Xi's reforms have reshaped, modernised military

Military helicopters forming the number "90" during a parade of the Chinese armed forces at the Zhurihe training base in the country's northern Inner Mongolia region on July 30 to mark the 90th anniversary of the People's Liberation Army.
Military helicopters forming the number "90" during a parade of the Chinese armed forces at the Zhurihe training base in the country's northern Inner Mongolia region on July 30 to mark the 90th anniversary of the People's Liberation Army. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

What has stood out in Chinese President Xi Jinping's first five years of rule is the People's Liberation Army (PLA's) bold and radical reforms.

The PLA enjoyed double-digit increases in its budget for nearly two decades until 2015 that helped it to modernise and equip itself with ever better weaponry, including its first aircraft carrier that was commissioned in 2012.

It was under Mr Xi that it underwent major restructuring that made it not only more efficient and battle-ready, but also more closely aligned to the President himself.

These major structural reforms are likely to be bolstered at next week's 19th Party Congress, when Mr Xi is expected to strengthen his leadership. Analysts say the mission now is to ensure the reforms of the past five years will be implemented right through the ranks.

Mr Xi's success in remoulding the military was possible because of both his longstanding ties with the military and the power he was quickly able to amass after taking power, said analysts.

Professor Emeritus Stein Ringen of Oxford University noted that Mr Xi took up chairmanship of the Central Military Commission (CMC) at the same time that he became paramount leader in 2012, unlike his predecessor Hu Jintao who had to wait over two years for Jiang Zemin to cede the post. This is "in part thanks to his connectedness inside the military system", wrote Prof Ringen.

Mr Xi's earliest job was as an aide to the then defence minister. Later, as governor of Fujian and then party boss of Zhejiang, he had experience overseeing military units, and was known to have close ties with top generals within the PLA even before he became President.

Once in office, he was able to implement seismic reforms that had eluded Mr Hu and Mr Jiang.

In January last year, the PLA's four powerful headquarters were abolished and their functions distributed across 15 agencies under the CMC, a move widely seen as a decentralisation of power at the top echelons of the military leadership.

Before this move by Mr Xi, the four general department heads wielded such clout that civilian CMC chairs were often sidelined.

"By dividing them into smaller organs and making them report directly to Mr Xi, it's a way for him to exert direct control over the PLA," said S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies' China expert Hoo Tiang Boon.

Mr Xi's control of the military would only grow: A month later, China's seven regional military areas were regrouped into five theatre commands, and their leadership reshuffled. And in April last year, Mr Xi was made commander-in-chief of a new joint command headquarters, a sign that he would be more involved in getting each arm of the restructured PLA to operate better together.

The main reason why Mr Xi has been able to push through these wide-ranging reforms is his anti-corruption drive to weed out high-placed PLA leaders who had set up their own power bases within the ranks, said experts. Since 2012, more than 40 generals have been arrested for offences like bribery, including two CMC vice-chairmen - Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong.

This achieved the dual effect of reducing the influence of Mr Jiang - both generals are Jiang allies - and making an example of those "who had compromised party control as they had set up their own oligarchies in the PLA", said Mr James Char, lead editor of research paper Reshaping The People's Liberation Army Since The 18th Party Congress.

Even as they are partially political, the reforms have no doubt made the world's largest standing army a more effective force "able to fight and win wars", as Mr Xi put it during a speech in August commemorating the PLA's 90th anniversary.

Announcements were made in 2013 and July this year to cut troop sizes, while the navy's numbers are being boosted, in line with a 2015 Defence White Paper which stated that "the traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned".

Reforms in the next few years will likely focus on institutionalising these changes down the rank and file, even as China moves to project military power farther afield as its overseas interests grow, said Dr Hoo. "The broad, structural changes have been made, so now it's a matter of slowly going down the levels and getting key personnel in there to implement these changes," he said.

Mr Xi succinctly summarised his intentions for the military in his 90th anniversary speech, when he said a strong military is necessary not only to deter and win wars, but that "military means remains the means for protecting the bottom line". Analysts see this as Mr Xi remembering well Mao Zedong's famous axiom that "political power grows out of the barrel of a gun".

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 12, 2017, with the headline Xi's reforms have reshaped, modernised military. Subscribe