Spelling out the duties allotted for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the official White Paper on “China’s National Defence in 2010”, released at Beijing in March 2011, stated as follows:
“Adapting to changes both in times and security environment, the Chinese armed forces (i) take an active role in dealing with various security threats, (ii) safeguard national security and development interests, and (iii) play an important role in maintaining world peace and promoting common development”.
Given the growing international dimensions of the three fields assigned to the PLA as in the White Paper, especially the increasing linkage between the country’s national security needs and foreign policy goals, the leadership in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has entrusted the country’s defence establishment, rightly so, with the task of conducting its own ‘diplomacy’ under a ‘new security concept’. Also, under the country’s national security agenda, the Chinese authorities have given powers to the PLA for playing a role beyond the country’s borders, for e.g, peace keeping operations and anti-piracy missions overseas. These have happened in parallel to the discharge of duties by the foreign ministry with respect to the country’s external relations under a “Harmonious World” framework. In the changed geo-political situation, protection of ‘core interests’ has become the common goal of both the streams. This being so, in the progressing interplay between the two as per requirement, the Chinese military, which has a tradition of having its own ideological and strategic mindset is showing, as expected, a tendency to speak and act tough on issues relating to ‘national sovereignty’, unlike the nation’s diplomats and officials who are required to articulate on China’s ‘peaceful development’ position. The question as to whether or not the PLA is influencing the Chinese foreign policy deserves examination in such a framework.
To begin with, focus need to be given on the foundation to the widely prevailing belief that the PLA is becoming an influential factor in China’s foreign policy making. Such thinking undoubtedly stems from the bold views emanating from PLA leaders and officers as well as scholars associated with the military establishment on sensitive subjects like relations with the US and overseas naval bases as well as land and sea territorial claims against neighbouring nations. Significant is that such views, in general, are not officially contradicted. A chronological listing of them follows:
Attacking the US for its decision to sell arms to Taiwan, three senior PLA officers from China’s National Defense University and Academy of Military Sciences – Major General Zhu Chenghu, Major General Luo Yuan and Senior Colonel Ke Chunqiao, called upon (Xinhua, 9 February 2010) China to sell its US debt off and urged it to increase defense spending and expand military deployments
PLA Navy Rear Admiral (Retired) Yin Zhuo, who is also a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) feared (RIA Novosty, 27 February 2010) that the growing number of submarines operated by member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) could pose a threat to China.”If this continues at the current rate, in several years, the ASEAN nations will have powerful naval forces, which can pose a challenge to neighboring countries, including China.” He also called for China to build a naval base in the Middle East, which prompted China’s Ministry of Defense to respond (CCTV, 1 March 2010) that, “China has no plans for an overseas naval base.”
In his book entitled “ The China Dream”, published by the PLA Publishing House, Beijing, Senior Colonel Liu Mingfu, who is presently a Professor in the National Defence University challenged (Reuters, 28 February 2010) the targetting of China by US ‘hegemon’ and asked the PRC “to build the world’s strongest military”, in order to uphold the country’s prestige.
Rear Adm. Guan Youfei, the Deputy Director-General of Foreign Affairs Office in the Ministry of National Defence, speaking at a big gathering of scholars, top officials and foreign representatives at Diaoyutai State Guest House, openly attacked (Beijing, 24 May 2010) Washington for selling arms to Taiwan and accused the US of being a “hegemon”, plotting to ‘encircle China with strategic alliances’.
Major General (Retd.) Luo Yuan, a member of the Chinese People’s Political Conference (CPPC) and Deputy Secretary-General of the Chinese Academy of Military sciences, in response to US-South Korea joint exercises in the Yellow Sea, attacked (People’s Daily, 13 August 2010) the US for having indulged in ‘gun boat’ diplomacy and showing off ‘hard power’.
A lengthy article contributed by Xu Yunhong, who was an alternate member of the 15th Chinese Communist Party(CCP) Central Committee, in the party theoretical journal “Qiu Shi’ ( 10 December 2010), accused the US of frequently prevailing upon Asian nations like India, South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia as well as Australia, to hold joint military exercises with the purpose of ‘encircling China militarily’. Arguing that “throughout the history of the new China, peace in China has never been gained by giving in, but only through war and that safeguarding national interests is never achieved by mere negotiations, but by war”, it added that “we must send a clear signal to our neighbouring countries that we don’t fear war, but we are prepared at any time to go to war to safeguard our national interests.”
Major General (Retd.) Luo Yuan, raised (Liberation Army Daily and Global Times, 14 December 2010) a question as to how China can boast of being a strong nation when the issue of national unification remains unsolved and the land ‘looted by China’s neighbours’ are yet to be recovered.
China’s Defence Minister Liang Guanglie stated in an interview to State media (31 December 2010) that ‘in the coming five years, China’s military will push forward preparations for military conflicts in every strategic direction’.
