China’s Military Reforms Will Centralize Command, Testing The U.S. And Its Allies
General Fang Fenghui (L), chief of the general staff of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, and General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, review an honor guard during a welcome ceremony at the Bayi Building in Beijing on Aug. 15, 2017. (MARK SCHIEFELBEIN/AFP/Getty Images)
China’s Communist Party congress that opens next week is supposed to touch on the hottest issues in the giant, growing yet still largely enigmatic country. The twice-per-decade event in Beijing should give Chinese President Xi Jinping another five years as party chief and chairman of the Central Military Commission. That go-ahead would, in turn, let Xi work harder on military reforms described as the farthest reaching since Communist China was formed in 1949. The idea is to reduce the clout of the People’s Liberation Army by bringing it under a central command that would coordinate operations with the navy and air force.
Any clashes involving that level of command would most likely occur off Chinese coasts involving its restive neighbors such as Japan, Taiwan and Vietnam. U.S. forces, with bases in Guam and Okinawa, could also jump in, especially if U.S. President Donald Trump finally loses all patience with missile tests in North Korea, which is backed by Beijing. China hopes someday to unify with Taiwan, a nearby self-ruled island that Xi’s leadership calls part of Chinese territory. But most Taiwanese have said in opinion surveys they prefer autonomy. Beijing hasn’t ruled out the use of force, if needed.
“If the reforms are successful, the PLA could field a joint force more capable of undertaking operations along the contingency spectrum, including high-end operations against the U.S. military, allied forces in the Western Pacific, and Taiwan,” China military scholars Joel Wuthnow and Phillip Saunders argue in a 2013 paper published by the Institute of National Strategic Studies under the National Defense University in Washington.
How Chinese military reforms got started
A restructuring of the military that became clear under Xi about four years ago would let the armed forces shed 300,000 people and avoid raising the military budget by any exorbitant amount, scholars believe. Due to poor transparency, you never know for sure what the military’s up to, but the Chinese public might resent a spike in peacetime military spending as economic growth eases. The armed forces employ 2.26 million active personnel now, forming the world’s third strongest military after the United States and Russia, according to the online database GlobalFirePower.com.
Xi is expected to keep the reform effort well-funded and the Chinese government expected to reveal progress this year. Xi’s ability to advance military reforms indicates he has more authority over the PLA than his recent predecessors did, the two scholars believe.
Focus on offshore expansion
A focus on military might overseas shows with the growth of a blue water navy rather than just a coastal defense force. For example, China has installed infrastructure in the disputed South China Sea for fighter jets and radar systems, according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative under U.S. think tank Center for Strategic & International Studies. In April the country christened its second aircraft carrier, and it opened its first overseas base in July, located in the East African coastal nation Djibouti. Since 2012 Chinese ships and planes have made a habit of passing through Japanese-controlled East China Sea waters to assert a claim to eight uninhabited islands also under Tokyo’s control.
The restructuring under Xi “reflects a desire” to strengthen PLA capabilities on land, at sea or in the air, Wuthnow and Saunders say.
“The big wildcard is what will the PLA role be beyond the region,” says Oriana Mastro, assistant professor of security studies at Georgetown University. “I think we will see PLA involvement more and more beyond China’s immediate periphery. How and when to use the military tool, that is still a source of great debate in China, and something to keep an eye on over the next five years.”
No war, but an ever stronger deterrent
Few scholarly voices anticipate China launching a full-scale war. It would just use the military to remind other countries of Chinese claims in contested seas, keep India on guard along their disputed land borders and ensure an upper hand in any Sino-foreign negotiations. Getting the new central command system right will take “several years,” the Institute of National Strategic Studies paper says, partly to reduce the army’s historic dominance, train new recruits and ease “inter-service rivalry at a time of slowing budget growth.”
No wonder that Xi reminded troops in July on the PLA’s 90th anniversary that they must “focus on war preparedness and forge an elite and powerful force that is always ‘ready for fight, capable of combat, and sure to win,’” China’s official Xinhua News Agency said, quoting the Chinese president.