BEIJING | 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 highly publicized missions to protect Chinese nationals in Libya and other foreign countries.
Whether this higher profile translates into increased influence in policymaking 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, power brokers 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 (PLA) once dominated the leadership and ran everything including factories and 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 has 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 holds 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.
Mr. 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 Mr. 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.
The PLA has seemed intent on using its political clout mostly to secure additional resources and make sure that the leadership sticks to key goals - such as preventing Taiwan, a democratic island claimed by Beijing, from outright rejecting future reunification.