Air Force Colonel Dai Xu, an influential military strategist in his interview to Reuters, wrote (China Daily, 4 March 2011): “I am 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”.
A former military strategist with the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences, Maj.Gen (Retd.) Peng Guangqian in an interview warned (People’s Daily, 29 May 2011) his countrymen against ‘illusion of peace’. Noting that “globalised production and economic interdependence cannot fundamentally eliminate the cause of war rooted in the expansionist nature of monopoly capitalism”, he stated that China may not challenge the US, but the US “hegemony” will challenge China.
Prima facie, the military viewpoints brought out above overlap with and some times appear sharper than what the foreign ministry says. Particularly on the issue of US arms sales to Taiwan, the former’s stiff position taken unmindful of China’s diplomatic interests, stands out. The foreign ministry officials on the other hand seem to prefer a moderate stand on the subject. Worth noting in this regard is State Councillor Dai Bingguo’s assertion in his 9000-word essay (Chinese foreign ministry website, 6 December 2010) that “Beijing would never to seek to replace the US as the world’s dominant power”, revealing intentions to avoid any excessive US bashing. The same trend towards a military-civilian attitudinal divide can be discerned in actions taking place at ground levels. On sea territories issue, the PLA is adopting tough postures like sponsoring aggressive maritime surveillance and even holding military drills in order to apply pressure on China’s neighbours like Japan and Vietnam. These are unmistakably casting a shadow on China’s efforts at diplomatic levels to forge stable and friendly ties with nations in the region, especially to dispel the latter’s fears over “China Threat”.
Notably, signals are also occasionally appearing that the PLA may not mind bypassing the party and civilian mechanisms in the country while taking certain policy positions. To substantiate, following instances can be quoted – PLA’s action during the occurrence of US EP-3 spy aircraft incident (2001) keeping the foreign ministry in dark at least in the initial stage, the military’s handling of SARS outbreak in Guangdong (2003) hiding facts from the civilian side, holding of anti-satellite weapon test (January 2007) with no advance information to other official agencies, the PLA’s reported denial of permission for the docking at Hongkong harbour by the US Aircraft Carrier Kitty Hawk, on which China relented later (November 2007) and organisation of test flight of J-20 prototype stealth fighter (11 January 2011) about which even President Hu Jintao was reportedly unaware . In the last case, what the visiting US Defence Secretary Robert Gates felt could be meaningful; after his meeting with President Hu Jintao, Gates gave enough hints to reporters that the Chinese leader, while interacting with him, appeared not to know about the test flight. It may not be a surprise if such signals create suspicions in the outside world about PLA’s real intentions.
While discussing the PLA’s influence over foreign affairs, for that matter any other civilian field, it may be necessary to address an important question – what is the current status of the military in the country’s political system? It can be said in this connection that the status was strong during the period dominated by Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, the two ‘long marchers’ who had developed personal association with the army. The situation began to change in 80s and 90s, when military officers retiring from powerful party positions were replaced with civilians.
During the regimes of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, being described respectively as heads of ‘third and fourth generation leaderships’, the PLA moved away from its revolutionary roots and its role narrowed down to defence only. Four factors seemed to have been responsible in this respect- the absence of a paramount leader, generational shifts in the civilian and military leaderships, increasing professionalism in the military brought about by institutional reforms and sustained progress in the country’s economic development . Simultaneously, the level of representation of the ‘apolitical’ PLA in the upper echelons of the CCP has come down. There is no PLA representative in the policy-making Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC); the last such one was the then Navy commander Liu Huaqing who retired in 1997. Also, 22 out of 25 Politburo members now have no military background and there is no PLA member in the powerful Party Secretariat.
Not to be missed is that at a time when there is a downward trend in the PLA’s political status, it is making rapid progress in another direction- acquisition of professionalism backed by an effective defence modernisation programme, annual rises (average increase by 12.9%) in the official defence budgets for the last two decades and improvement of promotional avenues for PLA officers and men.
Currently, the military’s fighting capability is increasing as per directions of the party and state leadership. What is being witnessed is a surge in procuring, developing and deploying advanced weapon systems (e.g. J-20 stealth jets, air craft carrier, carrier- killing DF21D anti-ship ballistic missiles, satellites, cyber weapons, aerial refueling etc). Arms purchase from abroad, especially advanced fighter aircraft like SU-37 from Russia is getting speeded up. Under the “New Historic Missions” directive of President Hu Jintao, the PLA’s ability to project force beyond the country’s borders is growing. The net result is that the PLA is no longer a land based army aiming at territorial defence; with the support of the country’s expanding Navy and Air Force, it is gaining strength to protect China’s strategic interests overseas – in particular, East and South China seas and beyond the Western Pacific. Anti-access and area-denial aims are receiving the PLA’s focus. Feelings are on rise that these could lead to a change in power balance in East Asia.
