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A More Assertive PLA

(To be read in continuation of my article of  June 29,2010, titled “ Hu Proposes, PLA Disposes” at

A new breed of analysts with military background has been seeking to influence strategic analysis in China in a direction that justifies Beijing’s military assertiveness in matters impinging upon its core interests. Whereas a growing number of analysts with no military background has been advising caution in following a policy of enhanced assertiveness lest it add to the fears of China in its neighbourhood thereby benefiting the US, a small, but articulate group of analysts who had served in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and who continue to retain their links with the PLA after their retirement, has been not only  justifying the new assertiveness, but even calling for more of it in order to maintain China’s national self-respect.

2. Prominent among them is Maj.Gen. (retd) Luo Yuan, a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and Deputy Secretary-General of the Society of China Military Sciences, which is a supposedly non-governmental think-tank with close links to the PLA. The Society set up on November 24,2003, an International Military Branch , which was described by the Party-controlled “People’s Daily” as follows: “The branch, consisting of experts and scholars from institutes specializing in international military security, foreign military study, scientific research units and military colleges, is a component part of the China Military Science Society. The establishment marks a new phase of the development of the PLA research in foreign military affairs, contributing a great deal to the system of military sciences with Chinese characteristics.”

3. Research scholars from the International Military Branch of the Society not only write regularly in the Chinese media and appear on State-controlled TV channels to discuss strategic matters, but also brief the media on military-related matters during sessions of the Party Central Committee and the National People’s Congress. Their views tend to be more forthright than those of civilian analysts and more combative.

4. The forthright and combative nature of their views and analyses often gives rise to the question as to  whether they speak with the approval of the party and the Government. Their views and the language in which they express them are often so different from the more nuanced articulation of serving and retired diplomats that they create an impression as if the PLA and the Foreign Office are not on the same page in matters relating to Chinese policies with regard to its core interests.

5. These analysts have become particularly active in advocating a more robust response by China ever since the US and the South Korean navies started holding a series of joint exercises in the vicinity of the Yellow Sea following the alleged sinking of a South Korean naval vessel by the North Korean Navy in March last. In an article titled “America is Engaging in Gunboat Diplomacy Against China. Unilateral Confrontation and Showing Off of Hard Power”, which was carried by the “People’s Daily” online on August 13 last, Major General Luo wrote: ”The United States is never willing to communicate and consult with other countries, let alone think from others’ point of views. Since Obama came into power, he has claimed to have broken clearly with former President Bush’s unilateralist policies and pursued “smart power” diplomacy. However, judging from the United States and South Korea’s insistence on holding joint military drills around the waters of the Korean Peninsula, we see neither multilateral security cooperation nor the display of smart power. What we see is only unilateral confrontation and showing off of hard power. The Chinese are peace-loving people, and China is now taking a peaceful development road different from when the imperialist powers rose. We do not want to be against any country, but we are not fearful if other countries ignore our solemn positions and core interests. A country must have the dignity and its army must have deterrence power. China adheres to the principle “We will not attack unless we are attacked, and we must retaliate only if we are attacked,” which is definitely not a joke to the Chinese people and the army. Doesn’t the United States proclaim itself to be the most democratic country? Then, they should know in the 21st century, they ought to learn to respect others and listen to the public opinions of other countries, using wisdom but not gunboats to solve problems.”

6. In another article carried by the party-controlled “Global Times” on December 14, Major-Gen Luo made hawkish observations which should be of concern to countries such as India, Vietnam, Japan and the Philippines which have unresolved territorial disputes with China. He wrote: “Just being rich is not enough to make China a strong nation. A powerful army is also needed. The future society should be not only extremely abundant in material riches, but also have a very healthy legal system, and a prevailing toughness and militaristic spirit. I told some foreign friends that I won’t deny it when you call us hawkish because we are soldiers. If soldiers don’t talk about war, who will? “If all soldiers become dovish, what is the point for ordinary people to pay so much money to keep the army? Why don’t we save the money to improve the livelihood of people and change the name of the army to the Peace Association. A militaristic spirit is not meant to provoke war, but to shore up defences and prevent others from starting wars. The neighbouring area is not peaceful, and we have outside threats. The motherland is not unified yet and separatist forces are still posing threats to us. China has been dreaming of becoming a powerful nation for generations and the dream would finally be fulfilled in the next two generations. China’s gross domestic product is close to the second in the world, but we have not even solved the issue of national unification, and we have not recovered the land looted by our neighbours, so how can we boast of being a strong nation?” Luo said the educational system should promote a sense of fearless confidence and revolutionary heroism as part of the curriculum.

