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Over the last few years, China has been building its military abilities and prowess, to the worrying eyes of its neighbors and adversaries. Now, Chinese President Xi Jinping has issued a blunt call for China’s military to be ready for war and unafraid to die defending the country. 

Mr. Xi’s exhortation to the world’s largest fighting force came during a rare address by the Chinese leader to the country’s entire military.

Mr. Xi cemented his status as China’s most powerful leader in decades during a Communist Party congress in October last year, and this week’s speech and images of massed soldiers and tanks seemed designed to back up his new strongman image.

China’s military personnel should “neither fear hardship nor death”, Mr. Xi told thousands of military personnel during an inspection visit to the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) Central Theatre Command in northern Hebei province, according to straitstimes.com.

Mr. Xi also called for the military, a once-backward force whose rapid modernization over recent years has raised alarm in Asia and Washington, to continue upgrading. He urged the PLA to step up research into high-tech means of warfare and engage in “real combat training”.

“Create an elite and powerful force that is always ready for the fight, capable of combat and sure to win in order to fulfill the tasks bestowed by the party and the people in the new era,” he was quoted saying.

Mr. Xi also called for the military to utilize more technologies, increase scientific education among troops, and explore more options to build an elite and inventive military. As head of the Communist Party’s Central Military Commission, Mr. Xi is commander-in-chief of China’s more than two-million-strong armed forces.

Since taking office in 2012, Mr. Xi has pushed for a muscular China, including calls in October to develop a “world-class” Chinese army by 2050.

China’s neighbors have watched warily as the PLA has upgraded its arsenal with increasingly sophisticated weaponry and sought to create a more effective and professional fighting force.

Analysts say Mr. Xi is very unlikely to risk putting China’s still-untested new prowess into an outright military confrontation. But concerns have grown as Beijing has imposed increasingly assertive claims to vast expanses of the contested South China Sea, while engaging in confrontations with Japan over disputed islands in the East China Sea, and with India over Himalayan regions.

Temperatures also have risen over North Korean leader Kim Jong Un thumbing his nose at the world by repeatedly testing his country’s banned nuclear weapons and missiles, while exchanging tit-for-tat threats with US President Donald Trump.

During his visit to the military command, Mr. Xi was shown in combat fatigues inspecting troops, tanks and sniper training. He also got aboard the Type 99A tank – China’s new generation main battle tank dubbed the “King of Land Warfare” by the military – as well as the Hongjian-10 missile carrier to learn their capabilities.

“In the past, we had more spirit than steel. Now we have plenty of equipment, so we need an even tougher and stronger spirit to wield it,” Mr. Xi said.