Saturday, January 2, 2016

The PLA: The Great Reform Season

Gen Li Zuocheng, commander of the PLA Army
receives the new fag from President Xi
President Xi Jinping may not have a rosy Year 2016.
In fact, it is certain that he will face serious challenges in 2016, principally after undertaking a series of in-depth reforms in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
On November 7, The People's Daily carried a commentary calling on military authorities to win the ‘battle of military reforms’. Today, the battle is far from being won.
The Communist Party’s mouthpiece reiterated the Party's absolute leadership over the military and asked the armed forces “to remain consistent with the central authorities' decisions.”
It probably means that some elements in the PLA are not ‘consistent’ with the Party. The People’s Daily warned: “Senior leading departments and officials should play a guiding role in the process. They must back the central authorities' decisions and oppose political liberalism. They must not act on their own, gossip or make irresponsible remarks.”
The entire PLA reorganization could prove a perilous exercise.
But Xi is decided to shake up the system, establish a joint operational command structure for the land forces and reduce the seven Military Areas Commands (MACs) into five combat or strategic zones.
The South China Morning Post commented: “The restructure is part of Xi’s massive military overhaul, which aims to shift the PLA from an army-centric system towards a Western-style joint command, in which the army, navy and air force are equally represented.”
Last month, in a long speech carried by Xinhua, Chairman Xi gave a rather detailed report on the planned reforms. Xi asserted: "Under the leadership of the Communist Party, our military has gone from small to big, from weak to strong, from victory to victory. On this road, reform and innovation steps have never stopped."
On the eve of the New Year, The South China Morning Post reported that new Service Chiefs of the PLA Navy, Air Force and the land force command have already been selected.
Two Deputy Commanders of the PLA General Staff Department, Admiral Sun Jianguo, 63, and Lt Gen Yi Xiaoguang, 57 should respectively take over the PLA Navy and Air Force, while Gen Li Zuocheng, 62, commander of the Chengdu MAC, is to become the first chief of a newly-formed land force command.
The three new Chiefs will automatically become members of the CMC.
Amongst the reforms, ‘PLA Inc’ will stop its song and dance troupes, hospitals and other profit-making activities. Whether this will help solving the problem of deep corruption within the Chinese defence forces, is another question. The PLA, which once upon the time was a Peasants’ Army, has indeed become corrupt and incompetent.
The South China Morning Post commented: “For decades, the PLA has profited from accepting civilian patients at military hospitals, leasing military warehouses to commercial firms, hiring PLA song and dance troupes for public events, outsourcing military construction companies.”
But there is yet more.
In September during a visit to Washington, President Xi promised that the PLA “will not conduct or knowingly support online theft from U.S. business networks”. In recent years, the US accused the PLA of stealing billions of dollars’ worth of intellectual property from the US.
Reuters commented: “The troop cuts are part of long-mooted reforms to simplify and further professionalize the military, especially command and leadership structures that are still largely run along Soviet lines.”
What is the objective of this exercise apart from cutting the corruption rampant in each Department?
The declared purpose of the exercise is to have, by 2020, a military setup ‘capable of winning information-age warfare’.
‘Efficiency’ is clearly the new mantra.
It is obvious that if China wants to pick a fight with the US or Japan or even with its smaller neighbours, its armed forces need to be ready. Today, they are not.
Streamlining and downsizing the military will start from the CMC. By focusing on major functions and merging similar functions, the multiple-department CMC should become more efficient to supervise and coordinate the defence forces.
Even the intelligence setup will be changed. Peter Mattis, a Fellow in the China Program at The Jamestown Foundation commented: “The wide-ranging scope of the new PLA reforms will have many unforeseen second- and third-order consequences [for the Chinese intelligence]. If the Chinese military implements every single one of the announced proposals, this round of reform could wind up being as significant as the reforms undertaken in the early 1950s.”
The ratio between the Army, Navy, Air Force and Second Artillery Force (the strategic forces) will be rebalanced to take care of “the increasingly complicated global situation faced by the world's largest rising power,” wrote The Global Times.
As a large number of staff will be out of jobs, particularly in the Political Department, how to cool the resentment of the generals and troops?
The Ministry of National Defence spokesman explained that “veterans are valuable to the Party and country, as they have completed strict training and important tasks, and will be granted special job placement policies upon transfer or retirement.” Easier said than done!
The PLA Daily recently called for those who will lose their positions to “jump out of the box of self-interest …those with ulterior motives, officers and soldiers must maintain their ideological and political convictions.” It acknowledges that it will require that the high-level authorities and senior cadres provide the example.
One of the signs that all is not well for Chairman Xi is the visit of the entire CMC to the headquarters of The PLA Daily; Xi called on the journalists to play a leading role in strengthening the military and to innovate. Xi said the Daily should uphold Party principles and ‘unswervingly’ embrace the CPC leadership.
Xi also asked the publication to explain the military reform to the officers and soldiers and ‘guide’ the officers and soldiers to support and take part in the reform.
Another sign of the difficult times ahead is the fact that Xi did not manage to promote one of his protégés, Gen Liu Yuan who has just retired as the Political Commissar of the PLA’s Logistics Department. Liu, the son of former President Liu Shaoqi, greatly helped Xi in his campaign to cleanse the ‘flies and tigers’ in the PLA ranks; with two CMC’s vice-chairmen being investigated, Liu was expected to be appointed secretary of a Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) to be setup within the CMC. The fact that he did not get the job tends to show that Xi does not have full control.
What do these reforms mean for India?
On December 31, Senior Colonel Yang Yujun, the spokesman for the Ministry of National Defense commented on the situation in the China-India border; he said: “The two militaries have strengthened border defense contacts and through institutionalized channels in the border area …The Chinese side is ready to work with the Indian side …to jointly maintain peace and stability in the border region.”
In the coming year, China will try to keep the situation on the border stable, but in longer terms, the Chinese defence forces will become fitter, better prepared and far more coordinated.
Militarily, reforms make sense for China; it also implies that India has a few years to prepared itself (with the new Mountain Strike Corps for example).
In the past in China, regional level military commanders have enjoyed warlord-like status over their respective military regions, making it difficult to exercise a centralized control which is today necessary …to win a war. This may change.
Though the PLA’s reforms are a clear message to China’s neighbours to get ready, Chairman Xi will undoubtedly faces innumerable hurdles on the way to make the PLA a fighting force in 2016.

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