7. In an editorial titled “The meaning of PLA General’s tirade” carried on August 14, the “Taipei Times” wrote: “ Luo has come to prominence over the past decade as one of the leading beaters of the war drum, threatening both the US and Taiwan’s leaders over their perceived lack of respect for the Middle Kingdom. He lashed out in February after Washington announced its latest arms package for Taiwan, urging his government to take diplomatic, military and economic measures to punish the US, including dumping US Treasury bonds. He also defended the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) outsized budget increases in recent years as necessary because of the “threat in the Taiwan Strait.” In November last year, the General, who works at the Academy of Military Sciences in Beijing, slammed President Ma Ying-jeou, accusing him of promoting a policy of “peaceful secession”. Luo had been one of the more prominent proponents back in 2004 of Beijing’s drive to enact its “Anti-Secession” Law. While academics and analysts repeatedly note that Luo and others like him do not officially speak for either the PLA or Beijing, the fact that Luo’s latest outburst was published in the PLA’s official mouthpiece speaks for itself.”

8.It added : “China’s Central Military Commission does use military officials, both serving and retired, to float ideas and suggestions, as a means of testing reactions and as a way to let the more rabid vent some steam. However, if Luo were not voicing ideas backed by Beijing, wouldn’t he be at risk of the same kind of treatment meted out to writers, bloggers and others who dare to speak out of turn? Luo’s status as a retired PLA General would not even protect him if Beijing were unhappy with his comments. Look at the travails of retired PLA surgeon Jiang Yanyong , who first alerted the world to Beijing’s cover-up of the SARS outbreak in 2003. Hailed as a hero both in China and around the world for speaking out, his willingness to speak his mind got him into trouble just a year later when he pressed for a review of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Neither his age nor prestige could save him from detention and house arrest. Luo has been hectoring the US and its allies for too long to think that his comments do not represent the mainstream view both in the PLA and at Zhongnanhai. We would be unwise to dismiss him out of hand.”

9. Two books on the Army published in the beginning of this year have added to the welter of voices calling for a strong and robust Army, which can uphold China’s prestige. In a book titled “The China Dream”, Senior Colonel Liu Mingfu has said that China should build the world’s strongest military. He added:”China’s big goal in the 21st century is to become the world’s No 1,  top power.” In another book, Colonel Dai Xu wrote: “I’m very pessimistic about the future. China is largely surrounded by hostile or wary countries beholden to the US. I believe that China cannot escape the calamity of war and this calamity may come in the not-too-distant future, at most in 10 to 20 years.”

10. At the same time, it is apparent that there are other PLA officers who do not feel comfortable with the hawkish talk indulged in by officers like Luo. An article carried by the “China Daily” on March 4 quoted an unnamed PLA officer as saying as follows: “China has all the necessary sophisticated weapons, but we cannot compare with the US in terms of quantity. Personally, I do not agree with big talks by some scholars, (which) could only misdirect China’s national image. We should do more, but speak less.”

11. One should take note of the debate on the pros and cons of a militaristic approach to policy-making going on in the community of military analysts in China. This indicates that there are elements in the PLA which feel that there is no need for China to feel apologetic about its policy of military assertiveness. In their view, this assertiveness has two objectives—- to regain territory lost (according to them ) by China in the past in order to complete the process of national unification and to establish China’s pre-eminence as a military power, which would not hesitate to use its newly-acquired military strength should it become necessary.

12. The political leadership, while maintaining a distance from this debate, has not been discouraging such expression of hawkish views. Does this indicate a possible weakening of political control over the PLA? Not necessarily. However, it definitely indicates increasing expectations from certain sections in the PLA that their views on strategic policy-making deserve greater attention—-particularly in matters relating to China’s national unification, which these officers see as still incomplete. (23-12-10)

(The writer Mr B Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: )

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