Xi Jingping — may have an easier time keeping officers on-message because of his closer ties with many top military figures as a fellow "princeling" — those with ties to communist China's founding fathers.
He may have to wait, though: Hu will likely seek to hold onto his position as chairman of the military commission for another two years, as his predecessor did. Also, five officers generally considered loyal to Hu were promoted this week to top posts such air force commander and chief of the general staff, meaning they will sit on the new commission once it is appointed next month.
Officially, China espouses a "peaceful rise" philosophy that stresses a defensive military posture and the negotiated resolution of disputes. But the PLA's newest generation of ships, submarines, stealth planes and the development of its first aircraft carrier suggest the capability for operations far from home.
Hawkish officers such as Luo have a broad audience in the PLA and in a Chinese public that has grown more stridently nationalistic and increasingly impatient with a ruling party seen as bloated, unresponsive and corrupt. Luo, whose father was a top security officer for Mao Zedong, has at times openly questioned the legitimacy of the "peaceful rise" philosophy and warned that it doesn't preclude China from using force to assert its interests.
Their sentiments find a ready audience via books, online sites and even in state media.
There's a "continual tug-of-war between the party and the PLA," said Denny Roy, an expert on the Chinese military and senior fellow at the East-West Center in Hawaii.
"The party may not want to appear to be trying to stifle a popular nationalistic position expressed by a military man, (which could) turn public anger against the civilian leadership," Roy said.
The 2.3 million-member PLA is technically the house army of the Communist Party, ultimately loyal to the party rather than the Chinese nation. Its chief mission is ensuring the party's hold on power, as it did in 1989 in the bloody suppression of pro-democracy protests centered on Beijing's Tiananmen Square.
No military officers are openly challenging party control. But some have railed against official corruption and called for a degree of political openness that makes party leaders nervous. Among the boldest has been Gen. Liu Yazhou, whose works espousing greater democracy have been privately published and placed in coffee shops in Beijing's university district.
"Senior officers feel entitled to raise their voices because they believe that the party's corruption has elevated the relative standing of the PLA," said Washington-based military strategist and historian Edward Luttwak, who knows Luo personally.
In the 2009 book "China Dream," senior colonel and National Defense University professor Liu Mingfu called for China to upend U.S. dominance in international relations, saying China had a stark choice between becoming the pre-eminent power or one that has "been left behind and eliminated."
Those sentiments were echoed in the introduction to a 2010 scholarly work by Gen. Liu Yuan, whose father, Liu Shaoqi, was a Chinese head of state in the 1950s and 1960s. The younger Liu called for China to cast aside restraint and praised warfare as a foundation of modern culture.
"Those involved in warfare are the most glorious, wonderful, and mournful," wrote Liu, a full general in the PLA who serves as a political commissar.
Requests to interview Luo and the three Lius, who are not related, were declined.
Many observers see a pronounced gap between the headline-grabbing views and bombastic statements of these kinds of officers — most often based in academia — and those of unit commanders who are much more cognizant of the PLA's limitations, as well as top military leaders considered staunchly loyal to the party.
"I would emphasize that, overall, the party leadership wields ultimate decision-making power on key national security issues," said Sarah McDowall, a China analyst with IHS Janes in Britain.
The PLA also has shown the world a friendlier side in recent years, cooperating in anti-pirate patrols off Africa's coast, joining in UN peacekeeping operations and sending a hospital ship to the Caribbean. However, some of that may be as much about testing the ability to operate far afield as about diplomacy.
Xi, the incoming leader, is seen as representing a strain of firm, though not shrill, nationalism. His ties to the military are smoothed by his years in uniform as secretary to former Defense Minister Geng Biao from 1979-1982 — as well as his being the son of a leading communist guerrilla.
The military will continue to yield major sway through its outsized representation on major bodies. It will have 251 delegates at the national party congress opening Nov. 8, three times the number from China's most populous province, Henan.
Its influence has ensured robust spending on such new assets as the prototype J-20 stealth fighter.
McDowall of HIS Jane's said the PLA's influence has been growing in recent years "owing to the increasing resources allocated to it" and that it has a major, behind-the-scenes say in this year's political leadership transition.
"High-ranking military men may feel they have slack in the leash and can speak boldly" when the country's political establishment is in flux, said Roy, the East-West Center senior fellow. "For many in the Chinese military, these outspoken guys are patriotic heroes."