Purges in China’s military allow Taiwan some respite – for now

Turmoil in China’s senior ranks raises questions about morale and whether the chaos reduces the threat to Taiwan.

Chinese military recruits take part in a training exercise at a military base in Hebei province, north China March 10, 2005. Lawmakers representing the Chinese military voiced their consensus to promote information technology-supported defence modernisation at the ongoing meeting of National People's Congress. Picture taken on March 10, 2005. CHINA OUT REUTERS/China Newsphoto SUN/KY
Chinese military recruits take part in a training exercise at a base in Hebei province, north China [File: China Newsphoto/Reuters]

Danny Jia was walking down a street outside Taiwan’s Taoyuan city in late December when he suddenly heard automatic gunfire.

Not far from Jia’s location that morning, the 249th mechanised infantry brigade of the Taiwanese armed forces was conducting military drills at Guanyin beach on the island’s northwest coast.

“I was so startled that I almost dropped my phone,” the 46-year-old civil servant told Al Jazeera.

“The exercises are also a scary reminder that a war might actually come to Taiwan in the future,” Jia said.

Guanyin beach is one of Taiwan’s so-called “red beaches” – stretches of the coastline that in the event of a Chinese invasion, offer the most favourable conditions for amphibious landing assaults.

For China’s military planners, Guanyin beach would be particularly suitable as it lies less than 18 kilometres (11 miles) from Taiwan’s primary international airport, and only about 50 kilometres (31 miles) from the outskirts of the Taiwanese capital, Taipei.

Democratic and self-ruled Taiwan has never been part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), but Beijing considers Taiwan to be part of its territory and has not ruled out using force to bring the island under its control.

In his new year speech, Chinese President Xi Jinping called Taiwan’s unification with mainland China “inevitable”.

With the ever-present threat of China’s troops spilling onto Taiwan’s shores one day, Jia believes that the military drills on red beaches serve an important purpose in preparing the Taiwanese military for the worst.

Recently, however, Jia has found himself convinced that such a scenario is far from certain due to events in China’s own military ranks.

At the end of December, nine high-ranking military officers were removed from their positions.

Several of those axed were from the Chinese military’s elite “rocket force”, which oversees China’s tactical and nuclear missiles.

Earlier, in August, two leading figures in the rocket force were likewise removed.

That same month, the then-Chinese defence minister, Li Shuangfu, went missing.

Li has since been dismissed and replaced by Dong Jun.

With so many changes among the top brass, Jia said he failed to see how the Chinese armed forces could be prepared for the complex planning involved in a large-scale assault on Taiwan in the near future.

“I think there is too much chaos in China’s military for that,” he said.

A limited Taiwanese respite

People in Taiwan have reasons to feel more secure, according to Christina Chen, a research fellow at Taiwan’s Institute for National Defense and Security Research (INDSR) think tank.

“The removal of senior officers demonstrates that Xi Jinping is clearly not confident in the military, and that reduces the likelihood of a Chinese attack on Taiwan in the near term,” Chen told Al Jazeera.

The relatively large number of Chinese officers expelled in such a short time can also affect the armed forces’ fighting spirit as uncertainty spreads as to who will be targeted next.

“More removals might follow and that could further weaken the morale of the military and its ability to fight,” Chen said.

While the risk of an imminent conflict in the Taiwan Strait may have been reduced, Chen sees Beijing’s long-term goal of taking over Taiwan staying firmly in place.

China’s new defence minister, Dong Jun, has experience with military matters regarding Taiwan from his previous roles as commander of the Chinese navy, deputy commander of the Southern Theatre Command and deputy commander of China’s East Sea Fleet.

Although a defence minister serves mostly a diplomatic and public role in China, the appointment of the highly experienced Dong Jun was not arbitrary, according to Chen.

It reflects Beijing’s overall ambition of turning China into a maritime power that can rival the United States and eventually annex Taiwan, she said.

Beijing has in recent years increasingly projected its growing maritime and air power in Taiwan’s direction.

Airborne and maritime incursions into Taiwan’s air and sea space have become a daily occurrence by the Chinese armed forces.

Sabre-rattling rhetoric and large-scale military drills in the waters close to Taiwan have also accompanied times of particular tension.

This was the case in the aftermath of then-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei in 2022 and after Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s stopover in San Francisco last year where she met with Pelosi’s successor, Kevin McCarthy.

Some observers expect a similarly assertive Chinese reaction leading up to President-elect William Lai Ching-te taking office in May following his victory in the Taiwanese presidential election on January 13.

Beijing has branded Lai a separatist and declared that the election result would not change the Chinese government’s stance on Taiwan’s unification with the mainland.

Chen sees Beijing’s pressure campaign directed at Taiwan continuing despite the dismissals in the Chinese military ranks.

“That will not change no matter how many military officers are removed,” she said.

The biggest purge

According to Associate Professor Alfred Wu, a scholar specialising in corruption and governance in China at the National University of Singapore, the removal of Chinese military officials is more than a simple shake-up.

“In addition to the anticorruption effort, it is a purge,” Wu told Al Jazeera.

“Xi Jinping is strengthening his hold over the military and sending a signal to all those that are not completely aligned with him that they might be next and therefore should be afraid,” he said.

Wu described the use of fear as a tool employed to try to secure loyalty in China’s authoritarian state structure where a lack of oversight and transparency can easily result in corruption and poor governance.

Since Xi came to power in 2012, several anticorruption campaigns have resulted in purges throughout the Chinese state apparatus.

The Chinese military has long had a reputation for corruption, but the fact that the army’s elite rocket force has been targeted is unprecedented.

The scale of the crackdown has left observers describing it as one of the biggest in Chinese military history.

Under the rule of Xi, who has called for the military’s absolute loyalty, purges are, in Wu’s words, “a continuous process”.

Purges might even grow in frequency and magnitude, according to Wu, as the legitimacy that the Chinese government enjoyed during the country’s economic boom years comes under strain at a time when the Chinese economy is showing signs of weakness.

“The economic situation might cause insecurity to grow within the Chinese government leading them to take more hawkish steps to secure loyalty within the state and in the military,” he said.

However, continuing purges within the Chinese military may have a lingering impact on its capabilities.

“It’s difficult to fight a war if many of your generals are in jail,” Wu said.

Back on the outskirts of Taoyuan city near one of Taiwan’s “red beaches”, Jia, the civil servant who was startled by the military exercises in December, said that he doesn’t wish ill on anyone.

But he also hopes the purges continue if they protect peace.

“I hope that more Chinese officers will lose their jobs if it means we won’t get a war.”

Source: Al Jazeera