Understanding Military Reforms in Xi’s China – Analysis


As an integral component of security studies, military reforms define the various dimensions of a country’s strategic calculus. This strategic calculus entails countries’ perceived national interests and an assessment of their security environment. As such, a reorganization in the military set-up bears a direct causal relationship with the operational doctrine of the armed forces. However, when this restructuring is undertaken by an emerging power with communist political ethos, military reforms additionally serve to reflect the country’s approach towards the existing world order. Furthermore, due to the intrinsic association between military power and political narrative in such countries, changes in the institutional structure of the armed forces underscore the evolving dynamics of civil-military or party-military relations.

On November 26, China unveiled its plans to reform its armed forces by 2020 by reorganizing the current military administration structure and command system. In addition to advancing PLA’s operational capabilities, the proposed reforms are patterned along the ongoing process of centralization of State authority under Xi Jinping as the central theme of China’s emerging political landscape. Inherent to this process is a template of civil-military relationship with its thrust upon establishing ‘absolute leadership’ of the Party as the principle statute of China’s political edifice. Therefore, the present reforms need to be studied as marking a significant event in this systemic progression.

Though the maxim of the Party’s control over the armed forces was enshrined by Mao in China’s political doctrine, the principle has received renewed traction under Xi Jinping. This reassertion is manifested through persistent calls to the PLA to maintain “correct political direction,” and an ever increasing emphasis upon the importance of “regulating power within the military”. Intricately linked to these developments is the much-debated anti-corruption campaign of the current leadership.

The process towards restructuring the PLA began with the creation of the Small Leading Group for deepening Reform of National Defence and Military in March, 2014. Established as a sub-committee of the Central Military Commission (CMC), the group is chaired by Xi Jinping. The strategic vision of this body and its orientation towards reinforcing political supremacy over the armed forces is contained in its declared goal of building an army “that obeys the Party’s command, is capable of winning battles and has a sound work style”. The proposed reforms strive to achieve this mandate by yet again proclaiming CCP’s complete authority over the military.

With the fall of several high ranking “tigers”, Xi’s anti-corruption campaign has launched a covert attack upon the patron-protégé syndicates that define the contours of China’s political structure. As such, the campaign has generated much turbulence within the Chinese military echelons. Signs of a simmering conflict had first surfaced during Xi Jinping’s visit to India in September, 2014. On being asked about the ongoing incursions in the Chumar sector by the PLA, the all-powerful President is believed to have expressed complete ignorance.

Moreover, in a meeting convened upon Xi’s return to Beijing, the military was ordered to “follow the instructions of President Xi Jinping”. It is pertinent to note here that in March 2014, Gen. Xu Caihou was placed under investigation for corruption. As a former Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission, Xu was the first high-ranking PLA official to get implicated under the anti-corruption campaign. The apparent link between these events points towards the growing unrest in the military against Xi’s moves. Though not overtly stated, the issue of internal resistance to the reforms was implicit in Xi’s assertion that “high-ranking military officials must take the lead to support the reform and defend the authority of the central leadership”.

To further strengthen the anti-corruption drive, the reforms propose to establish a new discipline inspection commission within the CMC. Along with this, the CMC will also have an audit office and a political and legal affairs commission. In March 2014, CMC had taken over the auditing office of the PLA. The move followed the prosecution of Gu Junshan, former deputy head of the General Logistics Department on corruption charges. With the creation of institutional mechanisms that supervise all aspects of PLA’s administrative and command structure, CMC is fast emerging as a tactical ground for Xi to consolidate his hold over the military.

Towards the operational dimension of military planning, the reforms stress upon creating a centralized administrative and command structure with CMC at the apex. The proposal also envisages establishing a joint command center to strengthen PLA’s joint warfare capabilities. Though the details of the plan have not been spelt out, a reading of China’s recent military discourse indicates towards the increasing importance of the Air Force, and Navy in China’s joint-warfare strategy. As authoritative documents, this emphasis appears markedly pronounced in the country’s defense white papers from 2004 onward.

In addition to this, the reforms plan to restructure and subsequently regroup the existing military regions (MRs) into battle zone commands. These battle zone commands too would operate under the direct supervision of the CMC. Hence, under the new system, a three-tier “CMC-battle zone commands-troops” command and administrative system would be established. Interestingly, the reforms propose to streamline the CMC itself, and expand the decision making powers of the lower level authorities. These moves can be interpreted as being directed towards establishing a direct interface between the CMC and the ground-level stratums of the PLA, and thereby diluting the authority of military commanders.

At the strategic level, the reforms posit an increasing offensive orientation of the Chinese military. The reforms were cited by Xi Jinping as “a sure path to strong military, and a call of the time to realize the Chinese dream as well as a strong military dream.” Interestingly, the 2014 defense white paper also describes a strong military as a component of the ‘Chinese dream’. As a poetic formulation of China’s perceived national interests, and its conceptualization of the idea of ‘territoriality’, ‘Chinese Dream’ is a strategy with realpolitik interests at its core.

It is against this backdrop that the association between ‘Chinese Dream’ and ‘Military Dream’ assumes significance. Moreover, the official media presented the reforms as a natural extension of China’s increasing stature at the global political arena and declared that, “An army which decisively carries out such a large-scale reform will be bound to step forward when our national interests are violated. Therefore, this renewal of China’s armed forces reform is also a silent declaration against the backdrop of an increasingly complicated international security situation.” This emphasis upon military power as the primary element of foreign policy construct constitutes the basic tenet of realism, and hence is a statement by China regarding its global ambitions.

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