The 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China that concluded on Tuesday was mostly about electing a new leadership and setting the agenda for the future. But countries wary of China’s rising economic and military power are also looking at its proceedings and outcomes to see what the larger implications could be.
The message that came out was not exactly reassuring. It said China would make its military world-class—in other words, equip it with better hardware, have it led by generals who are both militarily proficient and loyal to the Communist Party of China, and operate it on doctrines that emphasise high technology and innovation.
India, for one, needs to be listening hard. On Aug. 28, the People’s Liberation Army and the Indian Army ended a 71-day standoff over a Chinese road-building project in Doklam, a part of the border that is claimed by both China and Bhutan and which lies in close proximity to Sikkim. Though the problem has been resolved, for now, it is difficult not to forget the threats that emanated from Beijing—that if India did not pull back, China would have to resolve the matter by force, or as an official spokesmen put it, “China would take all measures to uphold its territorial integrity.”
India and China have a deep history of conflict. They share a disputed border, they have fought a war over it, and have periodic standoffs because they are not in agreement on where the Line of Actual Control lies. China has skilfully used Pakistan to offset India, going to the extent of helping it make nuclear weapons and missiles. In addition, Beijing’s expansion has led to the arrival of the People’s Liberation Army Navy in the Indian Ocean, which is deeply disturbing to India. For all these reasons, New Delhi is keenly looking at the messages coming out of the party congress, and the first take is that they are not particularly comforting.
“A military force is built to fight,” Chinese president Xi Jinping said in his work report to the congress on Oct. 18. “Our military must regard combat readiness as the goal for all its work and focus on how to win when it is called upon.” In his remarks he declared China’s intention of transforming the People’s Liberation Army into a “world-class military by the mid-21st century.”
The goal of the Communist Party of China is to build a powerful and modernised army, navy, air force and strategic support force and develop strong and efficient joint operations commanding institutions for theatre commands, Xi said. Technology would be at the core of combat prowess with an emphasis on innovation. The People’s Liberation Army would have to raise its joint warfare capabilities and develop the ability to operate anywhere.
The milestones were also laid out: mechanisation by 2020, achieving significant advances in the application of information technology, and an enhancement of the country’s strategic (read nuclear) capabilities. The modernisation process would be substantially completed by 2035.
Technology is central to Xi’s plan for the country’s growth. And the emphasis is on closer integration of civilian and military technology, with a focus on cyber, aviation, transportation and disruptive innovation (a business term for the process by which a small company unseats a larger, more established one).
The 19th central committee of the Communist Party of China, or the party’s top leadership, also elected a new central military commission. Xi is chairman of the commission, which runs the People’s Liberation Army and the People’s Armed Police. He has reduced the new commission to just seven members from 11 earlier. He has also appointed two vice-chairmen—Air Force general Xu Qiliang, who held the same position in the previous commission, and general Zhang Youxia, who was also part of the 2012 commission and looked after equipment development and space projects. In addition, general Li Zuocheng became the top officer in the People’s Liberation Army when he was appointed head of the joint staff department of the central military commission in August. The other members of the commission are Wei Fenghe, commander of the Army’s strategic rocket force; lieutenant general Zhang Shengmin, chief of the military discipline commission, who will pursue an anti-corruption campaign; and admiral Miao Hua, recently appointed head of the commission’s political work department.
On the eve of the party congress, general Fang Fenghui, who headed the joint staff department, joined the ranks of military leaders dismissed for corruption. The military media has disclosed that the Army’s anti-corruption authorities have taken up 4,000 cases for investigation in the past five years and disciplined 14,000 officers for corruption and other misdemeanours.
Xi took charge of the Communist Party of China and the central military commission in 2012 when morale was low and widespread corruption had weakened the Army. He immediately issued instructions to rectify matters. “Ten Regulations” were passed that December calling for a changed work style that included restrictions on banquets and serving of liquor. He also came up with a formula to provide an overarching vision for the country, or the “Chinese Dream”, that incorporated military modernisation, an emphasis on purity, and a crackdown on corruption.
Subsequently, he pushed through drastic reforms that flattened the higher command system by eliminating the four powerful general departments and creating 15 smaller offices subordinated to the central military commission. He reshaped the seven military regions into five theatre commands and shed 300,000 personnel. According to a documentary by the state broadcaster China Central Television, 200 division-level units and more than 1,000 regimental-level organisations were shut down. More than 30% of military officers were laid off and hundreds of generals ordered to report for new duties.
Xi also took personal charge of military reform, internet security, and the leading small groups on informationisation. These groups are consultant bodies/task forces to the party and the government. In April 2016, he also took the title of commander-in-chief of the military’s joint operations command centre, appearing in battle fatigues during an inspection of the facility.
Xi has been quite blunt in declaring—as he did at a memorial conference of the Gutian Congress in November 2014—that “the Party commands the gun.” In the original conference of Nov. 01, 1929, Mao Zedong had criticised what he termed “a purely military viewpoint” and the view that the job of the People’s Liberation Army was merely to fight instead of functioning “as an armed body for carrying out the political tasks of the revolution.”
The People’s Liberation Army today is already a formidable force compared to the antiquated military that existed in the 1980s. Its technology and skill levels are behind those of the United States in most areas, but it has narrowed the gap.
By 2035, the date chosen by Xi, assuming both the United States and China are modernising along existing trajectories, what you will see is that the United States’s ability to dominate will recede further from the Chinese mainland. This could deter an American intervention were China to get into a conflict with one of its neighbours such as Vietnam, the Phillippines, Taiwan, or even Japan.
Clearly, all of this has implications for India, given its tardy pace of reform and equipment. In essence, we will see more of what we have been seeing in the past five years—more assertiveness on our periphery, more People’s Liberation Army Navy ships and bases in the Indian Ocean.
One reason why the Doklam standoff ended the way it did could be the fact that the People’s Liberation Army simply lacked the military ability to push the Indians out. If so, this could mean that forces along the India-China border would be made much more capable, not just in terms of numbers but in their mobility, their ability to fight in an information technology environment and firepower.