The People’s Liberation Army at Ninety – Poised for a ‘Great Leap’
On 31 July 1997, the Central Hall of the China World Hotel in Beijing was all decked up to host a banquet dinner to commemorate the 70th Anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The Military Attaché Corps was present in strength as President Jiang Zemin was to grace the occasion, being the Chairman of Central Military Commission (CMC), the highest military body. It was a gala affair with a resounding undertone – that the military must continue to serve the Party in the finest traditions of the PLA.
The PLA traces its roots to the ‘Nanchang Uprising’ of 1 August 1927. It was on that day that the Communists led by stalwarts like Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and Zhu De revolted against the Nationalist Forces. In December 1929, the Communist Party of China (CPC) convened its ninth meeting for building the Party and the Army. The venue was Gutian, a town in the South West of Fujian Province. During the Conference, Mao addressed the men of the Fourth Army and clarified the role of the military as being “to chiefly serve the political ends”. From there on, the absolute control of the CPC over the Red Army became entrenched; the PLA was to be the military of the Communist Party, not of China.
The symbiotic relationship between the two most powerful organs of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Party and PLA, is unique. The PLA played a key role during the revolution and its top commanders, Mao and Deng, emerged as iconic First and Second Generation leaders. It has been well represented in the Politburo and Central Committee, the apex political policy making bodies. The PLA top brass are also members of the CMC.
The PLA jumped into the Korean War in 1950, barely a year after the Communist revolution, to take on the US-led UN Forces. It fought the adversary to a stalemate, suffering over half a million casualties in the process. In 1962, it defeated the Indian Army in a limited conflict. However, the PLA performed poorly in 1979 during its bid to teach Vietnam a lesson. Thereafter, it went through sustained restructuring and modernization programmes as Defence was one of the’ Four Modernizations’ enunciated by Deng to transform China. However, until recently, the process lacked strategic direction.
Military reforms have been high on President Xi’s agenda since he assumed power four years back. The sense of urgency could be attributed to geopolitical considerations like the US policy ofrebalancing in the Asia-Pacific Region. The reform process commenced in 2013 with the establishment of the National Security Commission (NSC), with the President as its Chairman. The rationale behind the reforms is twofold; prepare the military for China’s expanding global role, and establish the Party’s firm control over the armed forces. Interestingly, on 30 October 2014, Xi Jinping visited Gutian to address a ‘Military Political Work Conference’. In his speech, he reiterated that “PLA still remains Party’s Army and must maintain absolute loyalty to political masters”; exactly what Mao had asserted 85 years earlier.
Thrust of Current Military Reforms
The Chinese military strategic culture believes in exploiting the ‘strategic configuration of power’ to achieve the given objectives. The aim is not annihilation of the adversary but the deployment of resources to gain a position of advantage so that fighting becomes unnecessary. China’s present military doctrine of ‘Local Wars under Informationalised Conditions’ envisages short, swift, military engagements by leveraging technology to achieve political objectives. Joint operations and integrated logistics are essential components of the new doctrine. The current military reforms are doctrine driven and oriented towards capability building and force projection. President Xi has stressed upon the importance of the military adapting to an era of Information based wars.
The theme of China’s ‘Ninth White Paper on National Defence’ published in May 2015 was “Active Defence” with the focus on winning ‘local wars in conditions of modern technology’. It also heralded a major shift in naval strategy from ‘off shore waters defence’ to a combined strategy of ‘offshore waters defence with open sea protection’.
Overall, the main thrust of military reforms is on revamping the systems and structures across the board, i.e., political, strategic and operational levels. At the macro level, the focus is on civil-military integration, jointness and optimisation. The composition of the CMC has been balanced out to remove the previous bias towards the ground forces. The CMC is now responsible for policy formulation, controlling all military assets and higher direction of war. The PLA’s erstwhile four key departments have been replaced by 15 offices/departments, fully integrated into the enlarged CMC, thus ensuring centralised control at the highest level. In the new command structure, the President as the Commander-in-Chief exercises direct operational control over the military through the ‘Joint Operations Center’. Three additional Headquarters, namely Ground Forces, Rocket Force and Strategic Force, have been created.
At the operational level, the erstwhile 17-odd army, air force and naval commands have been reorganized into five ‘theatre commands’ with all the war fighting resources in each command placed under one commander. This will ensure seamless synergy in deploying land, air, naval and strategic assets in a given theatre. In all, 84 corps level organizations have been created including 13 operational corps as well as training and logistics installations. To make the PLA nimbler, the reduction of 300,000 rank and file, mostly from non-combat positions, has been ordered. This will downsize the military to around 1.8 million.
President Xi reviewed an impressive parade at Zhurihe, a newly created training base in Inner Mongolia on 30 July 2017 to mark the PLA’s 90th Anniversary. He exhorted the troops to- “unwaveringly uphold the principle of absolute party leadership of the military, always obey and follow the Party”. The Supreme Commander also spelt out three core tenets for a strong military; confidence, competence and commitment. The mega event served multiple objectives. For the domestic audience, it vindicated the dictum ‘party rules the gun’, projected President Xi as the ‘core’ and ‘Chairman’ (Zhuxi)- in the same league as Mao and Deng, and assured the public of the PLA’s capacity to defeat any threat to national sovereignty. For the international community, it was a demonstration of power projection capability.
The ongoing reforms in the Chinese Armed Forces are perhaps the biggest military shake up in a generation. Envisaged to be in place before President Xi’s term ends in 2022, the accretion in the war waging potential of the Chinese military will have serious ramifications at both the regional and global levels. While the Communist leadership asserts that the PRC’s rise is peaceful, this is being viewed by neighbouring countries with scepticism because of the former’s assertive conduct in pursuit of national objectives and territorial claims.
For India, the complexity of its relations with China, coupled with an unsettled border, is leading to a pattern of frequent face offs between the two militaries. The PLA’s rapidly increasing capability as well as offensive design are a reality which cannot be wished away. Currently, the structure of India’s higher defence organization is service specific, lacking integration and jointness. The country is yet to formulate a comprehensive ‘limited war’ doctrine. Due to bureaucratic gridlock, the decision making loop is tenuous. In operational terms, seven odd army and air force commands face China’s Western Theatre Command. This configuration will pose enormous coordination challenges in the event of a conflict. While the probability of a major conflict between the two countries remains low, local skirmishes cannot be ruled out, especially in the event of incursions by the PLA in the disputed areas. As limited engagements demand speedy deployment and a flatter logistics chain, inadequate infrastructure in the border areas stands out as a major constraint for India. These shortcomings need to be addressed on priority.
Since 1979, China has not engaged in any major military confrontation. However, it has cleverly pursued the strategy of “nibbling and negotiating” (yi bian tan yi bian da – talking and fighting concurrently). This low cost model in the form of stand-offs like at Doklam or confrontation in the South China Sea are likely to be the new normal. For the realisation of Xi’s ‘China Dream’, Beijing does not have the luxury of indulging in a major conflict.
Coincidently, at present, China faces no external threats unless it creates one. Its main security concerns are more internal; namely economic slowdown, corruption, environmental degradation and the diminishing clout of the CPC. To ensure the CPC’s unchallenged hold, the PLA’s identity as the military of the Party needs to remain sacrosanct. The envisaged process of PLA transformation will be a long drawn out one. It will take some time before the Chinese Armed Forces can claim to be a modern military, at par with Western armies, capable of undertaking extended global missions. No doubt, the PLA is poised for a “Giant Leap”, and that is bound to dramatically change the existing ‘balance of power’ dynamics.