June 15, 2011

Eruptions in China’s PLA?

By Bhaskar Roy

The Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily (June 09) carried a revealing article on the SECOND ARTILLARY FORCE (SAF), China’s strategic missile force which also controls the country’s nuclear weapons, stressing it “should promote loyalty and obedience in their ranks towards the Communist Party of China”. What is equally significant if not more, this short article was authored jointly by the Commander of SAF Gen. Jing Zhiyuan and Political Commissar of the SAF Gen. Zhang Haiyang.

The two Generals who each are in charge of the military aspect and “political” aspects respectively, emphasized “Against the background of profound changes in the society and the increasingly complicated struggles in the ideological areas, continuous efforts should be made to resist the tendency of “Westernization” in the military forces as well as the idea of separating the military forces from the leadership of the CPC”.

In military context in China, “Westernization” means an armed force which is bereft of ideological moorings, independent of political parties and the Commander-in-Chief is the Head of State. In China’s case, it would the President.

China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping had tried to rear a professional People’s Liberation Army (PLA). He had almost stopped political education in the PLA and initiated the move to divest the PLA of its commercial ventures – hotels, discotheques, civilian goods manufacturing and even some military business. A veteran of the Long March and himself a political commissar, he concluded that political indoctrination was necessary at that time to motivate the largely peasant soldiers. When he came to power in 1978 he began to realize that the PLA had put professionalism on the second priority list and was more interested in business which benefitted mainly the officer class. Deng also dismantled what he called “mountain war-lordism” – top commanders spent their entire careers in one Military Region and used the forces under them as their own army.

It is not known whether Deng Xiaoping would have liked to put the PLA under the government. But he would have realized that the Party was supreme and well above the government. But despite initial opposition from the PLA in the late 1980s, he succeeded in establishing the Party General Secretary and the President, a civilian, at the top of the military as the Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC). If not the government, civilian control of the PLA with the Party Chief in Command. It was, therefore, left to Party the Chief to command the PLA and the extent of his control would depend on how politically strong he was. Neither of Deng’s appointees, Party General Secretaries Jiang Zemin and his successor Hu Jintao have demonstrated their unquestionable control of the PLA. Both had to compromise to execute their power, and the PLA grew in strength.

As an aside, it would be interesting to note that when Defence Minister Gen. Liang Guanglie attended the Shangri-la Security dialogue in Singapore in May, he introduced himself as Vice Chairman of the CMC and State Councilor, not Defence Minister. It was because the defence ministry is known as a facade for protocol duties only and has no teeth of its own.

In March this year, Gen. Liang Guanglie stated that the PLA was not under the government, but under the Party. He made it abundantly clear that the PLA was independent of the Chinese government.

In the last two years, especially in 2010, signs were that the PLA, while remaining under the agreed frame work of “the Party commands the gun”, was pushing for a major say in both internal security issues, and external security and territorial claims. Following the 2008 global economic meltdown, very surprisingly the Chinese hierarchy miscalculated that USA was a declining power and China was a rising power which could dictate Washington. The PLA, emboldened by its rising power, decided to challenge the region including the return of the US in the Asia-Pacific region under the guidance US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The PLA’s surge was another example of its surge for autonomy.

The SAF commentary is far reaching. In the one hand, it suggests that there is a rising consensus among SAF officers for autonomy from political decisions. At the same time, the party fears that the free world structure of the armed forces totally isolated from the political parties that run the government of the day is a threat to the CCP. In the US, whether it is the Democrats or the Republicans that is in power does not affect the military, though the US Congress has a say in budget allocations and policy. Even then, the executive president holds the veto power irrespective what its party’s position may be in the Congress. Decisions are taken in consultation with the Department of Defence (Pentagon), the CIA and the State Department.

In India, it is even clearer. Political parties including the Party in power have little or nothing to do directly with the armed forces.

For China, the situation would be much worse if the PLA were to take independent decisions on both internal and external security challenges. The SAF, as a free radical since the government is irrelevant in the military context, could portend a dangerous challenge not only to the Chinese authorities but to the neighbourhood. In this context, it would be prudent to remember that China’s “no first (nuclear) use” doctrine has become more opaque in recent years. It must also be taken into account that the more the Chinese leadership and official media emphasize the Party’s control over the PLA, the greater is the problem. This emphasis has sharply increased in recent months.

(The author is an eminent China analyst with many years of experience. He can be reached at grouchohart@yahoo.com)

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