Maneuvering over China's leadership succession is providing an opportunity for the powerful military to exert greater influence over decision-making, potentially dragging the government into a more confrontational stance with its neighbors and the U.S.
The military has gained prominence in public life at a time when China's economic and diplomatic entanglement with the rest of the world is growing. Some generals and military strategists are fixtures in popular, often nationalistic media, usually calling for a harder line against other countries. The armed forces have engaged in much publicized missions to protect Chinese nationals in Libya and other foreign countries.
Whether this higher profile translates into increased influence in policy-making is being watched as the political leadership enters a fraught succession. The Central Committee, comprised of nearly 400 Communist Party elite drawn from government and the military, closes an annual policy meeting Tuesday, ostensibly focused on cultural issues. Behind the scenes powerbrokers are networking over who will replace President Hu Jintao and many top members in his leadership when they begin stepping down a year from now.
The People's Liberation Army once dominated the leadership and ran everything from factories to farms as the country tried to limit the damage from Mao Zedong's radical Cultural Revolution in the early 1970s. Ever since the leadership needed the military to crush the Tiananmen Square democracy movement in 1989, the party rewarded it with double-digit percentage budget increases nearly every year. This year's defense budget _ at about $91.5 billion _ is second only to the U.S. military's.
As a result, the 2.3 million-member military's professionalism and capabilities have grown, giving it a larger say in foreign and defense policies. With many Chinese feeling proud about China's rising power and using the Internet to express it, Chinese leaders can ill afford to exude weakness on foreign and defense issues.
"Certainly, the military's position has been much strengthened by rising nationalism and increased resources," said Joseph Cheng, head of the Contemporary China Research Center at the City University of Hong Kong.
Military commanders make up about 18 percent of the Central Committee. The PLA also enjoys disproportionately large representation in bodies such as the National People's Congress, China's rubber stamp parliament responsible for vetting the budget and government performance.
President Hu, nine years into his 10-year-term as party head, spent his first years trying to court the military, promoting favored commanders to the 11-member Central Military Commission that has ultimate control over the PLA. Vice President Xi Jinping, almost certain to replace Hu in a deal struck with other party leaders in 2007, is thought by some analysts to have stronger ties with the PLA. Early in his career, he served as secretary to a veteran PLA general, Geng Biao.
Mostly the PLA has seemed intent on using its political clout to secure additional resources and make sure that the leadership sticks to key goals _ like preventing Taiwan, a democratic island claimed by Beijing, from outright rejecting future reunification.
"The PLA's need to advance its own bureaucratic interests makes the Chinese military, collectively and on an individual basis, an influential power broker that may carry enormous weight in Chinese politics generally and especially in CCP leadership transitions," Chinese politics expert Cheng Li wrote in a recent paper for the U.S. Brookings Institution.
Yet having now secured so many resources and with the political leadership consumed by the succession, it's unclear whether the commanders are trying to push the political leadership into a more adventurous foreign policy.
China has upped the ante in its rivalry with Vietnam, the Philippines and others over claims to territory in the South China Sea, while taking a hardline against Japan and refusing to demand that communist ally North Korea return to nuclear disarmament talks. Tensions with the U.S. military soared last year over arms sales to Taiwan and confrontations between Chinese ships and U.S. Navy vessels conducting ocean survey work.
While the generals and admirals who sit on the commission generally keep their views on politics private, a far more vocal class of officers, many of them with strong family connections to past and present leaders, has emerged.
They include Liu Yuan, the son of a revolutionary founding father, Liu Shaoqi, who has delivered speeches and essays pushing a form of militant Chinese nationalism that rejects Western notions of political openness and civil liberties.
Senior colonel and National Defense University professor Liu Mingfu, in a 2009 book, called for Beijing to upend the current U.S.-dominated international order and replace Washington at the top of the pecking order _ contrary to China's stated position.
"If the China of the 21st century cannot become world No. 1, cannot become the most powerful country in the world, then it will be a country that has been left behind and eliminated," Liu wrote, adding that the fight for resources and influence will become ever more acute.
Even moderates like Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai heed nationalistic media. Last week he singled out the Global Times editorial page as praiseworthy precisely because it published such hardline views.