China vows to build ‘fully modern army’ by 2027 as Beijing policy meeting ends on defiant note

Josephine Ma
·6-min read

A key policy meeting concluded on Thursday with a statement that China would not let external pressures sway it from becoming a great power.

It also set a new goal to turn the People‘s Liberation Army (PLA) into a modern military force by 2027, by which time, analysts say, China aims to build an army on par with that of the US.

The four-day plenum at Beijing’s Jingxi Hotel concluded with a televised ceremony at which the 360-plus attendees did not wear masks – a sign of confidence that the country has tamed Covid-19.

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The communique issued after the ceremony said China must seize the opportunity presented by the current global upheaval to be in the front row of great powers.

The confident statement came just days before a messy and chaotic US presidential election approaching its final stage.

While highlighting the international uncertainties and risks, the communique said China would be “steady in terms of our strategies and we will focus on getting our work done”.

The plenum has been under close scrutiny as observers watch for signs about how the pandemic and the rising pressure from the West might affect Xi Jinping’s leadership as the Communist Party puts together road maps for the country’s medium and long-term development.

Two blueprints were discussed during the meeting, the 14th five-year plan and the development goals for 2035.

Among the development goals, the communique said, is the construction of a fully modern army by 2027, which marks the centennial of the founding of the PLA.

Hong Kong military analyst Song Zhongping said the new centennial goal can be interpreted as “putting the PLA as a leading modern force in the world, one that can be on par with the US army”.

Junfei Wu, deputy head of Hong Kong think tank Tianda Institute said this is the first time the Chinese leaders have included the military in such development goals. He said the goal was primarily targeted at Taiwan.

“Basically, the target is to build PLA’s capability to match the US army by 2027, so It can effectively deter interference by the US army around the Taiwan Strait.”

Xi has set two centennial goals before, to turn China into a “moderately prosperous society in all aspects” by 2021 which is the centennial of the founding of the party, and to turn China into a ”modern socialist country” by 2049, which is the centennial of the founding of the PRC.

Julian Gewirtz, a senior fellow for China studies at the Council for Foreign Relation, said the inclusion of these longer-term goals was significant, “though it is hard to say it means Xi will definitely rule until then”.

China’s leaders start major policy meeting to chart course for future

“It‘s important to note that this plenum isn’t just discussing the next five-year plan,” he continued. “It’s also building out the vision for 2035, spanning greater technological self-reliance and other goals for economic and social development.

Why 2035? The easy answer is that it’s the halfway point between the ‘two centenary goals’ of 2021 and 2049.

“Whether or not Xi rules until 2035, this provides a medium-term frame for the actions under way, especially since the next several years will likely remain very challenging for China.”

The document said the country’s achievements were only possible under Xi Jinping’s “helmsmanship”. Photo: Kyodo
The document said the country’s achievements were only possible under Xi Jinping’s “helmsmanship”. Photo: Kyodo

The communique said China has made “remarkable achievements in curbing the pandemic” and made positive progress in its diplomacy, adding that these could only have been achieved under the “helmsmanship” of Xi.

The plenum acknowledged growing international uncertainty but it said China has entered into a period of “strategic opportunity” for its development.

It also said China aimed to become a “great nation” by 2035 on multiple fronts including technology, manufacturing quality, internet, digital technology, transportation, sports, health, culture and education.

It highlights technological innovation as the key driver for China’s development for the next decade.

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“By 2035, the economic and technological prowess and the comprehensive strength of the country will have taken a major leap forward … there will be major breakthroughs in core technologies and [China] will become a leader among innovative countries,” it said.

“We should insist on the core status of technological innovation in our overall plan of modernisation, and make technological self-reliance the strategic pillar for our national development.”

There was no mention of “made in China 2025”, an ambitious project to turn China an innovative and industrial power, which the United States used to argue it should restrict hi-tech exports, including computer chips.

But the communique said the country would accelerate the pace of building up its modern industries and of turning the country into an industrial, online and digital power.

It also stressed the need for self-reliance and prioritised growth in its domestic markets.

“We have to form a strong and big domestic market … and accelerate the pace to nourish domestic demand.”

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China has been pushing a so-called “dual circulation” strategy of developing domestic markets while remaining open to foreign trade and investment to build an internal economic ecosystem less prone to external sanctions and turbulence.

The plenum also said it was important to ensure the security of the economy and society.

Gewirtz said: “China’s leaders now believe that China has one important new advantage ... it has contained Covid-19 and its economy is growing again, making it harder for firms looking for opportunity amid a global economic crisis to walk away….Of course, we should question that official optimism, which seems to put too rosy a cast on a profoundly challenging situation.”

Greater priority will be given to domestic markets. Photo: AFP
Greater priority will be given to domestic markets. Photo: AFP

Mainland analysts said the communique was a consensus document that aimed to address the concerns of policy makers from different sectors.

Xie Maosong, a political analyst at the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, said Beijing had learnt from the rivalry with Washington and the communique aimed to give a comprehensive view on areas where China needed to catch up.

“China has a deep understanding of its shortfalls in technology, economics and the standard of living that could be targeted by the US... it is only when the shortfalls are met that China can be impeccable.”

He said China would pay extra attention to digital technology in the future as it has played a key role in controlling the pandemic.

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Ma Xiao, assistant professor of political science at Peking University, said the party statement did not contain anything controversial, adding: “You can see the interests of all government departments have been taken care of in the communique.”

Gu Su, a professor of philosophy and law at Nanjing University, said the moderate tone and the comprehensiveness of the communique showed that it is a consensus document while at the same time wanting to avoid further tension with the US.

“If you read between the lines, the tone of the [veiled references to the US] are low key and firm,” Gu said.

Additional reporting by Zhou Xin and Guo Rui

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