This week’s policy announcements by Xi Jinping are part of a concerted effort by China to shape the PLA into a world-class force. Encompassing a modernisation drive, a major force restructure and an anti-corruption programme, the reforms are as wide-ranging as they are bold, explains Alex Neill. 

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By Alexander Neill, IISS Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific Security

China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will have achieved ‘world-class status’ by 2050, pledged President Xi Jinping in his three-hour-long opening speech at the Communist Party’s 19th Party Congress on 18 October. While delivering a ‘work report’ to his Party and outlining his vision for what its future objectives should be, Xi marked out the path ahead for the PLA. Within three years it will make strides in mechanisation and informatisation, thereby enhancing its strategic reach, and by 2035 it will have achieved its modernisation goals.

Over the course of this week, the Party’s top leadership is meeting behind closed doors to perform a five-year health check to assess the Party’s enduring fitness to govern the People’s Republic of China. During the course of the Congress, Xi is expected to introduce a radically overhauled politburo standing committee, symbolic of his unprecedented consolidation of power. In a similar vein, as chairman of China’s Central Military Commission (CMC) and commander-in-chief of the armed wing of the party, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), he is also expected to reveal a radical shake-up of China’s military leadership.

Wide-ranging reforms of the PLA

This week’s policy announcements are part of an effort, launched by Xi in 2015, to bring about far-reaching reforms across the PLA. (A long-term initiative to transform the PLA was first begun by former Chinese president Jiang Zemin in the early 1990s.) The requirement for the PLA to fight short conflicts of high intensity under ‘informatised’ conditions remains, but a new requirement to operate at long distance and the ability to mount expeditionary operations far from China’s shores has been built into the reform equation. Under Xi’s leadership, China has acknowledged the need to protect its people and assets across the globe, thus the PLA’s international footprint is set to increase significantly during his second term especially in light of the launch of China’s Belt and Road initiative.

Xi took the bold move of splintering the powerful General Staff Department in 2015. He also subjected China’s top generals to investigations by the national anti-corruption agency, the Central Discipline Inspection Commission. He also fragmented the existing framework of heavyweight military leadership blocs – by dissolving the four general departments into 15 departments directly subordinate to the CMC. The most important move by Xi was to create a joint staff department and a joint operations infrastructure, forcibly integrating the single services. This effort cascaded down from Beijing with the abolition of the seven military regions (which were traditionally dominated by the army) and the creation of five joint theatres named ‘theatre commands’. Traditionally, the logistics wing of the PLA has been the most vulnerable to corruption, thus the creation of a Joint Logistics Support Force and sub-units in the new theatre commands will help to stymie the kind of graft which had blighted the former General Logistics Department. Chinese state media have been reinforcing the message in recent weeks with the re-release of footage of former CMC Vice Chairman Generals Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong admitting to their crimes while under investigation for corruption, and the publication of demands for the absolute loyalty of the armed forces to the party.

A major objective for Xi’s military reform announced in 2015 was the downsizing of the PLA by 300,000, as well as focusing on ‘military–civil integration’, something he mentioned in his work report to the Congress. This is ostensibly an effort to optimise and exploit technological innovation in the civilian domain. A new five-year plan for military–civilian integration is an attempt to divest the PLA of its closed procurement and research and development efforts, while also creating demand for civilian contractors to the PLA. At the same time, this effort serves to thin out the non-combat sector within the PLA, reduce the propensity for corruption and to prevent the PLA from offering for-profit services.

Strategy for national rejuvenation

Xi has afforded visibly more of his time to the PLA than his predecessors, presiding over two huge military parades and making inspections of combat and border units in far flung corners of China. While embarking on a downsizing effort, he has drawn upon increased annual defence budgets (which have been subject to 8.5 percentage point increases) to lavish expenditure on the PLA, building three large air and naval bases, sophisticated C4ISR facilities in the middle of the South China Sea, and a large replenishment facility in Djibouti. Aside from the dissolution of the former general departments, in 2016 Xi created the Strategic Support Force, amalgamating PLA space, electronic and cyber warfare elements into one unit.

Integral to Xi’s strategy for national rejuvenation is the goal for China to become a great maritime power. This has been the subject of a recent campaign by the party’s intellectual journal Qiushi, placing a great deal of emphasis on the PLA Navy (PLAN). At the beginning of Xi’s tenure China’s first aircraft carrier the Liaoning, a retrofitted Soviet-built vessel, went into operation. This year, China’s first domestically built carrier was launched. Soon afterwards, the PLAN’s new domestically built destroyer, the Type-055, was launched in Shanghai. Meanwhile, the PLAN deployed a sea-borne nuclear deterrent for the first time on board its Jin-class submarines, patrolling well out into the Pacific Ocean.

While the lion’s share of military expenditure appears to be focused on the PLAN, the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) has not missed out. The PLAAF gained several new aircraft during Xi’s first term including China’s new stealth fighter, the J-20, in September this year. In the same month it was announced that China is developing its answer to the US B-2 stealth bomber, the ‘H-20’. The PLAAF’s analogue to the US Black Hawk helicopter, the Z-20, will be going into production soon.

Of all the elements of the Chinese Communist Party, the PLA has undergone some of the most conspicuous change during the course of Xi’s first term in power. Not only has the PLA continued to modernise, acquiring ever more sophisticated weaponry and the ability to mount joint operations, but it also has been heavily restructured by Xi in his quest to transform the PLA into a ‘strong military’, which encompasses the ability to fight and win wars, but also corruption. On the eve of the Party Congress, two generals Fang Fenghui and Zhang Yang, long considered candidates for the most senior positions on the CMC, were absent from the list of names in the military delegation. Both are suspected of having engaged in ‘financial irregularities’. As the Communist Party of China prepares for a significant turnover in its leadership, so does the PLA. Of 300 military delegates to the Congress, nearly all of them will be first-timers, all 15 departments under the CMC will be headed by new faces and the make-up of the CMC remains to be seen. The only apparent certainty is that Xi will remain chairman.

 

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