BEIJING: The 18th Party Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2012 established the leadership of Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, and outlined ambitious plans to reform the Chinese economy.
The 19th Party Congress will be held sometime in the autumn of 2017. Observers are watching this closely, as a number of senior leaders may retire. The event is usually a milestone ushering in leadership transition.
But no one expects there to be changes to Xi Jinping’s top position as General Secretary. Many expect that Xi will take the chance to replace retiring leaders with allies, as he is in a good position domestically, especially after sweeping reforms to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
CRACKDOWNS SINCE 2012
In 2012, Xi Jinping started a plan to revamp the PLA. A month after assuming leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Central Military Commission (CMC) in November that year, he introduced new rules, and started an anti-corruption crackdown and a political purge.
Although there have not been news of any anti-corruption investigations of senior military leaders this past year, over 50 of them have been brought down since 2012, including the two CMC vice-chairmen, Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong, both of whom had good standing with the earlier Hu Jintao leadership.
Xi had told military rank and file that Xu had “caused comprehensive and deep harm to the construction of the army”.
“We must cleanse the influence of Xu Caihou, ideologically, politically and also in terms of organisation and work style,” Mr Xi had said.
For Xi Jinping, this anti-corruption campaign is a high-stakes game that is critical to the consolidation of his paramount status. But changes at the top of the PLA’s leadership would not be sufficient.
DEEPENING REFORMS SINCE 2014
Xi Jinping called the year 2014 “the first year of deepening reform”. Xi broke away with the convention of enlarged CMC meetings. He created a small CMC Leading Group on Deepening Military Reforms that excluded veteran PLA leaders.
After a CMC Reform Working Conference in the fall of 2015, Xi demobilised 300,000 troops. But he elevated the status of the Second Artillery to a full service arm called the Rocket Force and formed a new Strategic Support Force. The Strategic Support Force would build and integrate space, cyber and electronic warfare capabilities for the PLA. In tandem, the Ground Force, which had enjoyed superior status previously, was put on equal footing with other service arms, including the Rocket Force.
The CMC was declared overall in charge of military affairs and had final say over affairs of the PLA as well as the People’s Armed Police, militia and reserves. Functions under the four General Departments were reorganised into 15 bodies that would report directly to the CMC. The heads of the four General Departments had wielded so much decision and policy making power previously that the civilian CMC chairman could be easily sidelined.
A CMC Joint Operations Command Centre which reported directly to Xi was also established. Information flowed to this centre from those in the five new theatre commands, newly established from the PLA’s previous seven regional commands.
In one fell swoop, Xi managed to do away with old structures in the PLA and put himself at the pinnacle of new ones.
PLA MUST REMEMBER REVOLUTIONARY ROLE
In the summer of 2015, Xi revealed the thinking behind his military reform plans. “The PLA must conform to orders from the Party’s Central Committee and CMC … We must always firmly adhere to fundamental principles where the Party maintains absolute leadership over the army under any circumstances,” Xi told military rank and file.
And a year later, Xi was elevated to “core” leader of the Chinese Communist Party by the Central Committee, the same rank that only Deng Xiaoping and Mao Zedong received.
PROFESSIONALISATION OF PLA
Xi has moved quickly to strengthen the PLA and give it bite to its bark. Military reforms since 2014 emphasise professionalism, mobility and force projection. The Ground Force would develop “all-region mobility and three-dimensional offensive and defensive capabilities”. Joint-level training would become the norm. Group Armies would integrate various combat modules to fight in cold highlands and mountainous jungles.
Force projection, with new submarines and a new aircraft carrier, would help the PLA Navy sail further and faster. Thanks to the recent army downsizing, the marine’s third brigade was formed out of an infantry brigade from the former 26th Group Army. A second aircraft carrier is said to be under construction in Shanghai.
Meanwhile, the Air Force continues to develop its own suite of advanced aircraft, which includes an indigenously developed Y-20 transport plane and the J-31 stealth fighter. This may put the PLA Air Force in a better position to undertake integrated air and space operations.
Heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula have also put the PLA’s Rocket Force in the limelight. It has responded to South Korea’s THAAD deployment by highlighting the Rocket Force’s capability to launch at short notice. It also revealed in a recent test a new missile model, the Dongfeng-class medium-range ballistic missile E/A DF26B, which is believed to have electromagnetic warfare capabilities.
PLA leaders will be happy with all these new capabilities. The PLA is now better able to show it can protect China’s interests amid evolving challenges.
Xi Jinping’s military reforms are producing a PLA that is catching up to its Western counterparts in conventional military capabilities while having the space to continue developing its asymmetric warfare capabilities. This will greatly strengthen Xi’s hand to pursue a more assertive foreign policy, especially in the South China Sea.
The image of a China able and willing to stand up to pressure from the US and its allies has also increased Xi’s domestic political capital. It seems that the sweeping reforms to the PLA has strengthened Xi's hand, giving him greater flexibility and manoeuvering space within his party.
The 19th Party Congress when held will be an occasion for displaying the power of the core leadership.
Even so, despite having to rely on the PLA as a key policy instrument in his China Revival programme, the CMC Chairman will remain wary of any expansion of the military’s political influence. Instead of rewarding the generals, Xi will likely tighten his grip on top PLA leadership appointments in the coming 19th Party Congress.
Ng Ka Po is Professor of International Relations at the University of Niigata Prefecture.