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China’s Military Reforms: Is All Well With the PLA?

Major General Mandip Singh was formerly a Senior Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • March 09, 2016

    The announcement of military reforms has been touted in the official Chinese media as a major transformational change in the history of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). While the transformation itself is of a large magnitude, it is the ‘reform’ that requires deeper analyses. Three clear deductions emerge:

    • It signals the vice like grip of President Xi Jinping over the PLA;
    • It defines the structures for future operations by the PLA; and
    • It ensures accountability, loyalty and control of the Party over the military.

    While this may be good news for the Communist Party of China (CPC), the flip side, which doesn’t find any mention in the official media, is the fallout of this ‘transformational’ change.

    Firstly, these changes are to be effective by 2020. Five years is a long time in a rapidly changing China. The first major overhaul in the Central Military Commission (CMC) is due in 2017 when as many as half the present generals of the CMC retire. With over two scores of senior leaders and officials facing charges of corruption, the choice of the new generation of leadership will be a major challenge. Undoubtedly, loyalty to Xi will be the sole criterion – this over seniority and experience. The cascading effect on succession in the newly formed battle zones and corps has the potential to cause turmoil. After all, membership of the Central Committee of the CPC is not only coveted but a clear indication of proximity to the ruling elite in China. As many as 67 members of the Central Committee are from the PLA and of these 41 are full members and 26 alternate members. All of them will be re-elected to the 19th Party Congress in 2017.

    Secondly, Military Theatre Command (MTC) Commanders (erstwhile Military Area Command Commanders) hold the military region (MR) level grade. With the creation of these joint MTCs and the dissolution of the four PLA departments, these commanders are likely to be upgraded to the CMC grade and be part of the CMC. This would give them a status equal to the chiefs of the five services - PLA Navy (PLAN), PLA Air Force (PLAAF), PLA Army (PLAA), PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) and PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) - in a ‘reformed’ CMC in 2017. All of these would be Xi’s men and they will see him through till the end of his tenure in 2022. In other words, the total control over the PLA by the CPC is foregone. Recall the unease that preceded the anointment of Xi prior to the 18th Party Congress when there was a call for a ‘Nationalist’ army which could break from the shackles of the Party and have a national character. That glimmer or spark has since been extinguished for good.

    Thirdly, the absolute control of the party over the PLA suggests that lobbying and parochialism continues to be prevalent in the system. It is no secret that China’s external threats emanate from the sea and that Taiwan, the South China Sea and East China Sea are its immediate concerns. Yet the joint commands continue to be headed by army men, who have little or no experience of operations at sea or in the skies, leaving aspiring PLAN and PLAAF commanders subjugated to their army bosses. In fact, the joint photograph after the historic November 26, 2015 meeting says it all; out of 70 generals in that photograph, 59 are from the ground forces and only six officers from the navy and five from the air force. One can safely assume that almost all key department heads, oversight commissions bosses and committee ‘honchos’ in the reformed PLA will be from ground forces.

    In sum, if the PLA doesn’t change its ‘army-centric’ character and make way for professionals who have experience and expertise in their domain, the higher defence organisation will continue to be weak and the reform only in name. In fact, some analysts argue that the recently released list of commanders and political commissioners of the new MTCs suggest that Xi may not yet have his complete say in shaking up the deeply embedded army bureaucracy.

    Fourthly, the lay off and downsizing of 3,00,000 personnel has already shown signs of disquiet within the PLA. While the PLA has announced that as many as 1,30,000 are likely to be absorbed laterally, the fate of 1,70,000 troops is uncertain. The government has hurriedly announced a five per cent reservation of jobs in all ministries for PLA, indicating that some of the ‘laid off’ PLA personnel may get civilian jobs. But senior generals have warned of the need to streamline and plan the downsizing lest it should cause rumblings in the lower ranks of the PLA. This could be a cause of concern particularly at a time when the economy is facing stress and the growth rates are witnessing a dropping annual ‘new normal’.

    Lastly and perhaps most profoundly, is the curtailment of the perks, privileges and clout of the PLA. No military which has held absolute power can ‘transform’ its environmental and working culture overnight. The trappings of power and control over resources, and lavish lifestyles and unquestioned privileges cannot be given up so easily by a military used to controlling the strings of power. The miaosha or ‘instant kill’ of as many as 146 ‘tigers’ (officials above provincial minister rank) suggests that seniority offers little protection; the rule by fear has brought decision making, even routine projects, to a standstill. The cleansing of corrupt generals, some who owe allegiance to cliques within the Party, cannot be without fallout and retribution against the ruling cliques. Whether these shall come to the fore will be evident when lobbying and jostling begins at the 19th Party Congress in 2017.

    Not all is certainly well in the higher echelons of the PLA. There is always resistance to change and transitions and transformations are seldom smooth.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India