In his bid to see China become a true superpower, President Xi Jinping has committed to a monumental task. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say he has staked his authority as president on it. Basically, he is seeking to overhaul the Chinese military, which is still largely organized as it was when a million peasant soldiers mustered under Mao Zedong. Mr. Xi wants a military that can project power across the Pacific and face regional rivals like Japan in defense of Chinese interests.
China’s military budget has grown to be the second largest in the world, with an estimated $188 billion spent last year, compared to the US’s $644 billion. Though this remains within the high 3 percent range of the nation’s GDP, it also represents a %90 increase in spending since 2004. In addition, China has acquired new weapons technology. These range from stealth fighters and drone technology – which China has been lagging significantly behind in in recent years – as well as several new aircraft carriers.
But Mr. Xi has told his commanders that this is not enough. In addition to more money and more weapons, reorganization and better cohesion are necessary. To this end, Xi has indicated that he heans to strengthen China’s naval and air forces (which have been subordinate to the People’s Liberation Army’s land forces) and to get the military branches to work in close coordination, the way advanced Western militaries do. At a committee of party leaders studying military reform at its first meeting in March, Mr. Xi was quoted as saying:
“There cannot be modernization of national defense and the military without modernization of the military’s forms of organization. There has to be thoroughgoing reform of leadership and command systems, force structure and policy institutions.”
This is no easy task. Overhauling the organizational structure of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will mean going up against the entrenched power of the land forces, which is currently staffed by 1.4 million soldiers. In addition, he will be trying to overhaul the military at a time when he still needs it to remain a reliable guardian of the Communist party. According to experts like David M. Finkelstein, vice president and director of China studies at CNA Corporation in Virginia:
“Military reform is part of the larger program that Xi Jinping is putting in place to put his imprimatur on the Chinese party-state… ‘This time, we’re serious’ — that should be the subtext of this new tranche of reform. It will be five years before you see the fruits of it. But 10 years from now, you might see a very different P.L.A.”
At the heart of Xi’s plans is a restructuring of the PLA’s regional command system, another relic of the past. Originally set up to defend the country against invasion from the Soviet Union and to uphold the party’s domestic control, the new structure is likely to reflect China’s more recent territorial and political concerns, and thereby be focused on confronting Japan and on enforcing Beijing’s territorial claims in the East and South China Seas. At present, the Japanese Navy – the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, or JMSDF – is believed to have the edge over China in terms of ships. And the US-Japanese alliance is seen as a prime strategic interests for China, whose commanders have been referring to their country’s defeat at Japanese hands in 1895 and using that humiliation as a prod for change.
The Chinese military was already trying to accomplish a lot by 2020, at which point it hopes to have completed its mechanization and made major progress in spreading the use of information technology. In this respect, they are trying to do what the US did post-Vietnam, though without the same components and benefits in place. And the changes being proposed by Xi present his administration with some political challenges.
For example, this restructuring will mean the transferring or decommissioning of significant numbers of soldiers and bureaucrats, which will add to the already large number of under- or unemployed former soldiers who are a persistent source of protests in the nation. Spending does not appear to be an issue, as China has shown extreme comfort with spending at least 2.5% of its GDP on military spending. What is at stake is inertia, which counts for a lot when it comes to militaries.
However, Xi appears well-positioned to take on these obstacles, unlike his weaker predecessor Hu Jintao. For starters, Mr. Xi became chairman of the Central Military Commission at the same time he became party leader. In addition, it was clear he had the backing of the six other members of the Politburo Standing Committee – the country’s most powerful body. Mr. Xi’s efforts may be helped by the impending trial of Gu Junshan, a general whose been charged with flagrant corruption. This, according to some experts, has the armed forces running scared and afraid to speak out.
But above all, there are no signs that China’s military commanders will challenge the party’s control over the army, even if they privately blanch at some of Mr. Xi’s demands. Since its inception, the PLA has been staffed by party members who consider defense of the party to be their primary mission.Source: New York Times – China’s Leader, Seeking to Build Its Muscle, Pushes Overhaul of the Military Source: SIPRI – Trends in world military expenditure, 2013
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