It would be appropriate to shift attention at this point to another question – in what manner, a politically weak, but professionally strong PLA, can influence the foreign policy making in the PRC? Addressing it should begin with a look at the institutions involved in making the foreign policy as of now. Identified in this regard are three bodies – (i) the nine-member CCP’s Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC), (ii) the Party’s Foreign Affairs Leading Small Group (FALSG) and (iii) its attached FALSG Office. FALSG which shares its personnel with National Security Leading Small group, advises and makes recoommendations to the PBSC on foreign policy matters; its membership is not known to the public, but is believed to include Hu as Chairman, Xi as Vice-Chairman and representatives from the party, government and military as members. It is a fact that the CCP General Secretary and the PRC President Hu Jintao is only a primus- inter- pares in the PBSC , which makes policy decisions on the basis of a ‘consensus’. Still, leaders who may have a greater say on foreign policy matters by virtue of their responsibilities towards foreign relations, could be the four present PBSC members- President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao, Security chief Zhou Yonggang and the likely successor to Hu in the next year’s Party Congress, Xi Jinping. None of them had military experiences in the past. The FALSG Office, which advises the leading group on foreign policy, is reportedly headed by State Councillor Dai Bingguo .
It may be seen from above that the PLA has no direct voice in the apex body, the PBSC, and that only in the FALSG, some interaction between the military and civilian leadership on foreign policy may possibly be taking place. But such interaction may not mean the PLA’s exclusive influence over decision making, for the simple reason that as per reports, personnel, other than those of the army, like officials of the CCP’s International Department and the Ministers handling foreign affairs, Commerce, State Security etc are also represented in the FALSG which may have to factor the entire spectrum of opinions in its recommendations. This may suggest a consensus-based decision-making at the level of FALSG also, like in the case of PBSC.
Along with the foreign ministry, there are now other players influencing the foreign policy making process in China, like the PLA, the Ministry of State Security, the Ministry of Commerce, and energy-related establishments; as this process develops further, the traditional dominant role of the foreign ministry in managing international relations may diminish. Such expectations have figured in a recent study of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) , completed on the basis of interviews with 71 Chinese officials and armymen. According to it, no unitary force is acting on foreign policy issues, the Chinese foreign ministry has become a weak actor and a varaiety of other government agencies have emerged as new players wishing to impact on the foreign policy formulations. The loss of foreign ministry dominance is being seen as a result from the expanding pluralism within Chinese society and China’s growing interdependence with the international community. A leading Chinese strategist Professor Shen Dingli, in his study, also recognises the waning of the foreign ministry’s influence as well as the rise of different groups in the foreign policy arena, but feels that these groups function in a ‘less coordinated and less centralised manner’. Rear Admiral Yang Yi, a former Director of Institute for Strategic Studies, National Defence University, complained that “with no concrete leadership for national security and many departments become involved, coordination is difficult, responses tend to be tardy, counter-measures lack focus and constantly problems emerge in certain links among the institutions dealing with matters.”
In sum, it can be stated that in China’s foreign policy-making process , there are now many actors including some new; the fact that the PLA is only one of the actors , goes to disprove the chances of the military dominating that process disproportionately. At the same time, given that ‘national security’ is the primary responsibilty of the PLA, its influence over the work related to defence- related foreign policy issues is expected to remain strong. In particular, the PLA is expected to be pro-active in the following five areas – (i) Taiwan issue (i) territorial problems with countries like India, (ii) sea boundary disputes with regional littoral powers like Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines, (iii) strategic competition with the US in the Asia-Pacific region, (iv) handling North Korea situation, and (v) strategic relations with countries like Russia and Pakistan. In coordinating their policies with respect to these five areas, China’s defence and foreign policy estalishments may occasionally find themselves at odds with each other; but their discord is not likely to get out of hands due to the existence of top policy-making bodies like the Politburo Standing Committee, capable of providing an institutional guarantee for reconciliation.
What are the implications for India arising out of the PLA’s influence, though not exclusive one , over foreign policy making in China? Needing attention of India first is the developing situation in China under which the foreign ministry is becoming a weak actor, mainly due to entry into the arena of foreign policy-making by other institutional players. For New Delhi, it should be clear that the PLA , with national security as its charge, is bound to remain assertive with respect to all ‘sovereignty-related’ issues, including the one concerning the Sino-Indian border. It should learn from China’s current two-pronged policy towards South China Sea – seeking on one hand ways to maintain stable political relations with the littorals like Japan and Vietnam, and on the other, flexing military muscles at ground levels, if necessary, as a tactic meant to reassert from time to time sovereignty over the disputed islands.
