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Army Ready for the Congress; By M. V. Rappai

Picture Courtesy: Kevin Frayer/Getty images

Article No. 0084/2017

Unlike in most modern nation states, the military of the People’s Republic of China belongs to its ruling Party and not to the state. This complicated relationship makes the study of modern China as a nation state much more complex than any other similar political entity. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Communist Party of China (CPC)’s armed vanguard is currently getting ready for the 19th Party Congress of the CPC, which is scheduled to be held on 18 October 2017. There exists a long historical background for this symbiotic relationship between the Army and CPC since its inception in the turbulent revolutionary period of 1927 when the military arm was officially constituted. Despite all the modernisation drives by tall Communist Party leaders like Deng Xiaoping and others, the Party decided to keep this ‘flesh and blood’ relationship of the army being the protector of the state and the Army an obedient tool of the Party, remained intact. It seems that a major ongoing professionalization drive within the Army is also not affecting this age old symbiotic ties of ‘blood and sweat’ in any substantial way.

This year will be crucial for China from both political and economic perspectives, first and foremost, the CPC congress is to be held in the last quarter of this year will select/elect a new central committee and the new leadership line up which will lead China through the coming 19th and 20th Party Congress’, likely to be held in end 2022. This will be a huge challenge for general secretary Xi Jinping and his core team, which will position a leadership group who will carry forward their legacy and aspirations for future generations. During this period China will be crossing its first centennial target, the hundredth anniversary of the establishment of the CPC in 2021. Chinese leadership’s ardent vision is to emerge as a medium level developed nation by that time. To achieve this aim the party needs a strong vanguard and a protector in PLA, hence, the tight control of Party over PLA is a necessary precondition.

In preparation for the coming mega event, the congress, the Party unit of the PLA has already elected a 303 strong delegation as its formal representative to the congress. From among this contingent, as per convention nearly forty delegates will be elected to the newly constituted Central Committee (CC) of the congress, which will form the core decision making body of the Party for the next five years. These forty odd delegates will be forming the main group who will occupy the key positions in the Army establishment including the top decision making body, the Central Military Commission (CMC). The CPC have already elected the 2,300 party delegates from its over 90 million strong membership nationwide.

If one take a look at the composition of this Military delegation to the Party Congress, it will give a broad idea about the future role the Chinese Military wants to play in the Party and the nation at large. General secretary Xi Jinping has already succeeded in placing most of his key military aids get elected to this group. Out of the existing CMC eleven uniformed members more than half will be replaced due to retirement and other reasons, including mandatory age factor etc., the sitting senior vice chairman General Fang Changlong and member Gen. Zhang Yang, Director, Political work department are not included in the Party delegation. However, Xi has already succeeded in placing some of the promising upcoming PLA officers like his long time military aide Major Gen. Zhong Shaojun, who looks after PLA”s day-to-day operations and Lt. Gen. Wang Chunning, troop Commander in Beijing in the Party delegation to Congress.

The overall impact of all these efforts of Xi and his colleagues can only be assessed later, once the new CMC and other key organs of the Military come into being after the completion of the Congress. Reforms in PLA is an ongoing process, the already undergoing efforts of reforms by and large follows the programme announced by nation’s President and CMC chairman Xi Jinping after the conclusion of a three day long CMC Reform work conference on 26 November 2015. The conference attended by the top brass of China’s military and all powerful Communist Party of China agreed upon a long drawn plan to reform the traditional Maoist outfit of the PLA largely patterned on the conventional Soviet military apparatus. President Xi committed to a major breakthrough in the overhaul by 2020, which tallies with Party’s goal of making China a well off society by 2021, the centenary year of the establishment of the CPC.

Further, the PLA has formally established five theatre commands on 1st Feb 2016, basing on their geographical locations: Eastern theatre command, Southern theatre command, Western theatre command, Northern theatre command and Central theatre command. These five commands will be replacing the existing seven regional commands, better known as Military Regions (MRs), named after the cities where their headquarters were located – Beijing, Shenyang, Jinan, Lanzhou, Nanjing, Chengdu and Guangzhou.

Under the new dispensation, India will be looked after by the newly constituted Western Theatre Command (WTC). Geographically, this largest theatre command consists of administrative areas like Sichuan, Tibet Autonomous Region, Yunnan, Shaanxi, Gansu, Ningxia, Qinghai, Xinjiang Autonomous Region and Chongqing Municipal Corporation. Unlike the previous arrangement, wherein India – China border was under the watch of two separate Military Regions, Chengdu MR and Lanzhou MR, in the new set up only one command authority will be responsible for looking after the entire stretch of India – China boundary. Naturally, the coordination efforts can be expected to be far more sophisticated and better. Both Indian military establishment and civilian agencies including think tanks in India must enhance their awareness about Chinese military and its affairs.

One of the main purpose of this round of reform is to integrate the C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) capabilities into joint operations. China is looking to gain the more sophisticated war fighting methods like the combining of cyber, space and nuclear capabilities with the existing conventional forces. This will definitely allow it to reduce its increasing defence budgets. Under the planned operations, advanced psy-war ops can be combined with massive cyber capabilities to overpower the enemy before the actual fight starts.

Keeping in view of the massive changes taking place in the military structure of China, the coming party congress will play a vital role in deciding the future of Party – Military relationships. For general secretary Xi Jinping, this congress will be crucial in deciding the legacy he will be leaving for the posterity, especially in relation to the Military’s ability in deciding and shaping the future of China. Since, last few years China has been spending more money on its maintenance of its internal security agencies including the newly formed cyber security agencies, in comparison to the total defence expenditure. Many of these issues are likely to impact the overall growth trajectory of the armed forces and its relationship with Party and state apparatus. The Party congress may provide some useful indicators to these significant changes in the offing.

(The writer is Honorary Fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi.The views expressed are his own.)

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