12 Ma­jor Progress and Un­fin­ished Busi­ness: China’s Mil­i­tary Un­der Xi Jin­ping

Global Asia - - CONTENTS - & Phillip C. Saun­ders By Joel Wuth­now

ex­pan­sion has big im­pli­ca­tions for China’s neigh­bors, the us and the rest of the world.

For most of China’s his­tory un­der the Com­mu­nist Party, the mil­i­tary was dom­i­nated by ground forces with limited roles, and lit­tle at­ten­tion was paid to naval or air as­sets and the abil­ity to project power be­yond China’s bor­ders. Plans to mod­ern­ize the mil­i­tary go back decades, but it has pri­mar­ily been un­der the lead­er­ship of Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping, who took over in 2012, that Bei­jing has taken strides to de­velop a world­class fight­ing force. There are ma­jor im­pli­ca­tions for China’s neigh­bors, the US and the rest of the world, write Joel Wuth­now and Phillip C. Saun­ders. China’s Peo­ple’s lib­er­a­tion army (Pla) has de­vel­oped into one of the re­gion’s premier mil­i­taries, with no­table ad­vances made in the past few years un­der Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping. although the roots of Pla mod­ern­iza­tion and pro­fes­sion­al­iza­tion stretch back to the 1980s, a num­ber of ob­sta­cles slowed the pace of re­form un­der Xi’s two im­me­di­ate pre­de­ces­sors, Jiang Zemin and hu Jin­tao. through savvy po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship, Xi has over­come bu­reau­cratic ob­sta­cles to push through the most sig­nif­i­cant set of or­ga­ni­za­tional re­forms since the 1950s. Pla hard­ware has also made ma­jor strides dur­ing his ten­ure. as a re­sult, the Pla is bet­ter able to carry out its two key mis­sions — win­ning wars and de­ter­ring op­po­nents — as well as its an­cil­lary roles in protecting China’s eco­nomic in­ter­ests and sup­port­ing Bei­jing’s diplo­matic agenda.

roots of re­form

For 30 years fol­low­ing the end of the Chi­nese civil war in 1949, the Pla fo­cused pri­mar­ily on two pri­or­i­ties: en­sur­ing do­mes­tic sta­bil­ity as the armed wing of the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party, a role it per­formed most notably dur­ing the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion; and pre­par­ing to counter a land in­va­sion, which at dif­fer­ent points of the Cold War in­cluded threats from the united states, Kuom­intang (na­tion­al­ist) forces on tai­wan and the soviet union. Both mis­sions lent them­selves to a large, army-dom­i­nated force struc­ture, with lit­tle need for ex­ten­sive air force or naval ca­pa­bil­i­ties. China’s in­ter­na­tional iso­la­tion and do­mes­tic tur­moil also in­hib­ited de­vel­op­ment of mod­ern weapons, leav­ing the Pla tech­no­log­i­cally in­fe­rior to

the su­per­pow­ers (with par­tial ex­cep­tions in ar­eas such as bal­lis­tic mis­siles and nu­clear war­heads).

the ori­gins of the Pla’s trans­for­ma­tion into a mod­ern mil­i­tary can be traced to Mao Ze­dong’s death in 1976 and the Pla’s sub­se­quent poor per­for­mance in its 1979 bor­der con­flict with Viet­nam. Mao’s re­form-minded suc­ces­sor, Deng Xiaop­ing, ar­gued that the Pla had be­come too large, un­wieldy and com­pla­cent to achieve bat­tle­field suc­cess; he en­cour­aged changes such as pro­fes­sion­al­iz­ing the of­fi­cer corps, cut­ting re­dun­dant per­son­nel, trans­fer­ring do­mes­tic tasks to the newly es­tab­lished Peo­ple’s armed Po­lice, ac­quir­ing more ad­vanced equip­ment and im­prov­ing train­ing. how­ever, a rel­a­tively peace­ful ex­ter­nal se­cu­rity en­vi­ron­ment meant that Deng’s pri­mary fo­cus was on do­mes­tic eco­nomic re­form; mil­i­tary bud­gets shrank and the Pla was rel­e­gated to the fourth (and last) of his “four modernizations.”

