China’s Xi Jinping calls for military growth amid tension with US and Taiwan

The President did not address the country's economic downturn or the housing crisis, Asia Correspondent Debi Edwards reports

Chinese leader Xi Jinping called for faster military development and announced no change in policies that have strained relations with Washington and tightened the ruling Communist Party’s control over society and the economy.

China’s most influential figure in decades spoke as the party opened a congress that was closely watched by companies, governments and the public for signs of official direction.

It comes amid a painful slump in the world’s second-largest economy and tension with Washington and Asian neighbours over trade, technology and security.

Party plans calls for creating a prosperous society by mid-century and restoring China to its historic role as a political, economic and cultural leader.

Beijing has expanded its presence abroad including by launching the multibillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative to build ports and other infrastructure across Asia and Africa, but economists warn reversing market-style reform could hamper growth.

“The next five years will be crucial,” Xi said in a televised speech of one hour and 45 minutes to some 2,000 delegates in the cavernous Great Hall of the People.

He repeatedly invoked his slogan of the “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” which includes reviving the party’s role as economic and social leader in a throwback to what Xi regards as a golden age after it took power in 1949.

The congress will install leaders for the next five years. Xi, 69, is expected to break with tradition and award himself a third five-year term as general secretary and promote allies who share his enthusiasm for party dominance.

The party’s military wing, the People’s Liberation Army, needs to “safeguard China’s dignity and core interests,” Xi said, referring to a list of territorial claims and other issues over which Beijing says it is ready to go to war.

China has the world’s second-largest military spending after the United States and is trying to extend its reach by developing ballistic missiles, aircraft carriers and overseas outposts.

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“We will work faster to modernise military theory, personnel and weapons,” Xi said in the speech, which was punctuated by brief bursts of applause. “We will enhance the military’s strategic capabilities.”

Xi cited his government’s severe “zero-Covid” strategy, which has shut down major cities and disrupted travel and business, as a success. He gave no indication of a possible change despite public frustration with its rising cost.

The congress will name a Standing Committee, the ruling inner circle of power. The line-up will indicate who is likely to succeed Premier Li Keqiang as the top economic official and take other posts when China’s ceremonial legislature meets next year.

Analysts are watching whether a slump that saw economic growth fall to below half of the official 5.5% annual target might force Xi to compromise and include supporters of market-style reform and entrepreneurs who generate wealth and jobs.

Xi on Sunday gave no indication whether he would pursue a third term as leader or when he might step down.

During his decade in power, Xi’s government has pursued an increasingly assertive foreign policy while tightening control at home on information and dissent.

Beijing is feuding with Japan, India and Southeast Asian governments over conflicting claims to the South China and East China Seas and a section of the Himalayas. The United States, Japan, Australia and India formed a strategic group dubbed the Quad in response.

The Communist Party congress

The party has increased the dominance of state-owned industry and poured money into strategic initiatives aimed at nurturing Chinese creators of renewable energy, electric car, computer chip, aerospace and other technologies.

Its tactics have prompted complaints that Beijing improperly protects and subsidises its fledgling creators, and led then-President Donald Trump to hike tariffs on Chinese imports in 2019, setting off a trade war that jolted the global economy. Trump’s successor, Joe Biden, has kept those penalties in place and this month increased restrictions on Chinese access to US chip technology.

Last week, banners criticising Xi and “zero Covid” were hung from a pedestrian bridge over a major Beijing thoroughfare in a rare protest. Photos of the event were deleted from social media and the popular WeChat messaging app shut down accounts that forwarded them. Xi said the party would build “self-reliance and strength” in technology by improving China’s education system and attracting foreign experts. He said Beijing will launch “major national projects” with “long-term importance” but gave no details.

Xi’s government also faces criticism over complaints about mass detentions and other abuses against mostly Muslim ethnic minority groups and the jailing of government critics.

Amnesty International warned Sunday that extending Xi’s time in power will be a “disaster for human rights.” In addition to conditions within China, it pointed to Beijing’s efforts to “redefine the very meaning of human rights” in the United Nations.

Xi said Beijing refuses to renounce the possible use of force against Taiwan, the self-ruled island democracy the Communist Party claims as part of its territory. The two sides split in 1949 after a civil war.

Beijing has stepped up efforts to intimidate Taiwanese by flying fighter jets and bombers near the island. That campaign intensified further after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in August became the highest-ranked US official to visit Taiwan in a quarter-century.