The meeting of the Central Military Commission (CMC) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the supreme governing body of the armed forces of one of the leading global powers, held on November 24–26, 2015, will have a significant impact not only on the development of internal processes in China, but also on the surrounding political environment. The keynote address of the country’s leader Xi Jinping added the significance to this event.
Despite the paucity of available information, it obviously concerns quality changes in the character of the development of military capability of the PRC, especially those in the organizational structure, as well as in the management system of the major component of the country’s “power” tool, i.e. People’s Liberation Army of China (PLA).
It is worth noting that the process of gradual transfer from the doctrine of “people’s war” with the mass army towards the construction of relatively compact, professional and modernly equipped armed forces was outlined in China a long time ago. Naturally, it accompanied and served as a consequence of the rapid economic and technological development of China, and the decreased probability of a large-scale military incursion into its territory.
However, the potential of this relatively smooth process is likely to be exhausted soon, while accumulated challenges require a decisive intervention of the country’s government.
The fact that the PLA have to face serious changes became clear during the festive events dedicated to the 70th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War that took place in Beijing on September 3, 2015.
Speaking at the military parade, Xi Jinping said that the land forces of the country would be reduced by 300 thousand soldiers, and the total number of the PLA would decrease to 2 million people. The entire military parade was aimed at the demonstration of a trend on increasing the qualitative characteristics of the country’s army forces.
It is quite obvious that one of the motives that urged the Chinese leadership not to delay the process of reorganization of the “power” bloc was a study of the RAND Corporation “Unfinished military transformation of China: assessment of the weakness of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China“, published in 2015.
In general, China’s adherence to certain trends in the American development of military capability has been noted long ago. Thus, some experts, who commented on the statements of Xi Jinping at the parade on September 3, note that the content and objectives of the forthcoming military reform in China somehow remind the Goldwater–Nichol
The “Branded” scientific reliability of RAND noted earlier (in connection with the publication of a similar study) is true for the study of the PLA “weakness.” It should have attracted attention of the PRC simply for the fact that its authors studied hundreds of sources, especially those available in Chinese. Thus, while emphasizing the obvious and rapid progress of China in all aspects of the development of military capability, the authors admitted the relevant thesis “on two inconsistencies” of the Chinese armed forces (the rate of modernization and achieved military potential) voiced by the former President Hu Jintao in 2006.
The RAND study is based on 16 “critically important” initial assumptions about the most important internal and external aspects of the further development of the Chinese state system. Thus, the No.1 assumption states that “the Communist Party of China will keep its leading positions” in all aspects of the internal life of the country, including the control over the PLA. According to the assumption No.15, “no changes will take place in the China-Russia relations and the strategic course of Russia.”
In the conclusion, the study discusses the issue of the possible impact the fallacy of certain assumptions may have on the results. For example, in respect of the assumption No.15, it says that in case of preservation of the China-Russia relations, but degradation of the relations between Russia and US and its NATO allies up to the point that Washington will have to strengthen its presence in Europe, the Chinese evaluations of the international situation may be significantly amended in comparison with those stipulated by the study authors.
The number and ponderability of the mentioned initial assumptions, incompleteness and insufficient reliability of the initial information did not allow the authors of the study to present its conclusions as final, on the basis of which it would be possible to take some actions. It is proposed to be considered as “a subject for discussion”.
There is little doubt that such a “discussion” of a crucial topic for China in connection with the RAND study was held among Chinese experts. In addition, it can be assumed that the results of this discussion in some way were taken into account during the November session of the CPC Central Military Commission. All the more so that the main conclusion of the study of the current “weakness” of the Chinese war machine conducted by the leading American analytical corporation seems fairly obvious and consistent with the mentioned thesis of Hu Jintao on the “two inconsistencies.
In general, the major result of work comes down to the statement of deficiencies in the organizational structure, management system of the entire military machine, and the level of operational consistency between the types of armed forces, lagging behind the latest achievements in the field of “IT penetration” in the command for operations in real time.
In this regard, it is appropriate to recall that the requirement for a qualitative change in all the aspects of the development of military capability and the use of the armed forces formed the basis for the concept of so-called “Revolution in military affairs” (RMA), which was discussed at the turn of 1970–80s in the Soviet Union at the initiative of the Chief of General Staff of the Soviet Army Marshal N.V. Ogarkov.
20 years later, a similar discussion (with reference to the Soviet experience) was held by the US military experts.
The same concept of RMA is obviously formed in the modern and specifically Chinese “package” as a basis of a new stage of the development of military capability of the RPC.
Domestic and foreign policy aspects of the RPC CMC session in November attract attention. According to the unanimous opinion of commentators, one of the most important reasons for the event was the need to improve the control of the party leadership over the “power” bloc of the country amid both growing internal and external problems of the state.
Exclusion of any elements of adventure and imprudent actions in the South China Sea is of key importance. In this respect, the Chinese leadership is trying to solve a very difficult problem of combining such contradictory goals as military underpinning of the claims to 80% of the water area of the South China Sea and establishment of constructive relations with neighbouring states.
It has failed to combine them so far, as the mentioned neighbours are seeking help from “extra-regional forces” as China calls it. And these forces (primarily the United States, but also Japan and India) are ready to provide such a “help”.
The situation in the South China Sea highlights one of the major trends of the current stage of the PRC development of military capability, which is determined by a sharp increase in the importance of the naval component of the PLA.
In this respect, the announcement made a month after the meeting of the Central Military Commission to begin construction of the second aircraft carrier, which is likely to be similar to the existing Liaoning aircraft carrier (the former Varyag that underwent a significant modernization) was remarkable.
Judging by the comments of the Chinese experts, in comparison with the first aircraft carrier used by the PRC Navy primarily to train skills of using the entirely new systems of naval arms, the second one will carry out the practical tasks to ensure the national interests on the water.
According to these experts, in the coming years, the PRC will need three aircraft carriers with the conventional power package such as Liaoning. After gaining experience in their application, China will launch the construction of nuclear-powered carriers, which only the United States have today.
In general, we can state that the emerging trend in the modernization of the “power” bloc of China is consistent with both the country’s sharply rising status in the political arena and the modern global trends in the development of military capability.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.