nev­er­the­less, two events in the 1990s cre­ated an im­pe­tus for fur­ther re­form. First was the 1991 Gulf War, in which the us mil­i­tary demon­strated that a com­bi­na­tion of ad­vanced tech­nol­ogy (es­pe­cially sen­sors and pre­ci­sion-guided mu­ni­tions) and joint warfight­ing tac­tics could be used to quickly de­feat a large, well-equipped, but poorly led op­po­nent. sec­ond was the de­ploy­ment of two us air­craft car­ri­ers dur­ing the 1995-96 tai­wan strait cri­sis, which raised doubts about whether the Pla could pre­vail in a cross-strait con­flict if the us mil­i­tary in­ter­vened. Jiang re­sponded with larger de­fense bud­gets, new hard­ware (es­pe­cially the ac­qui­si­tion of ad­vanced Rus­sian sys­tems such as Kilo-class sub­marines and sovre­menny de­stroy­ers), and re­vi­sions to Pla train­ing and doc­trine to fo­cus more on joint op­er­a­tions. hu con­tin­ued these ef­forts in the 2000s, with even greater em­pha­sis on the de­vel­op­ment of lon­grange naval as­sets to pro­tect China’s vul­ner­a­ble en­ergy im­ports and grow­ing over­seas in­ter­ests.

Jiang and hu, how­ever, had only limited suc- cess in trans­form­ing the Pla into a first-rate mil­i­tary. un­like Mao or Deng, nei­ther had mil­i­tary ex­pe­ri­ence or deep con­nec­tions within the Pla, which re­duced their abil­ity to counter op­po­si­tion from the would-be losers of re­form (es­pe­cially within the ground forces). Mean­while, Jiang’s 1998 ini­tia­tive to force the Pla to di­vest from com­mer­cial busi­ness ven­tures, which Deng had per­mit­ted as an ad­di­tional source of rev­enue, foundered as se­nior Pla of­fi­cers amassed small, or in some cases, large for­tunes. Re­lated prob­lems, such as the buy­ing and sell­ing of pro­mo­tions, pro­lif­er­ated un­der hu, who does not ap­pear to have fully es­tab­lished his author­ity over se­nior gen­er­als ap­pointed by and loyal to Jiang. With half-com­pleted re­forms and rampant cor­rup­tion, ques­tions were raised about the Pla’s readi­ness to un­der­take ma­jor com­bat op­er­a­tions.

EN­TER Xi jin­ping

Xi as­sumed the chair­man­ship of the Cen­tral Mil­i­tary Com­mis­sion (the Pla’s top de­ci­sion-mak­ing body) in late 2012 and im­me­di­ately stressed the im­por­tance of build­ing an army that could “fight and win wars” as part of his “China Dream.” this ef­fort ben­e­fited from a pre-ex­ist­ing blue­print for mod­ern­iza­tion. the ba­sic pre­cepts of re­form, es­tab­lished over the pre­ced­ing two decades, em­pha­sized a cleaner, more pro­fes­sional or­ga­ni­za­tion; the abil­ity to carry out com­plex joint op­er­a­tions, such as is­land land­ings and block­ades; a con­tin­ued shift­ing of re­sources to the navy, air force and con­ven­tional mis­sile force; com­pe­tence in the in­for­ma­tion do­main (in­clud­ing space and cy­ber); and closer co-op­er­a­tion be­tween the Pla and the civil­ian sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy sec­tor, which would pro­mote in­dige­nous de­vel­op­ment of ad­vanced mil­i­tary equip­ment. Xi was in­ti­mately fa­mil­iar with this agenda, hav­ing served as Cen­tral Mil­i­tary Com­mis­sion vice chair­man dur­ing hu’s last two years in of­fice.

