By Manoj Joshi
As Xi Jinping heads for the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and another term of office as the General Secretary, there are several ways to assess his tenure till now. Perhaps, the most distinct marker has been China’s abandonment of Deng Xiaoping’s dictum of the nation keeping a low profile. During Xi’s tenure, Chinese assertiveness has been the order of the day from the Senkaku to the South China Sea and the Himalayas. This has been accompanied by a major reassertion of the CPC’s role at all levels within the country as well.
Xi’s “China Dream”
These developments, taken together with the slowing economy, reveal, at best, a mixed bag of achievements.
However, the one area in which Xi has achieved signal success has been the reform of the military and the country’s national security apparatus. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is now well-advanced in the process of being transformed from a homeland-centric defence force into one capable of intervening in regional contingencies.
As General Secretary and President of the country, Xi provided an overarching nationalistic vision through his notion of the “China Dream”, which incorporated military modernisation as part of the goal of re-establishing China’s leading position in the world order. He insisted that the PLA must aim to “fight and win wars” by developing its combat capability through more realistic training, more streamlined organisation, and better weapons and equipment. Subsequently, he brought about the most thorough reform in the PLA’s history, transforming its organisational and command structure and giving a push to its technological transformation.
Steps towards reform have been visible since the mid-2000s. However, Xi’s arrival on the scene saw the beginning of a two-pronged effort. One focused on the top to bottom overhaul of the way the Chinese military and internal security system was run, organised, trained, and equipped. This was premised on a wide-ranging attack on corruption and indiscipline in the PLA and a purge and arrest of the security czars like Zhou Yongkang, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee; and Generals Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong, who had once held the topmost jobs as deputy chairmen of the Central Military Commission (CMC), which runs the PLA.
There have been two key points in this reform process—the 18th Congress of the CPC in 2012, where the basic decision to press ahead with the reform of the PLA was taken and the authority given to the incoming General Secretary Xi to undertake the task. A measure of this was Xi’s assumption of the Chairmanship of the CMC along with his appointment as the General Secretary of the CPC.
The second was the Third Plenum of the 18th Central Committee in November 2013, where the basic framework of the defence reforms and the way they would unfold was decided. In March 2014, Xi set up and became chairman of the Leading Group of the CMC to deepen national defence and military reform. Besides this, advice was taken from a pool of more than 200 military experts and the Academy of Military Sciences and the National Defence University in shaping the reforms.
A related outcome of the Third Plenum was the creation of the National Security Commission. This consolidated a slew of powers relating to internal security in the hands of its chairman, Xi Jinping. They related to internal issues like terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism and the need to enhance high-level coordination in dealing with these challenges. Subordinate NSCs have been created in the CPC structure down to the county level.
In November 2014, Xi directly approached the PLA and sought its support on his agenda of reform, using the 85th anniversary of the 1929 Gutian Conference of the CPC as a platform. Most attendees of the original meeting addressed by Mao Zedong were soldiers; Mao emphasised the role of the PLA was as much to fight as to further the goals of the Chinese Revolution. It was this meeting that shaped the unique relationship between the PLA and the CPC. Xi’s address to the Gutian conference in 2014 sought to emphasise much of the same. It sought to project Xi as the supreme leader; in his speech Xi made his agenda clear: The insistence on party control of the military, the need to promote politically reliable officers, the importance of the anti-corruption campaign, and, finally, the importance of warfare and combat proficiency.
The meeting involved all the top generals and officers and took place shortly after the major upheaval that saw the purge and arrest of Xu and Guo who were reportedly selling top-level PLA ranks to the highest bidders. Xi was aware that most of the attendees would have somehow been complicit in Xu and Guo’s activities. Clearly, Xi’s aim was to send a warning to the PLA top brass to clean up their act. Subsequently, of course, hundreds of PLA officers were dismissed and arrested in the anti-corruption campaign.
