Author Topic: China‘s disappointing armed forces reforms  (Read 2167 times)

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Jason Jarvis

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China‘s disappointing armed forces reforms
« on: August 13, 2003, 15:00:00 »
I stumbled across this interesting piece on the CNN website today and thought the forum might find it interesting, especially in light of our recent discussions comparing the Canadian and Australian armies.

China‘s disappointing armed forces reforms

By CNN Senior China Analyst Willy Wo-Lap Lam

HONG KONG, China, Tuesday, August 12, 2003 (CNN) - Major restructuring that is taking place in the People‘s Liberation Army (PLA) says much about the future of the world‘s largest fighting forces -- and the prospects of reform under the new Hu Jintao leadership.

Main outlines of the momentous streamlining, first mooted earlier this year, were finalized shortly before the PLA celebrated its 76th birthday last August 1.

The top brass, which has closely studied the cutting-edge technology and strategies employed by American forces in Iraq, is anxious that the PLA‘s command doctrines and combat mechanisms be brought up to date.

The army press has claimed the planned retooling will help usher in a slimmed-down and super-efficient force that could "win wars and defend the motherland‘s glory under hi-tech conditions."

Yet the changes, as revealed by the Chinese media as well as diplomatic sources in Beijing, have fallen shy of expectations.

These shortcomings show that President Hu, also First Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), as well as his reformist colleagues are facing stiff resistance from conservative elements in the party and army.

Limited reform
Firstly, the fat-trimming being preformed on the 2.5 million strong PLA has been much more limited than earlier planned.

Merely 200,000 to 250,000 officers, soldiers, and military employees will be laid off in the foreseeable future.

Diplomatic analysts said that earlier this year, both CMC Chairman Jiang Zemin and Hu had considered a demobilization of half a million PLA staff.

Equally significantly, the CMC had toyed with the idea of abolishing the seven military regions (MRs), a Maoist institution that has become woefully obsolete.

"Immediately after the fall of Baghdad, CMC members were inclined toward curtailing half or all of the seven MRs," said a Chinese source close to PLA think tanks.

He said the CMC wanted to emulate America‘s command-and-control system, particularly centralized leadership of the disparate divisions to improve operational integration and make possible near-instantaneous implementation of orders.

"The MR system has slowed down decision-making and enabled powerful generals to build fiefdoms," he added.

It is understood, however, that the seven MRs are to stay for the time being.

Jiang‘s legacy
China has announced a $22.4 billion budget for military spending this year.  
Relatively major surgery will only be done on the Navy and Air Force in order to speed up policy implementation.

Thus, the CMC has in principle decided to do away with all nine naval bases, or divisional commands -- as well as the five Air Force regional commands.

These less-than-thorough measures, however, will seriously handicap PLA efforts to attain American standards in either a streamlined chain of command or combat efficiency.

One reason for the foot-dragging is that Hu, who is anxious to replace Jiang as CMC supremo in a year or so, does not want to alienate the generals through loping off too many plum jobs.

An even bigger disappointment is the top brass‘s decision to do nothing about the highly politicized nature of the PLA, that is, the army as the minion of the party‘s largest faction.

Ex-president Jiang has successfully used the army to bolster his Shanghai Faction -- and to make propaganda for the Jiang Zemin Theory.

The past few months have witnessed Mao-style ideological campaigns being waged within the PLA to establish the authority of Jiang‘s "Theory of the Three Represents."

According to CMC Vice-Chairman General Guo Boxiong, Jiang‘s "comprehensive and all-embracing" edicts on defense issues amounted to a "system of military science that is able to progress with the times."

And Chief Political Commissar General Xu Caihou has exhorted the rank and file to study and propagate Jiang‘s ideas "with a sense of mission, a sense of responsibility and the fullest political enthusiasm."

Communist force
In his August 1 address, General Cao Gangchuan, another CMC Vice-Chairman, pointed out that military units were undergoing "transformation with Chinese characteristics."

Cao explained that while the army‘s combat skills would be raised, at least as much emphasis would be put on the PLA "safeguarding its essence" as a Communist force.

As long as the PLA remains an ideology-driven "pillar of stability" for the party, however, attempts to upgrade professional standards may be off the mark.

Since early this year, Hu and allies such as Premier Wen Jiabao have made progress in boosting transparency and accountability in the civil service.

For example, in the course of the SARS outbreak, information relating to the epidemic was released relatively quickly and incompetent officials including two ministerial-level cadres were sacked.

However, Hu has accomplished little regarding PLA transparency or accountability, if only because quite a number of generals still think they need only satisfy the whims of patriarch Jiang.

In its latest annual assessment of the PLA, the U.S. Department of Defense criticized Beijing for the relentless build-up of missiles and other advanced weaponry that could upset regional stability.

Given China‘s high-speed GDP growth as well as its global clout, it is difficult to convince the leadership that there is anything wrong with nurturing an army that is commensurate with the nation‘s economic and geo-political importance.

A more valid point is that real defense modernization cannot be achieved as long as most military matters remain shrouded in secrecy -- and not subject to the scrutiny of bodies such as the National People‘s Congress.

And Hu, who has staked his reputation on the promotion of rule of law, should know that a politicized and factionalized PLA could wreak havoc on the reforms that he is pushing in the economy and government.

Has anyone come across any recent analyses of the East Asian balance of power? Specifically how China‘s attempted reforms are influencing the teeter-totter?