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China watching is a risky game.
But at the dawn of the new year, it is worth taking some risks and ‘predicting’ a few serious issues that the new Emperors in Beijing will be facing in 2014.
My ‘guessing game’ is however based on some hard facts: all is not rosy in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
While the foreign (and the Chinese) press, keeps announcing reforms of the Chinese military, the ‘official’ media denies it.
The day after the Third Plenum of the 18th Communist Party of China Central Committee ended last November, an editorial of The PLA Daily stated: “China’s People’s Liberation Army is striving to maintain its glorious wartime reputation by advancing military reform and putting paid to the ethos of decadence”.
Beijing was quite frank: “The people have noticed that certain Army cadres have only a vague understanding of their mission after a long break from combat, and have become lazy in their primary tasks,” asserted the PLA publication, which criticized officers who lack the ‘awareness of always being ready to fight’; it even admitted that some soldiers “have not been trained hard enough and the quality of military training is not good enough. They are just not up for the fight.”
The newspaper reminded its readers that the primary task and ultimate duty of military leaders should be to lead soldiers in battles and win wars. Nobody can disagree, even in South Block, where things usually move at a snail’s pace.
But if this needs to be said by the Party bosses in Beijing, it means probably that something does not go smoothly in the Middle Kingdom.
More recently, The Global Times, a publication affiliated to the Communist Party’s mouthpiece The People’s Daily, affirmed: “China's defense ministry denied news reports that China will implement a joint command system …such reports are groundless.”
It nevertheless admitted that “establishing such a system is a fundamental requirement in an era of information, and the military has begun positive programs in this regard.”
While saying that the rumors about the proposed reforms are ‘without basis’, the defense ministry still accepts that these are required.
Does it make sense?
It simply means that today in China, there are strong disagreements between the four services (Army, Navy, Air Force and 2nd Artillery for the missile force). Historically, from Mao’s days, the Army (PLA) has played the leading role in all the military operations (Korea, India or Vietnam). There is no doubt that in a future ‘modern war’, the other three services will be called upon to play a major role; the apparent ‘reform-no reform’ contradiction indicates that the PLA is ready to give up its supremacy.
Though Yang Yujun, a spokesperson for the Ministry of National Defense (MND), told at the press conference that “after studies, the PLA will deepen reform in good time and blaze a trail in reform on a joint operation command system with Chinese characteristics,” the PLA’s General Political Department affirmed that it has no information about any plan.
A well-informed Japanese newspaper had reported that China was considering reorganizing its seven geographic military regions into five and each of the new military regions would create a joint operations command controlling the army, navy, air force and a strategic missile unit to ‘ensure a more mobile and integrated management’.
That made sense and despite the denial from the defense ministry, observers believe that implementing a joint operational command could be the right move to start China's military reforms.
The fact that Beijing calls the needed changes, ‘rumours’ shows that President Xi Jinping’s reforms are not unanimously appreciated in the PLA.
The Global Times quoted a military expert (who asked to remain anonymous) saying “the establishment of a joint command system is in line with the general trend”, while the MND website continues to affirm: "Online speculation about a military reorganization and system adjustments are just rumours".
One of the rumours directly interests India: “The military areas in Xinjiang Uyghur and Tibet Autonomous Region will be merged into one force.” In case of a conflict with India, it seems logical for the PLA to have a single Military Area Command facing India, instead of having to coordinate the Western Front (Lanzhou MAC) with the Eastern Front (Chengdu MAC), with all the complications and coordination issues implied.
This is also denied, perhaps because: "China has built an iron bastion in its border regions. The major concern lies at sea," as Li Qinggong, deputy secretary-general of the China Council for National Security Policy Studies explains.
One often criticizes New Delhi for the Indian defence forces’ lack of preparedness, but it is clear that the Chinese too have their own problems. Another issue reported in The PLA Daily is the urgent need for standardisation in the Chinese armed forces. The MND’s publication admitted that the lack of coordinated standardisation among the Army, Navy, and Air Forces could become the Achilles heel of China’s defence system.
As we may not be able to fully understand the Chinese contradictions on the issue of reforms of the defence forces, one should look at the lighter side of the issue: China has a novel strategic theory and this time, it is not for the East China Sea.
The Global Times recently affirmed that smog could thwart missile attacks and hamper hostile air reconnaissance. That is indeed an interesting military doctrine!
The Global Times' headline is "The impact of smog on military equipment", it argues: "smog may affect people’s health and daily lives … but on the battlefield, it can serve as a defensive advantage in military operations."
The South China Morning Post commented on the Chinese netizen's reactions to China's new defensive weapon: “Are you saying the smog is not air pollution, but a national defence measure?” wrote a blogger on Sina Weibo microblog.
Another reader said: “But enemies wouldn’t need to resort to missile attacks if the smog continues to increase – people will simply be poisoned to death.”
If one cold winter morning you are stuck at Palam Airport, think about it, there is a strong possibility that South Block has started live military exercises.
In the meantime, ‘defence reforms’ may not be for tomorrow in China.