News analysis

Hard slog whipping the PLA into shape

China's impressive military hardware undermined by problems such as graft, lack of good leadership

Chinese troops march during a military parade marking the 70th Anniversary of the 'Victory of Chinese People's Resistance against Japanese Aggression and World Anti-Fascist War' at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China on Sept 3, 2015. PHOTO: EPA

BEIJING • When China debuted an arsenal of new weapons at its recent World War II commemoration in Tiananmen Square, the world got a closer look at the country's military might that was previously only speculated about.

The parade showcased some of China's latest military hardware, with more than 80 per cent never seen in public before, including 40 types of ground-based weapons, 200 aircraft, and ballistic missiles.

But while the show of strength was meant to project China's military might, it also belied the numerous weaknesses that the People's Liberation Army (PLA) has, which are driving the Communist Party's push to reform the military, analysts told The Straits Times.

"We showed only our best side to the world at the military parade," noted Military Digest editor Song Zhongping. "The PLA still has many old weapons and other problems it needs to fix."

Key issues include structural weaknesses in the PLA, some of which China has been trying to address. At a speech before the parade, President Xi Jinping announced a troop cut of 300,000, which is seen as a move towards building a leaner, more technologically driven military.

China has also been trying to devote more resources to its navy and air forces - as typical of modern armed forces - while cutting back on its traditional reliance on ground troops. Reports say ground troops make up about 70 per cent of the PLA's forces, when it should more ideally be about 50 per cent.

Besides integrating its forces, China also needs to relook its organisation, training and doctrine, said Dr Michael Raska, a research fellow at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

He said the PLA's strong hierarchical culture puts it at a disadvantage to the United States military, where lower-level officers are more empowered to make independent decisions.

"Such a strategic culture could have a negative ramification in a crisis scenario," he said. "These are part of reforms that are needed for the PLA to become more efficient and adaptable."

And while the PLA's shiny new hardware at the parade made a splash among both domestic and global audiences, it needs greater work on its software, particularly its personnel.

Mr Song pointed out that not enough soldiers with good military experience and training have been promoted to leadership positions within the PLA.

It is a problem related to the corruption that is said to be endemic in the organisation, characterised by the anti-graft investigation into retired PLA generals Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong, who have been accused of accepting bribes in exchange for assisting in promotions.

"If you have a military where you can buy positions, it doesn't matter if you have the best weapons in the world," said Shanghai-based military expert Ni Lexiong.

Xu and Guo were top military personnel brought down by an anti-corruption campaign championed by Mr Xi, who has been seeking to stamp his control over the PLA. He had personally inspected the 12,000 troops that took part in the WWII commemoration parade, the first since he took power in 2012.

The Defence Ministry had announced after the parade that changes such as the troop cut and phasing out of old equipment are expected to be completed by 2017.

But experts warn that overhauls to the PLA may take longer if they face internal resistance. The 2017 deadline is just one of many targets the PLA has to meet as it tries to play catch-up with the other top military forces around the world, and it will likely take many years for the changes to kick in.

"The problems that the PLA faces were formed over a long period of time," said Professor Ni. "They will not be solved overnight."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 10, 2015, with the headline Hard slog whipping the PLA into shape. Subscribe