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Sandeep Jain Writes: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun” and “The Party must control the gun” have defined the Party-PLA relations in China.

Sandeep Jain Writes: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun” and “The Party must control the gun” have defined the Party-PLA relations in China. The red army or PLA has been responsible for the defeat of Kuomintang and the establishment of the Communist Party rule in China. Thus PLA has played a pivotal role in nation building as also ensuring internal cohesion. This however also meant politicisation of the rank and file, for them to continue supporting the single party rule in China. In the past PLA not only warded off external threat but was also a party instrument for internal controls. Almost all PLA officers were party members and the political commissars were, and still are, integral components of all PLA units wielding a parallel authority. Many senior ranking PLA officers were members of the party central committee or even the politburo standing committee

The Chinese president recently announced a plan for the rightsizing and the reorganisation of the PLA. Xi Jinping has also cracked down on the prevalent corruption in the PLA. The latest Chinese defence white paper lays a lot of emphasis on doctrinal shift in PLA’s employment wherein an increasingly expeditionary role is being envisaged. The concept of PLA fighting a “People’s War” is perhaps now truly over. There is concurrently a shift towards modernisation of PLAAF (PLA Airforce) and PLAN (PLA Navy) and the prima donna status of PLA army is also perhaps getting over. The PLA had been seeking autonomy from the party in professional aspects for a long time. Maybe this modernisation signals the possibility, for the PLA to practice autonomy in aspects such as force structuring, war fighting concepts etc.

How does this modernisation drive change the relationship between the party and the PLA. A truly professional force with global reach cannot at the same time remain a political instrument controlled by political commissars in day to day functioning. Therein lies the contradiction. Possibly the PAPF (Peoples Armed Police Force) will step in assume a greater role. This would however mean expansion of the PAPF to shoulder all internal security responsibilities. Party may also be more confident that with increasing prosperity a Tiananmen Square incident is no more likely-this however seems unlikely as regime change remains an existential worry for them in spite of the fact that President Xi Jinping enjoys almost total power over all organs of the state.

The requirement for PLA to modernise and become a truly world class fighting force is now almost irreversible as China seeks a global power status. However, it will also invariably lead to a more autonomous military thinking. The change will thus have to be managed by the political hierarchy. This contradiction may not yet be apparent to them but sooner or later the political leadership will have to contend with it.

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