China must boost military capabilities to prepare for conflict with US: Top generals

China has projected defence spending growth of 6.8 per cent this year.
China has projected defence spending growth of 6.8 per cent this year.PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING - China must strengthen its military capabilities to prepare for a possible conflict with the United States, two of its top generals have said, in a pointed acknowledgement that current tensions could spiral into armed confrontation.

The comments were made during the annual meetings of China's legislature, the National People's Congress, that are currently under way in Beijing.

General Xu Qiliang, vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), cited the "Thucydides trap" in his remarks during a meeting last Friday (March 5).

"Faced with the 'Thucydides trap' and border disturbances, the military needs to speed up efforts to raise its capabilities," said Gen Xu.

The phrase "Thucydides trap" is used to suggest that conflict between a rising power and an established one is inevitable. It comes from ancient Greek historian Thucydides' explanation of the Peloponnesian War as an inevitable conflict between an established Sparta and a rising Athens. Experts have used the phrase to describe the US-China rivalry.

Gen Xu's reference to border disturbances could be pointing to conflicts with India over the past year, and disputes in the South and East China Seas.

The general is the second-ranked military leader in China, after President Xi Jinping, who heads the CMC.

Gen Xu had pointed out that China was at a critical position - its gross domestic product of 101.6 trillion yuan (S$21 trillion) had exceeded that of the European Union last year and amounted to about 70 per cent of the US' GDP last year.

"The most important thing is internal unity and cohesion, and improving our overall capabilities. If you are strong, you will have long-term stability and a position of invincibility," he said.

At a separate meeting last Saturday, Defence Minister Wei Fenghe said that the strategic rivalry between the US and China has entered a stalemate and that "containment and counter-containment will be the main tone of the long-term future bilateral relations".

This tone would continue throughout the whole process of China's national rejuvenation, he said.

"China's national security has entered a high-risk period. The tasks of national defence and building up the military are tough and arduous," said Gen Wei, who also sits on the CMC.

Beijing "must comprehensively strengthen training and preparedness for war and improve the strategic capability to win over strong enemies", he added.

The readouts of both meetings where the generals spoke at were released only recently.

China has projected defence spending growth of 6.8 per cent this year, up slightly from 6.6 per cent last year.

Gen Xu had said that the increase in military spending reflected the importance and "high expectations" that Beijing has of the military.

Experts have pointed out that this year's increase in defence spending is significant, considering that China's economy had grown by only 2.3 per cent due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and is an acknowledgement of the external challenges that China faces.

It is clear these challenges are high on the minds of China's military officials.

Asked about the increase in defence spending on Sunday, defence ministry spokesman Wu Qian said only a strong military can ensure China's security. He listed a range of security challenges that China faces, including land and maritime disputes, and the issue of Taiwan.

"National defence is as important as sunlight and air. We don't realise its benefits, but once we lose it, it will be hard to survive," said Senior Colonel Wu.