“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.
The predominant view is that this is with an aim to increase the party’s hold on PLA. Probably there is a need to view it differently. The Communist Party and the President of China already have a very tight grip over PLA and it had not been diluted anytime earlier. Thus there was no real need to strengthen their grip over PLA further. In all probability the objectives would have been two fold. Firstly to reduce the levels of corruption and nepotism within PLA and secondly to make PLA a better fighting force, in keeping with evolving national objectives and regional and global standing of PRC.
This has also been due to elimination of any real threats from the immediate borders of China. China today has settled borders with most nations and has no reasons to believe an attack will take place on its territories. Even with adversaries like USA a military conflict remains a remote possibility.
An expeditionary capability requires a better force projection capability, jointness in command and control as also better technology for intelligence and surveillance all of which are being attempted in current reorganisation. China is moving from a doctrine of employing mass to a doctrine of harnessing technology. The bid to downsize HQs, have independent brigades in place of divisions, theatre commands, more emphasis on PLAN and PLAAF are all pointers in above mentioned direction.
It will be interesting to study the structures of newly evolved military regions. For instance will they control the PAPF and the militia units or if their control will be with a separate chain. Should the latter happen that would signal the Party’s intention to control internal situation through PAPF leaving the PLA to concentrate on external threats (akin to the Indian Model). If it happens it will be a major shift and will significantly reduce PLAs importance in maintaining the party regime.
Another major area will be to study the new chain of command for the PLAN and the PLAAF. The PLAAF regional HQ were so far coterminous with the Military region. Will the regions now have a structure like the US theatre commands wherein the controls of all services are vested in a single commander for deployment away from the national borders. The US model was practical as USA intended to do all the warfighting away from its borders. Can the same model hold good for the Chinese is a moot question.
PLA is also investing heavily in trying to develop asymmetric capabilities to include cyber, space, intelligence gathering and nuclear capabilities. The present perceived superiority of the US forces is proposed to be countered in this manner. The Chinese prowess in these fields has already become a source of concern for the Western powers.
The initiative by Xi Jinping is all about modernisation of PLA with a view to make it a world class fighting force. It also reflects the changing perception about the type of conflicts the PLA is likely to participate in the future. The devil as always will lie in implementation and the quality of the man behind the machine.