THE NEW RED ARMY

Pres­i­dent-for-life Xi Jin­ping plans to turn the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army into a mod­ernised force by 2035 and a world-class army by 2050

India Today - - STATES - —Ananth Kr­ish­nan

When Xi Jin­ping last year an­nounced two goals for the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army’s trans­for­ma­tion—com­plet­ing its mod­erni­sa­tion by 2035 and build­ing a “world-class” force by 2050—it served as a re­minder of how far the once bloated PLA has come.

Where once it wore with pride the tag of the world’s largest stand­ing army of 2.3 mil­lion, Bei­jing’s strate­gists now view this ac­co­lade with em­bar­rass­ment and are more than happy to let In­dia claim that prize. Xi has al­ready cut the PLA’s strength by 300,000, and once his re­forms are through, the strength will be cut by more than half to 1 mil­lion.

LESS IS MORE

This was the mes­sage Xi, dressed in mil­i­tary fa­tigues, stressed when he toured the PLA’s Joint Com­mand Head­quar­ters in Novem­ber, shortly af­ter be­gin­ning his sec­ond term and crown­ing him­self as China’s supreme leader at the party congress in March. China—and the PLA—were “at a cru­cial stage in the path to­ward be­ing a world power”, Xi said, and to achieve na­tional goals, he set three tar­gets: for the PLA to by 2020 “achieve its mech­a­ni­sa­tion, make big strides in in­for­ma­ti­sa­tion and gain sub­stan­tial im­prove­ment in strate­gic ca­pa­bil­i­ties”; be­come “a mod­ernised force” by 2035; and emerge “a world-class mil­i­tary” by 2050.

Eas­ier said than done. How re­al­is­tic are the goals? China is still a long way off from its 2050 tar­get—keep­ing the US as bench­mark, the PLA lags on al­most all counts. But an­a­lysts say it is, at the very least, lay­ing the foun­da­tions in place. One in­di­ca­tion is the PLA’s chang­ing de­fence bud­get (more than three times In­dia’s at $173 bil­lion), which spends far less on the army (18 per cent com­pared with In­dia’s 54 per cent), and de­votes an in­creas­ing share to the navy and air force (48 per cent ver­sus 36 per cent) and es­pe­cially to re­search and devel­op­ment (28 per cent to the ar­ma­ments de­part­ment com­pared with the 5 per cent to In­dia’s DRDO).

All this is to push what Xi calls the “mod­erni­sa­tion” of the army. Song Zhong­ping, a mil­i­tary ex­pert in Bei­jing, said in April that the aim was to in­crease au­to­ma­tion of equip­ment in all fields. Es­pe­cially, he noted, in bor­der ar­eas, where, for in­stance, the cur­rently on­go­ing de­ploy­ment of un­manned mon­i­tor­ing sys­tems, from drones to satel­lite warn­ing sys­tems, will “over­come blind spots and bring bor­der re­gions un­der con­tin­u­ous mon­i­tor­ing and con­trol”.

THE HOLY GRAIL

That’s just one of many key sweep­ing re­forms Xi has pushed, start­ing with the mas­sive re­or­gan­i­sa­tion of mil­i­tary re­gional com­mands

in 2016 into five larger, more in­te­grated the­atres, with the abid­ing aim of achiev­ing what has been the holy grail for the In­dian army too: an in­te­grated force with joint com­mands, nim­ble, ready to rapidly de­ploy and win wars un­der high-tech con­di­tions.

“The mo­tive and goal is in­te­grated joint op­er­a­tions and integratio­n of com­mands,” notes Srikanth Kon­da­palli, an ex­pert on the Chi­nese mil­i­tary at Jawa­har­lal Nehru Univer­sity. “Yes the re­or­gan­i­sa­tion is am­bi­tious, and a lot has been done, but it’s still not clear if it has achieved its goals. The proof of the pud­ding will be in mil­i­tary ex­er­cises or in war­fare.”

The end-game, he says, is build­ing a mil­i­tary like the US that will give China “the abil­ity to in­ter­vene at quick no­tice in the­atres any­where around the world.” That is still a long way off, he notes, but the re­forms are a step in the right di­rec­tion. “The one big les­son the PLA learnt from the 1991 Gulf War is qual­ity, not quan­tity, mat­ters. The prun­ing of 300,000 troops is al­ready on­go­ing, and there is a clear idea about build­ing a smaller, more nim­ble army. In the In­dian case, on cut­ting strength, there hasn’t even been a de­bate.”

As Kon­da­palli says, the In­dian army will al­ways have the ad­van­tage of be­ing a far more pro­fes­sional and tested fight­ing force. But as the na­ture of war changes—along with Chi­nese ca­pa­bil­ity—that may not be of so­lace for long.

XIN­HUA/LI GANG/AFP

MAR­ITIME FO­CUS XI Jin­ping with navy per­son­nel on­board the mis­sile de­stroyer Chang­sha af­ter a naval dis­play

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