Every 15 years or so, the Chinese Communist Party makes a major structural or doctrinal change to the People’s Liberation Army, the world’s largest. It’s that time of the cycle again as Chinese President Xi Jinping announced last week that a massive defense restructuring was underway.
Past PLA overhauls have included opening up to the West after President Nixon’s 1972 visit; a modernization and massive troop reduction in the mid-1980s; and dropping the long-held Maoist “People’s War” doctrine in favor of a “modern high-tech war” strategy in the wake of the U.S. military’s successes in the Persian Gulf and Kosovo in the 1990s. The round of military reform unveiled last week is likely to be just as far-reaching.
Mr. Xi’s plan revamps several crucial structural features of the PLA, including replacing seven Military Region Commands with five war theaters known simply as the Northeast, Northwest, Southeast, Southwest and Central theaters; cutting troop strength from 2.3 million to 2 million; abolishing three of the four military management centers while elevating the fourth, the General Staff department, to be closer to the Communist Party’s Central Military Commission, the highest command authority of the land; dramatically reducing noncombat military personnel, including at PLA-run hospitals and song-and-dance troupes; and transferring about 170 of the nearly 200 military schools and military education facilities such as the Chinese National Defense University to civilian authorities.
Yet, like all the previous rounds, the latest one embodies several inherent problems that will present severe challenges to the plan’s authors.
First, the symbiosis between the Communist Party and the PLA remains intact. While the Ministry of National Defense will be given more responsibilities, its status as the party’s rubber stamp will not be changed because the plan specifically requires that the post of minister of national defense be held by the executive general secretary of the Central Military Commission.
A major impediment to the military’s modernization and professionalization has been the powerful influence of the ubiquitous political commissars at every level of the PLA. The reform does not seriously address the role of these commissars, whose primary job is political and ideological indoctrination within the ranks to guarantee the military’s absolute loyalty to the Communist Party and its supreme leader.
In fact, of the 46 PLA full generals and admirals, 15, or one-third of them, are noncombatant political commissars who are expected to remain in power. Further down the chain of command, the reform plan allows the commissars to simply change their title to staff officers without fundamentally altering their job description.
Second, the dual role of the PLA as a national defense force as well as the regime’s internal security force remains unchanged. The new PLA structure will consist of two equal sections: 1 million combat troops charged with national defense and 1 million PLA members in what will be called the National Garrison dealing with “anti-terrorism,” “upholding national security and social stability,” “suddenly emerging incidents” and “border security” — all code words for domestic suppression and internal policing. This will guarantee that the new National Garrison troops will likely be first on the scene should another Tiananmen occur.
Third, a dramatic reduction in military bureaucracy will be coupled with a dramatic increase in central control over operational combat units, further impeding the troops’ flexibility and restricting combat commanders’ room for innovation and taking the initiative.
Under the plan, the Central Military Commission and Mr. Xi will enjoy much greater direct control over division-level commanders. The Central Military Commission will also exercise direct control over the PLA’s strategic missile troops — the 2nd Artillery Corps, which will now be known as the Army Strategic Artillery Headquarters. The Central Military Commission will also oversee the newly established Space Command in charge of missile defense and anti-satellite operations.
Right now, operational commanders report to several layers of military bureaucracy before any action can be taken. Under the new plan, they will have to obey orders more directly from Mr. Xi as the unquestioned head of the Central Military Commission.
Touting the changes ushered in with this fifth PLA overhaul, Mr. Xi told 200-plus PLA leaders Nov. 24, “The CMC controls all, while the [five] theaters conduct battles, and the service branches construct the troops. We must institutionalize the Communist Party’s absolute command power over the PLA!”
Plus ca change
• Miles Yu’s column appears Fridays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @Yu_miles.