For India, the dichotomy noticeable in China’s policy and action could also be important. It may have something to do with China’s “core interests” principle which allows no compromise in sovereignty-related issues and even justifies use of force to settle them. It is obvious that under it, ‘diplomacy’ is taking a back seat on selected issues. India should realise that the ‘core interests’ principle may also govern Beijing’s policy behaviour with respect to the Sino-Indian border issue (though not so far included by China in the ‘core interests’ list). India-China ties may have to be looked at through the prism of Beijing’s such policy-action gap. The two agreed to ‘resolve outstanding differences including the boundary question at an early date through peaceful negotiations’ (China-India Joint Communique, New Delhi, 16 December 2010) and decided to set up a ‘working mechanism for consultation and coordination on border affairs’ (Sanya, China, 13 April 2011) for ensuring ‘ maintenance of border peace and tranquility’. These coupled with the fact that the agreed confidence building measures in the border are working well; go to show that a favourable political atmosphere in bilateral ties has come to prevail.
However, there seems to be no end to the mutual strategic suspicions between the two sides. China is continuing with its firm rejection of Indian sovereignty over Arunachal Pradesh, is building up military infrastructure in areas across Indian border and is strongly wary of India’s despatch of additional Indian troops to North East. As a fresh irritant in ties with India, China has shed its traditional neutral stand on the issue of Jammu and Kashmir and moved closer to Pakistan’s position on the issue. China has been giving ‘stapled visas’ to the Indians living in Jammu and Kashmir and there is still no clarity on the issue, in spite of the bilateral consultations which are in progress. Complicating the situation are the reported presence of Chinese soldiers as well as execution of infrastructure projects by China, in the Pakistan Occupied Kashmir(POK), including one meant to upgrade the existing Karakorum Highway connecting Xinjiang and Pakistan’s Punjab. A feasibility study for a railway link between Xinjiang and Pakistan’s Gwadar port is also in the offing. Lastly, Beijing’s moves to increase its strategic influence in important states surrounding the Indian Ocean, Have generated streategic concerns in India.
China’s suspicions over India’s policies are also getting relected in its ground-level military actions. Beijing organised last year the first ever military exercise in Tibet , close to the Indian border, involving Air Force, Artillery and electronic warfare units. It sounded as a Chinese tactic to apply pressure on India on the border issue, in response to the latter’s augmentation of its force levels in its Northeast. Interestingly, China has applied a similar tactic against Japan and Vietnam, the two powers contesting Beijing’s claims over South China sea islands, by holding military drillls.
The PLA operates under the principle of “Party commands the gun”. Still, it has occasionally taken certain measures bypassing the Party and civilian administration. It would be illogical and hypothetical to expect the PLA to bypass the Party directive with respect to India too. Still, India, in its own interests, should not allow itself to be taken by surprise if any act of Chinese military adventurism takes place in the borders, initiated by commanders at local levels with no orders from the high command.
New Delhi should understand the meaning of China’s application of its general ‘diplomatic’ formula of “shelving the disputes and seeking common development” with respect to disputes with India. The Chinese gave emphasis to this formula during the recent Beijing-Hanoi territorial confrontation. It will be in the fitness of things, if China’s neighbors including India who have unsolved territorial problems with China, ponder over the possibilities of Beijing’s dropping ‘shelving’ needs and adopting an aggressive position once China becomes fully modernised militarily, say by middle of this century as officially projected.
During the recent China-Vietnam clash, the US role emerged as a common challenge for China’s both foreign and defence policy players. The latter appeared to be more serious on meeting this challenge, than the country’s diplomats, for reasons already mentioned in the Paper. There can be a parallel case with respect to India with Chinese opinions doubting Washington-New Delhi collusion to strategically ‘encircle’ China. As such, India should give priority to handling of the US-China-India triangular relations with finesse.
Last but not least, India cannot afford to miss the significance of the progressing Chinese naval activism for the security of the Indian Ocean, through which all raw materials meant for the PRC, pass through. One can clearly see coordination in this regard between the PLA Navy and the country’s foreign policy establishment in the current period which is witnessing a transformation taking place in China’s status – from that of a ‘continental power’ to a ‘maritime power’. There is bound to be a strategic competition between China and India in the Indian Ocean region and without doubt, the two nations will have a heavy stake in preventing such a competition from turning into an adversarial one.
(The writer, Mr D.S.Rajan, is Director, Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai,India. Email: email@example.com. The article appeared in the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA) Journal, Vol. 5, No. 3, July 2011, pp. 1-10 on “China’s People’s Liberation Army” the IDSA also carried the article in its website ( http://www.idsa.in/system/files/jds_5_3_dsrajan.pdf ). The CCCS acknowledges with thanks the permission given by the IDSA, New Delhi for re-publishing the article in its website)
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