Politics of China’s Military Reorganization
Paper No. 6092 Dated 30-Mar-2016
By Bhaskar Roy
China’s President Xi Jinping, who is also the general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) chaired a path - breaking meeting of the CMC from November 24 to 26, 2015 which brought about wide ranging structural changes in the country’s defense doctrine. The doctrinal changes have not been spelt out, but only the structural changes have been publicly emphasized. Have these changes improved the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) fighting capability to any significant extent? The answer is both yes and no. But politically, huge changes have been made.
As Mao Zedong said, the Party commands the gun. This slogan still remains emphatic in the Party-PLA relationship. The converse is also true. The gun protects the Party. This symbiotic relationship between the two have not been without stress periodically, but the size and power of the CPC always prevailed. Marshal Lin Biao tried to oust Mao, but failed. CMC first Vice Chairman Gen. Yang Shangkun and his half brother Yang Baibing, member of the CMC, planned to topple the President Jiang Zemin leadership. The problem was that the Yang family was close to the then undisputed leader Deng Xiaoping’s family, whereas Jiang was the hand picked Party chief of Deng. The Yang brothers were eased out of the PLA, while Jiang was protected by Deng. The last such attempt was made by Chongqing Party Chief Bo Xilai with some army officers’ support, but mainly with the support of political heavyweight and member of the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC), Zhou Yangkang. From the military angle former Vice Chairman of the CMC Xu Caihou and some other senior military officers were prosecuted for corruption, as was Zhou. Jiang Zemin was seen as the head of this network trying to eliminate him. Basically a political-military nexus against Xi Jinping.
While Xi Jinping felt that he had all other sections of the country in his grip, he was not sure about the military. But he understands the politics of the military very well, having experienced the Cultural Revolution during his youth, seen the PLA’s role during the 1989 Tiananmen Square students’ uprising when some PLA officers declined to move against the protesting students, and worked with defense minister Geng Biao.
The power of military commanders was something that the Party had always to reckon with. Hence, traditionally the political Commissars were placed a notch higher than military commanders. Political and ideological education in the armed forces was intensive, emphasizing that the Party was supreme and the role of the PLA was dual- protect the Party and safeguard the country. But after the PLA’s lackluster performance against Vietnam in 1979, the political leaders shifted focus to professionalism under the guidance of Deng Xiaoping; political education suffered.
Although Deng held the nominal post of vice premier, he had to remain chairman of the CMC as the new political leaders were not acceptable to the powerful military leaders as CMC chairman.
To trim the wings of the PLA, Deng Xiaoping reduced the number of Military Regions (MRs) from eleven to seven. He wanted to break what is known in Chinese history as “Mountain Warlordism”. The MR commanders and Commissars, who worked in tandem, had become a power unto themselves. They became almost unaccountable to the CMC. The astute Deng worked things gradually to eventually install Jiang Zemin as the chairman of the CMC. To control the military top leaders, Jiang simply bought them over through promotions and perquisites. That, in some ways started the rot in the PLA, but helped Jiang maintain influence at different levels for a long time. While Xi appears to have erased Jiang’s influence in the Party, the PLA and the conglomerates, he is yet to initiate action against him. This is something to consider in the coming months at least.
In the guidelines on deepening national defense and military reform on January 01 by the CMC, it was stated that the “CMC chairman responsibility system” must be fully implemented to ensure that the top leadership of the armed forces is centralized in the “hands of the CPC Central Committee and the CMC” (Xinhua, January 01, 2016). The Xinhua went on to record “thus (the reform) must be under the central leadership of the CPC, the CMC and CMC chairman Xi”. The CPC’s absolute leadership of the armed forces must be consolidated and perfected.
The CMC guidelines reveal that all stops have been pulled out to establish Xi Jinping’s total supremacy over the armed forces. He has already established his grip over the Party. Independent decision making power has been taken away from the PLA.
As an immediate effect, newspapers published by the MRs have been disbanded. These newspapers were controlled by the political Commissars and commanders of MRs and were important political instruments in their hands.
In February, it was announced that the sevens MRs would be regrouped into five “theatre commands”. The four military departments, General Staff, General Political, General Logistics and General Armaments, have been reorganized into fifteen departments. The Second Artillery (strategic nuclear force) has been renamed Rocket Force. A Strategic Support Force department has also been set up.
It can be seen that the reorganization has elevated the level of importance of the navy and air force, which in turn has reduced the huge power and influence of the army. The establishment of the General Command of the army is a critical decision both in terms of political command and military management. The overall political directions will now lie exclusively with the General Command, that is with Xi, the CMC and CPC Central Committee’s senior leaders (read Politburo and its Standing Committee). In the forces’ structure the General Command would be able to have more horizontal interaction to improve clarity and efficiency. Earlier, the military structure was more vertical, especially in the ground forces. The restructure has distributed responsibility more widely, but with oversight.
Space warfare, cyber warfare and the amorphous asymmetric warfare are given a more organized space. These are areas that need to be watched very carefully, especially the countries in which China has gained a strong foothold in areas of cyber technology. Chinese Trojans are real threats and not the fertile imagination of counter-intelligence agencies in these countries. In this connection another Chinese Trojan cannot be overlooked. This is the Confucius Institutes being established in a number of countries including India.
China has already secured its land area. They expect no challenge. The next step is to legitimize control of the South China Sea and the East China Sea. Third, they will want to display their power projection abroad and establish parity with the USA in this half of Asia (up to the Persian Gulf). Parity with the USA means keeping the USA from challenging China from the Korean peninsula to the South China Sea, and having the USA withdraw support to Taiwan. This will be followed by dealing with India militarily on the border issue. This is the major movement of the “China Dream”. China has moved some distance in all these areas, and the “One Road, One Belt” strategy is already on wheels.
All these, unless China undergoes an internal transition when their leaders learn to think rationally instead of being heady with power. Although China has stopped the propaganda of “inevitability of a third world war” it may be working towards that.
The reorganization of the armed forces is scheduled to be completed by 2020. By that time the 19th Party Congress would have been held and Xi Jinping is expected to be in a much stronger position, filling in the Politburo, its Standing Committee and the provincial posts with hand picked people.
The question being asked is whether Xi Jinping would step down after the completion of ten years as Party general secretary and crossing the age of seventy. Or, will he perpetuate his rule in the mould of Mao Zedong?
Will those whose fortunes have been affected by Xi give up and disappear? That is unlikely to happen. Many “yes men” of today will turn around. In Chinese politics there is no full stop. The wheel is still to turn a full circle.
(The writer is a New Delhi based strategic analyst. He can be contacted at e-mail email@example.com)