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China: Military and Leadership Power

The Communist Party of China (CPC) announced that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) started implementing a revised regulation for political reform September 13, 2010. The move, the report said, was to “strengthen the armed forces’ combat abilities”, and the revised regulation enshrined Hu Jintao’s remarks on national defence and military construction, and the Commander-in-Chief of the Chinese armed forces.

The new regulation, the party mouthpiece the People’s Daily (Sept. 14) said also improves instructions for the PLA’s political officers to strengthen leadership of the CPC over the military. It stressed that the PLA should train its abilities to win “Media warfare, psychological warfare and legal warfare”.

The People’s Daily went on to add that it was incumbent on political officers at all levels to improve their work to help officers and soldiers better fulfill training, exercise and especially Military Operations Other Than War (MOOTW). It reiterated that political officers ranked parallel to the military commanders in a PLA unit.

Although the report did not give any other detail, this announcement was enough to see its importance in current and upcoming context. Politically, it points to the 18th National Congress of the CPC to be held in 2012 when sweeping personnel changes will be seen both in the party and the army.

The symbiotic relationship or interdependence between the party and the PLA witnessed some readjustment following the demise of the last strongman of China, Deng Xiaoping, in 1997. Ideologically, the party is supreme and the PLA’s duty remains to keep the party in power. Having said that it has become evident that the PLA has become a power broker at the top level of the party’s political and personnel issues.

Both Party General Secretary and Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) Hu Jintao, and his predecessor Jiang Zemin had to virtually buy the support and loyalty of the PLA. Given this, they had to give into the various demands of the PLA not only in terms of modernization by also in terms of state and foreign policy. This is marked by the increasing voice of the PLA in such matters.

Of course, modernization of the PLA goes hand in hand with the huge economic development and international influence. But how deeply do the PLA commanders understand the fine intricacies of a fast changing world? Here comes the importance of Political Commissars in PLA. Political Commissars are not civilians. They belong to the fighting force and can revert as a military commanders. But as political officers they are in constant touch with the Party Secretariat and other such institutions, and carry the Party’s policies and instructions to the fighting forces.

Why is this new emphasis on Political Commissars? Does the Party’s top echelon find the military becoming too assertive and militant on “issues with neighbours on territorial questions, and also with the United States? The PLA statements and overreactions over last two years suggests something like this.

At the same time, the revised political instructions not only give the PLA new directions along with power, but there is larger political meaning in it. Hu Jintao must leave his legacy enshrined in the party’s constitution in 2012, as his predecessors did, but he does not have the vision of Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping. He may pretty much leave a legacy like Jiang Zemin and his “important instructions on army building”.

Hu Jintao had tried “rise of China” as his political legacy, but had to dilute it to “peaceful rise of China” due to the wrong perception in the neighbourhood. He also created the theory of “Scientific development”, which may not be emphatic enough or be claimed as a collective decision like Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents”. He appears to trying his contribution to the military’s strategic philosophy.

Given the opaqueness of China’s politics how Hu Jintao will play his cards in 2012 is not clear. While Jiang Zemin was selected as the overall leader by Deng Xiaoping and the Party elders in the aftermath of the 1989 Tienanmen (TAM) square incident, Hu Jintao was Deng’s selected fourth generation leader. But even then, Jiang held on to the CMC Chairmanship for almost two years after giving up the other posts in 2002-3.     

This underscores the importance of the Chairman of the CMC. It is, therefore, likely that Hu will try to hold on to the CMC as long as possible, since this post does not have an age limit or fixed tenure, yet. Hu could not get his protégé Li Keqiang as the next Party General Secretary. The post is going to Xi Jinping, who is said to closer to the Jiang Zemin clique and also belongs to “Princelings” faction that is, children of former leaders. Xi’s father was Vice Premier.

China’s National Defence White Paper 2008 which was substantially influenced by Hu Jintao’s strategic view saw the existence of “many factors of uncertainty in Asia-Pacific Security” because of economic, transitions politics, and territorial issues, maritime rights and regional “hot spots”.

His strategic guidance then was “Perform historical missions”, and modernize the army in every possible way. Hu supported leap frog development of the military, support economic construction and ability to carry out MOOTW. Each of these guidance are visible today or are unfolding rapidly.

Some of these advances are noted in deploying the Chinese navy in anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, making new port calls by the navy as in Myanmar in September 2010, and the assertive sea territorial claims from East China Sea to South China Sea (first island chain). It is now threatening to establish its primacy in the second islands chain stretching to Guam.

Winning media warfare, psychological warfare and legal warfare is not a new doctrine. Known as the “three warfares” (San Zhong Zhanfa) it aims (a) to undermine the enemy’s ability to conduct warfare through psychological operation, (b) using the media to influence domestic and international public opinion to support China’s military actions and defeat the adversary, and (c) use international and domestic laws with China’s interpretation to gain international support or, at least, manage possible political repercussions of China’s military actions.

The renewed emphasis on the “Three warfare” at this juncture appears to carry profound meaning. Tensions over North Korea’s sinking of a South Korean frigate in March, heightened demand for sovereignty over the South China Sea and its islands claimed in whole or parts by other countries, and pushing up tension in the East China Sea with Japan over the collision of Chinese fishing vessel with a Japanese patrol boat in waters controlled by Japan.

The question being asked is did the Chinese vessel deliberately collide with the Japanese boat under orders? These incidents give an opportunity for  the PLA to test all the aspects “Three warfares”. The outcome will definitely affect adversely by the stability of the Asia Pacific region.

Politically, these developments give a huge boost to PLA at least domestically. While China’s ambition is well known, are these provocations linked to Hu Jintao’s domestic politics?  Hu Jintao may go down in history as the architect of China’s power projection.

(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is a China analyst based in New Delhi. Views expressed are his own.

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