By Asanga Abeyagoonasekera*
“Under the leadership of the Communist Party, our military has gone from small to big, from weak to strong, from victory to victory. On this road, reform and innovation steps have never stopped.”
In 1919, Halford Mackinder wrote in Democratic Ideals and Reality that China would eventually guide the world by “building for a quarter of humanity a new civilization, neither quite Eastern nor quite Western.” Mackinder’s prediction so far has proven accurate, according to Robert D Kaplan, the geopolitical analyst.
President Jinping recently announced breakthrough military structural reforms to China’s military administrative structure and command. According to him, the current regional military commands will be adjusted and regrouped into new battle zone commands supervised by the Central Military Commission (CMC). The reform will establish a three-tier “CMC – battle zone commands – troops” command system and an administration system that will run from CMC through various services to the troops.
The reforms will enable China to win a modern war. Modernisation of the command structure of the world’s largest armed force is significant and will impact the security apparatus of all of Asia. With rising global security threats, China as an emerging superpower is definitely on the right track by adopting structural military reform. China’s international standing and interest in security and development is seen as a priority with this reforms taking place. Jinping stated, “As the country progresses from a large country to a large and powerful one, defense and military development stands at a new and historic starting line.” In the next five years, China is expecting concrete results from these new reforms, and breakthroughs in the overhaul of the leadership and joint command system. This is a serious step to improve the military strength and capacity of China.
Against this backdrop, the third ASEAN-US conference was held with tough security measures in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, with 4,500 soldiers deployed on standby, on 21 November. The ongoing security threat from the Islamic State (IS) has escalated and over 30,000 foreign fighters from 100 countries have joined the terrorist group. Malaysian officials have arrested over 100 citizens suspected of links to the IS, from ordinary citizens, lecturers, civil servants, and even security forces. This is an emerging threat as Malaysia, Indonesia and Filipino affiliates of the IS could unite to form a Southeast Asian branch of the terror outfit. Some officials say it is only a matter of time before a major attack occurs.
It is also against this backdrop that President Obama has announced his government’s new strategic partnership with ASEAN. The US and ASEAN have elevated their partnership to a strategic relationship to support each other in five important areas: economic integration, maritime cooperation, transnational challenges including climate change, emerging leaders, and women’s opportunities. The action plan has been set from 2016 to 2020.
The statement directly refers to China re-affirming the importance of maintaining peace and stability, ensuring maritime security and safety, and freedom of navigation including in and over-flight above the South China Sea. Some scholars see this strategic partnership as an attempt to control and limit China’s role with ASEAN countries. The partnership does not mean that ASEAN members have now teamed up with the US against China. The preferred strategic option for most countries is balancing US and China and finding a way. The elevation of this partnership between ASEAN and the US should not be dismissed either.
To counter the ASEAN-US joint statement, China immediately launched a “five-pronged” proposal aimed to keep the South China Sea issue between China and ASEAN. With these developments, whether China has directly violated the key areas of the ASEAN-US statement when it comes to mutual respect for national sovereignty should be questioned.
In this context, the structural reform of the Chinese military in the next few years will affect the security of all of Asia, as China has already established its political and economic partnerships with many nations including Sri Lanka. This is the first indication that China is preparing for a modern war.
Executive Director, LKIIRSS, Sri Lanka