What Xi pos­sessed that his pre­de­ces­sors lacked was the po­lit­i­cal clout nec­es­sary to counter re­sis­tance and ef­fect change. Part of his ad­van­tage was his back­ground, both as the son of a rev­o­lu­tion­ary gen­eral and as a de­fense min­is­ter’s aide in the early 1980s, which gave him con­nec­tions and bona fides within the Pla. More im­por­tant was his adept use of po­lit­i­cal tools to over­come bu­reau­cratic re­sis­tance, in­clud­ing us­ing anti-cor­rup­tion in­ves­ti­ga­tions to in­tim­i­date or re­move op­po­nents, pro­mot­ing loy­al­ists, and com­pen­sat­ing losers — such as by find­ing new po­si­tions for se­nior of­fi­cers whose com­mands were dis­man-

What Xi pos­sessed that his pre­de­ces­sors lacked was the po­lit­i­cal clout nec­es­sary to counter re­sis­tance and ef­fect change. Part of his ad­van­tage was his back­ground, both as the son of a rev­o­lu­tion­ary gen­eral and as a de­fense min­is­ter’s aide in the early 1980s, which gave him con­nec­tions and bona fides within the PLA.

tled. he also used the Pla’s pro­pa­ganda sys­tem to raise his own stature within the mil­i­tary, of­ten ap­pear­ing at events and pub­lish­ing trea­tises that be­came “re­quired read­ing” for sol­diers.

Changes in China’s se­cu­rity en­vi­ron­ment also but­tressed Xi’s mil­i­tary re­form agenda. those in­cluded un­cer­tain­ties on the Korean Penin­sula, ten­sions in the south and east China seas (where China was ag­gres­sively pur­su­ing ter­ri­to­rial claims) and chal­lenges re­lated to the us re­bal­ance — or “pivot” — to asia strat­egy, which fea­tured a shift­ing of mil­i­tary re­sources to the re­gion and stronger us al­liances and part­ner­ships. tai­wan re­mained an un­re­solved is­sue, de­spite rel­a­tively calm cross-strait re­la­tions early in Xi’s term. Mean­while, China’s global eco­nomic in­ter­ests con­tin­ued to ex­pand, even­tu­ally in­clud­ing in­fra­struc­ture projects un­der Xi’s Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive, rais­ing ques­tions about how those as­sets could be pro­tected.

the re­sult was the most am­bi­tious or­ga­ni­za­tional re­struc­tur­ing of the Pla since the 1950s.1 Ma­jor ad­just­ments in­cluded a re­vamped joint com­mand-and-con­trol struc­ture; cre­ation of a sys­tem of five re­gional com­mands, each fo­cused on cross-bor­der con­tin­gen­cies; a 300,000-per-

son down­siz­ing, fo­cused mainly on the ground forces; es­tab­lish­ment of a strate­gic sup­port Force to con­sol­i­date space, cy­berspace, and elec­tronic war­fare ac­tiv­i­ties; em­pow­ered su­per­vi­sory or­ga­ni­za­tions that could tackle cor­rup­tion and in­still dis­ci­pline; re­aligned pro­fes­sional mil­i­tary ed­u­ca­tion, aimed at pro­duc­ing a more com­pe­tent of­fi­cer corps; and a re­newed fo­cus on mil­i­tary in­no­va­tion. steps towards a lighter, more mo­bile force struc­ture were also made with the re­duc­tion of army and air force divi­sions to brigades.

although largely the re­sult of prior in­vest­ment de­ci­sions, Pla hard­ware also im­proved steadily un­der Xi. the Chi­nese navy reached 300 ships, the most in asia. this in­cluded an ex­panded sub­ma­rine force, new large cruis­ers and de­ploy­ment of China’s first air­craft car­rier (a retro­fit­ted soviet Kuznetsov-class hull, which will be fol­lowed by sev­eral car­ri­ers pro­duced in­dige­nously). new air force ca­pa­bil­i­ties in­cluded the J-20 stealth fighter, which en­tered ser­vice in septem­ber 2017, up­graded h-6 bombers, and a grow­ing fleet of un­manned aerial ve­hi­cles. the Pla’s rocket force de­ployed a new gen­er­a­tion of nu­clear-armed DF-41 and DF-31A in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­siles (ICBMS), DF-21D medi­um­range bal­lis­tic mis­siles, de­signed to hit mov­ing tar­gets such as air­craft car­ri­ers, and the DF-26 in­ter­me­di­ate-range bal­lis­tic mis­sile, which for­eign me­dia la­beled the “Guam killer” since it could reach us bases in the western Pa­cific. the Pla also fielded ad­vanced cy­ber, space, and coun­ter­space as­sets.2

