Ren’s provocative dinner talk was no isolated outburst. His message was typical of the increasingly hawkish rhetoric coming from senior officers in the People’s Liberation Army.
At issue these days are the disputed islands known as the Diaoyu (in China) or Senkaku (in Japan) and a string of islets in the South China that China is contesting with various Southeast Asian nations.
But the combative streak speaks to profound shifts in Chinese politics and foreign policy that transcend the heat of the moment. The more provocative of these officers call for “short, sharp wars” to assert China’s sovereignty. Others urge Beijing to “strike first”, “prepare for conflict” or “kill a chicken to scare the monkeys”.
They routinely denounce the Obama administration’s recent “pivot” to Asia - without naming the United States, Ren in his Melbourne speech accused “external countries” of complicating disputes in Asia.
In a political system where civilian officials hew to tightly scripted public positions, these uniformed pundits, both serving and retired, appear free to go well beyond the official line. Almost all of the most-outspoken generals are military academics or theorists.
Foreign military analysts are uncertain if the hawks represent a majority opinion in the 2.3 million-strong military or exercise real influence over foreign policy. It is also unclear if operational commanders share the views of these so-called “activist officers.”
However, there is one generally agreed explanation for their prominence: The PLA now has something to talk about. The military budget has soared to almost $200 billion, according to some Western estimates - the world’s second-highest military budget behind the United States. That money has paid for the warships, strike aircraft and missiles allowing the PLA to plan for distant conflict. For the first time in its modern history, China has the firepower to contest control of disputed territory far from its coastal waters.
Over the same period, China has emerged from decades of isolation to become a powerful trading nation with a complex global web of commercial and diplomatic ties. That means military planners are increasingly concerned with security of sea lanes - particularly in the South China Sea - that carry manufactured exports and imports of vital energy and raw materials.
“Until quite recently, China didn’t have a lot of overseas interests,” said Li Nan, an analyst of the Chinese military at the United States Naval War College. “It didn’t get involved in foreign-policy crises.”