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PLA Turns 89 under President Xi with Major Overhaul

General Asthana Writes: The overhaul of Dragon Army and its impact on military posturing in the region, with global ambition will continue to be an interesting development to watch in future. Its effectiveness, however, can only be gauged after few years.

As People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China celebrates its 89th birth anniversary on 01 August 2016, it has gone through the largest overhaul in last one year. The overhaul tightens President Xi Jinping’s grip over PLA, who besides being the Chairman of the CPC Central Military Commission (CMC), also assumed the appointment of Commander-in-Chief of the newly-established CMC Joint Battle Command Center on 20 April 2016, over-ensuring, PLA’s allegiance and loyalty to CPC, in context of the unprecedented sabre rattling in South China Sea, and some political and domestic compulsions.

Normally such a major overhaul is necessitated by Lessons of last war, change in National ambition/aim/objectives, change in threat, political and strategic environment/compulsions, technological changes, and change in leadership. In case of China, after ‘Not so impressive’ performance in conflict with Vietnam in 1979, a similar large scale revamping took place, but PLA is yet to test her operational effectiveness thereafter. All the other factors mentioned above for reorganization, are equally true for China with her ambitions growing global with growing economic muscles, problems in South and East China Sea, need to have global connectivity to offload trade surpluses and overcapacities, security of SLOC for inflow of energy and raw materials.  Most of these factors can easily be deduced from in depth analysis of full text of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) document, and Chinese Military Strategy document.

The most important factor in addition to the above, in case of China is the growing strength of President Xi Jinping, and his determination to have tighter control of CPC over Armed Forces, besides efforts to curb corruption in Military Hierarchy.  The need to cut down numbers and divert funds towards modernization, learning from experiences of US and allies in Afghanistan and Iraq, technological military advances of Defence Forces of other countries, have been a common factors in earlier modernization efforts of China. President Xi Jinping is looking at PLA to be able to safeguard China’s security, maintain global and regional peace, and have the capability to win wars, should such a situation arise.

However from the eyes of a military analyst, I feel some issues with respect to this model of military overhaul, which attract attention, are:-

  • Is the projected model of overhaul of PLA of China, is genuinely the most operationally effective one, or is marred by political considerations, control corruption in PLA hierarchy, and military posturing in South China Sea?
  • The reorganization of Theatre Commands seems to be in sync with concerns in South and East China Sea, but is the Western Theatre too large to be managed, especially when China seems to be showing interest in Middle East including Afghanistan and Iran?
  • The concept of Theatre Commands although successful in many countries, but it has some limitations like the Theatre Commander may not be well versed with employment of other services and may overrule certain decisions at a wrong time. The training to produce Joint theatre commanders is a very time consuming affair needs consideration.
  • With 15 agencies controlling PLA instead of four military departments, with equal status, will the problems of coordination between them affect the operational effectiveness of PLA adversely ?
  • Despite modern equipment, modernization, diversification based on experiences of defence forces of other countries, PLA continues to be an operationally inexperienced force (last operational experience in conflict with Vietnam). With such a tight political control, how well will it deliver in operations? The faith in military commanders and decentralized command and control is the key to success in operations. After all it’s the man behind the gun with operational experience, which matters.
  • How will PLA perform the role of “Ensuring world peace” listed in their White Papers, with existing force structure? Even their modernization trajectory does not give them this capability at least for next two decades, especially in Naval and air component of PLA in comparison with US.
  • Is desire for connectivity through BRI, a tool for global deployment capability?

The overhaul of Dragon Army and its impact on military posturing in the region, with global ambition will continue to be an interesting development to watch in future. Its effectiveness, however, can only be gauged after few years.

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