look­ing ahead, Xi has out­lined an am­bi­tious vi­sion for con­tin­ued Pla re­form. at the 19th Party Congress in Oc­to­ber 2017, he de­scribed the need for fur­ther progress in ar­eas such as per­son­nel man­age­ment, de­fense mo­bi­liza­tion, mil­i­tary in­no­va­tion and vet­er­ans’ af­fairs. While the cur­rent round of re­forms is slated to end in 2020, Xi also pro­posed two longer-term goals: by 2035, na­tional de­fense mod­ern­iza­tion should be “ba­si­cally com­pleted,” and by 2050, the peo­ple’s armed forces (in­clud­ing the Pla, the Peo­ple’s armed Po­lice, and the re­serves) should have been “fully trans­formed into world-class forces.”

re­gional im­pli­ca­tions

China’s mil­i­tary progress has pro­duced a Pla that is bet­ter able to ac­com­plish its key and sup­port­ing mis­sions, in­clud­ing win­ning wars, de­ter­ring op­po­nents and protecting over­seas Chi­nese in­ter­ests. although lack of re­cent com­bat ex­pe­ri­ence will con­tinue to pose con­straints — the Pla’s last war was the 1979 con­flict with Viet­nam — a com­bi­na­tion of more tal­ented per­son­nel, stream­lined or­ga­ni­za­tion, in­creas­ingly re­al­is­tic train­ing (with a fo­cus on joint op­er­a­tions) and new hard­ware all en­hance China’s com­bat ca­pa­bil­i­ties. De­pend­ing on the cir­cum­stances, the Pla might not nec­es­sar­ily pre­vail, but its abil­ity to per­form well in fu­ture con­flicts, es­pe­cially in ar­eas ad­ja­cent to Chi­nese ter­ri­tory and along its mar­itime pe­riph­ery, will have sig­nif­i­cantly in­creased.

the im­pli­ca­tions for tai­wan are es­pe­cially wor­ri­some, given the is­land’s ge­o­graphic prox­im­ity to China, limited de­fenses and wors­en­ing cross-strait re­la­tions. Greater pro­fi­ciency in joint op­er­a­tions will in­crease the Pla’s abil­ity to plan and ex­e­cute a block­ade, de­stroy key mil­i­tary tar­gets, and con­duct an am­phibi­ous land­ing. those ca­pa­bil­i­ties are com­ple­mented by an over­all shift in re­sources to the navy and air force (which is im­prov­ing its abil­ity to op­er­ate over wa­ter) and ap­par­ent plans to in­crease the strength of the Pla Ma­rine Corps sev­eral times over. De­ploy­ment of ad­vanced long-range mis­siles, a larger sub­ma­rine force, grow­ing counter-space ca­pa­bil­i­ties and other changes could also raise the costs and risks of us mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion on be­half of tai­wan.

short of war, the Pla could have greater suc­cess in manag­ing crises and de­ter­ring ad­ver­sar-

2 For de­tails, see Of­fice of the Sec­re­tary of De­fense, Wash­ing­ton, DC; Mil­i­tary and Se­cu­rity De­vel­op­ments In­volv­ing the Peo­ple’s Repub­lic of China 2017 (May 2017). 3 “Full Text of Xi Jin­ping’s Re­port at 19th CPC Na­tional Congress,” Xin­hua, Nov. 3, 2017.

ies. One of the most no­table fea­tures of China’s new com­mand-and-con­trol struc­ture are 24/7 op­er­a­tions cen­ters that con­tin­u­ally mon­i­tor the se­cu­rity en­vi­ron­ment and or­ches­trate quick re­sponses. On the sea, the stronger pres­ence by Chi­nese naval and other forces (in­clud­ing the coast guard and the mar­itime mili­tia), aided by newly con­structed mil­i­tary fa­cil­i­ties in the south China sea, will in­crease China’s abil­ity to de­ter ri­val claimants, such as Ja­pan and Viet­nam, and chal­lenge us naval op­er­a­tions. On land, the Pla could have the con­fi­dence and abil­ity to in­ter­vene in a north Korean cri­sis and, as the sum­mer 2017 cri­sis in the Dok­lam bor­der re­gion il­lus­trates, to con­front In­dia.