The most important aspect of the process was the reform of the CMC, the body that runs the PLA. The four bureaucratic departments of the organisation were dissolved and replaced with smaller departments and commissions over which Xi maintained direct oversight. The size of the CMC was reduced from 11 to seven, and the coastguard and the paramilitary People’s Armed Police were brought under the direct command of the CMC. Further, the composition of the CMC was altered to reflect the reforms being carried out in the PLA. The centralisation that was brought about created what the Chinese termed the “CMC Chairman Responsibility System,” which made Xi himself the top executive authority of the PLA.
Another major development was the announcement in September 2015, that the PLA would be reduced by 300,000, signalling its serious intent to transform itself from a manpower-intensive outfit to a technology-oriented force. As a result, by 2019, the PLAGF had become smaller than the Indian Army.
The PLA was reorganised in five geographical joint theatre commands, which are responsible for developing the strategy and plans specific to their region. The four arms of the PLA—the Ground Force or Army, the Air Force, Navy, and Rocket Force—were backed by a new Strategic Support Force, which knitted together its space, cyber, and electronic capabilities. A joint PLA Logistics Support department headquartered in Wuhan, created in 2016, unified the logistics of the PLA at the strategic level.
The changes were decided at a key Work Conference of the CMC on 24-26 November 2015, and were announced by Xi a month later on 31 December 2015, where he presented new colours to the PLA Ground Forces (PLAGF), the PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF), and the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF). Here, Xi called for a military that could fight in the Information Age and would possess a three dimensional war-fighting capacity. Months later, in April 2016, he also took the title of Commander-in-Chief of the Joint Operations Command Centre, appearing in battle fatigues in an inspection there.
Details of the reform were provided by a document on the “Opinion of the CMC on deepening national defense and military reform”, which was issued in the New Year of 2016, which stated that the higher command of the CMC of the Chinese military was thoroughly overhauled.
The CMC itself took direct charge of the five geographical joint theatre commands that replaced the seven military regions. The headquarters of the PLA Ground Forces (PLAGF), PLA Navy (PLAN), PLA Air Force (PLAAF), PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF), and the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) would be separated from the theatre commands and be responsible for the training and provisioning of troops. The PLA Ground Force was detached from the CMC and given its own colours and service headquarters along with the new PLASSF and the PLARF.
Simultaneously, Xi pressed the accelerator on the strategy of Military-Civil Fusion(MCF) to boost the PLA’s technological orientation. The goal of the MCF was to leverage a number of high technologies being developed by China for civilian use to boost military capability. Having used a variety of means, including espionage and forced technology transfer, to establish a significant civil industrial and R&D base, Beijing now wanted to ensure that the traditionally insulated military sector would benefit from it. Further, it hoped that its national capacities in areas such as AI, advanced and new materials, and energy technology could power a leap-frog effect to match and even overtake the United States (US).
Xi laid out the goals of the PLA in his work report to the 19th CPC Congress in October 2017. He stated that by the middle of the 21st century, the PLA must become “a world-class military”. Technology would be the core of combat prowess with an emphasis on innovation. The PLA would have to raise its joint warfare capabilities, as well as develop the ability to operate and fight anywhere.
The milestones were also laid out: By 2020, mechanisation would be “basically achieved” because information technology application had come a long way and strategic capabilities have seen big improvement. Modernisation would be substantially completed by 2035.
By and large these goals have, indeed, been achieved. However, in this very period, Xi also undermined China’s military modernisation by abandoning Deng Xiaoping’s “hide your capability” strategy. As a result, Chinese policies generated alarm around the world and eventually, beginning from 2018, the US and Europe began to choke off Chinese access to key technology and high-end semi-conductors. Chinese assertiveness has resulted in the PLA now having to face an arc of Indo-Pacific adversaries ranging from Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, to the US, United Kingdom, Australia, and India.
An assessment of Xi’s military reforms by Manoj Kewalramani and Suyash Desai, made earlier this year, suggests that while the reforms have, indeed, helped China further its national security interests, the PLA’s agenda “to project power overseas” remains extremely limited and will remain so well into the future. While it certainly has the capacity to project power against countries like India with which it has territorial disputes, the “PLA’s combat readiness remains to be tested on the battlefield”.