China: PLA’s Great Grab

By Bhaskar Roy

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) recently announced their creation of a new department called the “Strategic Planning  Department” (SPD) under the General Staff Department (GSD) as the army was rapidly modernizing itself for more sophisticated operations (The PLA Daily website, China Daily, Nov. 23, 2011). Stated charter of the SPD include studying of critical strategic issues; drafting plans and reform proposals for the PLA development; submitting suggestions on the allocation of the PLA’s strategic resources and examining and  evaluating the implementation of plans for the PLA’s development.

Senior PLA officers and other Chinese experts who are in the know of the reason and process of the formation of the SPD give meat  to this development.  Addressing the inauguration ceremony of the SPD where President, CCP Chief and Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), Hu Jintao was present, CMC Vice Chairman Gen. Guo Boxiong urged the SPD to establish smooth and efficient cooperation with the central government ministries and local authorities. Ni Lexiong, a military expert, stated that the agency would also deal with economic, trade, energy, security, cultural and even diplomatic issues.

Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan, currently deputy general secretary of the China Society of Military Science, a PLA think tank, was of the opinion that the agency will become an authoritative and comprehensive planning center, and the move is in response to increasingly sophisticated military operation in the future which might involve multiple combat forces and headquarters.

Ni Lexiong, and another military expert Song Xiaojun, however, gave a deeper insight into the formation of the SPD.  In Ni’s view, the PLA was taken aback by the sudden  developments on the South China Sea issue and the US surge in the region.  He said “PLA feels it has lost the initiative at home and overseas, making it not feel like a great powers’ army”.

According to Song Xiaojun, the SPD will establish a new security framework for its future development direction, with the establishment of a China-based security structure being the first priority.  Again, his reasoning was related to the reverses that China suffered recently in the South China Sea / Spartley Islands claims, where the PLA appears to be faulting the party and the government for being soft to the challenges.

Officially, there is no doubt that the PLA is one of the four pillars of the People’s Republic of China, the other three being workers, peasants and the petty bourgeoisie or the eight non-communist parties, with the communist party at the centre.  This structure remains, but lines  are getting blurred among the pillars

There is one argument that says that the PLA has lost political influence since the formation of China in 1949, as there is no military representation in the Politburo Standing Committee, the highest  body of the Party.  This conclusion is flawed.  In the initial period such as during the Long March military leaders were also political leaders and they were appointed to political posts.  Deng Xiaoping reduced the PLA’s political influence significantly, but he also had to compromise.

Currently there are two PLA representatives in the politburo, with an 18 percent representation in the Party’s Central Committee. Proportionally, the PLA has a greater representation in the Central Committee than even the Party  which has around 80 million members compared to the PLA’s 2.2 million.  The CMC, which is still headed by the Party General Secretary, has pushed its way more firmly in political and diplomatic decision making.  A new question may be asked: Is the PLA trying to rearrange the system in China on the Pakistan model where the civilian leadership (Party in China’s context) is the official power center but it is the army which really calls the shots?  This proposition may be laughed away by China experts as a joke, but dismissing it completely may render one unwarned.  On all warranted occasions the Party’s supremacy over the army is emphasised.

In March this year, Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan said in the interview, “It is the communist party that commands the gun, never the other way round”.  But  he added that with diverse opinions being heard, it was not right for the PLA  to keep silent – and the most important military opinions were from the CMC’s and the PLA’s official spokesmen.

Traditionally, China spoke in one voice.  The statements were laid down by the party, while the foreign ministry, the PLA, other ministries  and the media followed on dotted lines.  From 2008 a shift to independent voices from the PLA became noticeable as they were more assertive and, at times jingoistic.  Among there who were more vocal were Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan and Admiral Yang Yi.  In tandem, the offensive activities of the PLA navy and air force in the South China Sea Spratley Islands and in the East China Sea (with Japan) turned from assertiveness to threat.

Gradually, but surely, the PLA has been wresting turf from the political, diplomatic, and intelligence apparatus.  One remarkable development was Hu  Jintao handing over responsibility to the PLA (2008) for Psychological Operations, Media Operations, and Legal Warfare.  Responsibilities for such warfare, which can be put in the category of military operations without warfare lay with the Party propaganda department.  Of course, the propaganda department, the international department and the media will continue to play their roles.  The PLA  need  these instruments to execute their strategy.  But the primacy has been usurped by the PLA, and named the “Three Warfares” strategy.

The diminishing stature of the political elite  among the military leadership was reflected by a comment of Gen. Liu Yuan, Political Commissar of the PLA General Logistic Department.  In May this year in the preface of a book on the urgency to return to military culture, he  charged general secretaries (of the party and top leaders in the “past and recently” of “selling out to foreign interests and ideology”.  Gen. Liu attacked the party leadership of weakness, publicly.  In the past, he would have been dismissed from service and consigned to a “re-education camp”.  In this instance, Gen. Liu is slated for elevation to a higher post in 2012.

The bottom line is that in the PLA’s  perception the party leadership is becoming weak in defending the country’s imperatives and major power status.  The Chinese government is seen by the PLA as a secretariat of the party to implement decisions.  It was made clear by the PLA that it does not function under the government.

Returning to the charter of the SPD, it is evident that the PLA is forming a parallel government within the CMC.  The CMC will have its own opinion on  conducting diplomacy, political cultural propaganda, strategy to secure China’s energy  life lines especially through the Indian Ocean, and through the Malacca strait and South China Sea. Alternative routes from the Middle East and African energy sources are being worked upon, but the Indian Ocean is largely unavoidable.  China is getting gas and oil from the Central Asian countries and Russia, but there are road blocks.  The South China Sea and the East China Sea claims look for variously projected hydrocarbon resources. China’s sustained development is dependent on energy, and the PLA  differs with the party on how to ensure sustainability.

The  political approach to sustain China’s energy, is being seen by the PLA as weakness.  The PLA is opting for military solutions.  The PLA Navy is in the process of establishing its fourth fleet in San Ya, Hainan Islands.  Equipped with at  least one aircraft carrier, modern frigates and  destroyers, and advanced submarines including SSNs and SSBns, this fleet will be casting its shadow over the South China Sea.

Separately, the PLA navy’s presence will be felt more intensively in the Indian Ocean, though with recent political and strategic developments in the Indian Ocean region, it is doubtful if the PLA navy will get facilities in Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.  Pakistan, of course, is ever willing to provide such facilities.  Pakistan’s defence minister requested China to establish a military base in Gwadar, a proposition that China declined.

Having briefly reviewed the PLA’s  strategies, there is no doubt that the PLA is determined to assume a commanding position.

If the PLA feels that it has lost the “initiative at home and overseas” as military expert Song Xiaojun said, it should be of serious concern for the Chinese communist party and the international stake holders.

This makes it difficult to predict a stable environment in the region which extends to South Asia.

NOTE -- The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent China analyst based in New Delhi.Email:

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