the Pla will also be bet­ter po­si­tioned to safe­guard China’s over­seas eco­nomic in­ter­ests. al­ready, Bei­jing has de­ployed naval and coast guard as­sets to de­fend oil rigs, fish­ing fleets and other eco­nomic as­sets within China’s mar­itime pe­riph­ery. Fur­ther afield, ad­di­tional sub­marines and large sur­face ships, sup­ported by newly-con­structed over­seas bases — the Pla’s first for­eign base, lo­cated in Dji­bouti, opened in au­gust 2017 — will al­low the Chi­nese navy to pro­tect crit­i­cal ship­ping lanes. With more rapidly de­ploy­able forces, the Pla will also be able to more ef­fec­tively carry out evac­u­a­tions of Chi­nese ex­pa­tri­ates, in­clud­ing those in­volved in Belt and Road projects, in the event of re­gional in­sta­bil­ity or nat­u­ral dis­as­ters, or to re­spond to large-scale ter­ror­ist in­ci­dents.

More­over, while only tan­gen­tially re­lated to re­cent re­forms, the Pla will sup­port China’s larger diplo­matic goals by shap­ing the re­gional se­cu­rity en­vi­ron­ment. Mil­i­tary at­taches posted to Chi­nese em­bassies play a role in de­liv­er­ing strate­gic mes­sages to friends and foes alike. Pur­suit of closer mil­i­tary re­la­tions with the us — a goal pro­moted by Xi — pro­vides new av­enues for strate­gic mes­sag­ing, but could also re­sult in stronger cri­sis man­age­ment mech­a­nisms. se­cu­rity as­sis­tance pro­grams, high-level mil­i­tary en­gage­ments and joint train­ing all sup­port China’s diplo­matic agenda, in­clud­ing ce­ment­ing strate­gic part­ner­ships with states such as Rus­sia, Iran, and Pakistan. longer-range as­sets will en­able the Pla to pur­sue co-op­er­a­tive ac­tiv­i­ties out­side of asia, such as in the eastern Mediter­ranean and Baltic re­gions.

In sum, Xi has achieved great progress in com­plet­ing the un­fin­ished busi­ness of re­form­ing the Pla left over to him by his pre­de­ces­sors. this has in­creased China’s warfight­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties, which in turn re­quires China’s neigh­bors, and the us, to eval­u­ate their own ca­pa­bil­i­ties and as­sess the best ways to pre­serve their own in­ter­ests. the path ahead for the Pla re­mains un­cer­tain due to is­sues such as de­clin­ing bud­get growth, la­tent cor­rup­tion and the pos­si­bil­ity that Xi’s suc­ces­sor (if and when one is named) could have dif­fer­ent pri­or­i­ties. Yet, all the ev­i­dence thus far speaks to a high level of com­mit­ment to fur­ther mod­ern­iza­tion, which, in Xi’s terms, helps pro­mote the “great re­ju­ve­na­tion of the Chi­nese na­tion” — with Xi at the helm. joel wuth­now is a re­search fel­low in the Cen­ter for the study of Chi­nese Mil­i­tary af­fairs (CSCMA) at the us Na­tional de­fense univer­sity. phillip C. saun­ders is the direc­tor of CSCMA. this pa­per rep­re­sents the views of the au­thors only and not of the Na­tional de­fense univer­sity, the us depart­ment of de­fense or the us gov­ern­ment.

Photo: Xin­hua/li Tao

Driv­ing change: Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping re­views Peo­ple's Lib­er­a­tion Army forces last July as part of 90th an­niver­sary cel­e­bra­tions for the PLA at Zhurihe mil­i­tary train­ing base, In­ner Mon­go­lia.

1 For de­tails, see Joel Wuth­now and Phillip C. Saun­ders, Chi­nese Mil­i­tary Re­form in the Age of Xi Jin­ping: Driv­ers, Chal­lenges, and Im­pli­ca­tions, China Strate­gic Per­spec­tives 10 (March 2017).

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