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Xi Jinping’s New Military Position

A ChinaFile Conversation

Late last week, China’s news media were filled with images of President and Party General Secretary Xi Jinping touring the joint battle command center of the Central Military Commission, dressed for the occasion in combat fatigues. The occasion for the visit and for the special attire was Xi’s assumption of a new title, Commander in Chief of China’s Military, a position he now holds in addition to his role as Chairman of the Central Military Commission. What does this new status and the manner of its presentation to the world mean? —The Editors

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There’s not much doubt that “the Party controls the gun” in China, but it has never been clear to outside observers just how closely it does it. The Central Military Commission (CMC) is a free-standing institution linked to the Party only at the top, in the person of the Commission chair, who is also the Party General Secretary and the head of state—that is, Xi Jinping. All the other senior CMC officials are uniformed officers. Civilian control is therefore very thin, compared to political systems like the U.S.’s in which hundreds of civilians occupy senior positions in the Pentagon, and Congress controls the defense budget. In China, we don’t know whether civilian agencies like the Politburo or the Ministry of Finance play a role in military budgeting decisions. We don’t know the extent to which the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) army, navy, air force, and rocket corps vet their arms acquisitions plans with the Politburo or even with the CMC chair himself, given that he has so many other jobs to do. No doubt war and peace decisions, such as launching an attack on Taiwan or on the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, would be made in consultation with the Politburo Standing Committee and influential elders. But when it comes to important tactical decisions short of war, like how to respond to American Freedom of Navigation operations in the South China Sea, it is not clear whether even the CMC chair is consulted, much less other civilian officials. It is likely that previous Chinese leaders—even powerful leaders like Mao and Deng—limited themselves to broad strategic instructions and let the uniformed officers figure out how to carry them out. By donning both military fatigues and a new title, Xi may be sending a signal to the military that he intends to exercise closer control than other leaders have done in the past.

We should also remember that the PLA has many domestic roles—garrisoning Tibet and Xinjiang (and even Beijing), backstopping the People’s Armed Police for civil order control, carrying out domestic relief operations when earthquakes or major snowstorms strike, contributing to state-sponsored construction projects, and if necessary implementing martial law. Xi’s move is therefore also a signal to the wider society and his rivals within the regime that he can and will use force to counter domestic challenges.

In his three and a half years as China’s commander-in-chief, Xi Jinping has engineered one of the most far-reaching restructurings of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in its history. In addition, the economic and national security eco-systems that are closely associated with the military apparatus are also going through significant changes.

While many of Xi’s key reforms are still in the early stages of implementation and facing resistance from powerful entrenched interests, what he has done so far is nothing short of revolutionary when compared with the glacial pace of change that normally occurs in the PLA. The overall goal is to make the PLA leaner, meaner, and cleaner so that it is able to fulfill a growing list of missions from safeguarding sovereignty and Chinese interests around the world to being ready to fight and win high-technology wars on land, in the air, at sea, in outer space, and increasingly in the cyber and electro-magnetic domains.   

To assess the scale and impact of Xi’s reforms, let’s examine a number of critical areas:

Civil-military relations: When Xi took power in 2012, the Communist Party’s once-tight control over the military had loosened and there was growing areas in which PLA leaders were contesting influence, such as in foreign policy. Xi has firmly reasserted political control through a ruthless campaign of political cleansing carried out through a no-holds barred anti-corruption crackdown and a rigorous political re-indoctrination effort.

Military service politics: One of the biggest problems standing in the way of the PLA’s aspirations to be a state-of-the-art fighting force was that it was trapped in an early 20th time warp in which the ground forces were in charge and took most of the resources. In an era when the principal security threats facing China were in the maritime, air, and space domains, this made little strategic sense. Xi was finally able to overcome this bottleneck at the end of 2015 by significantly downgrading the ground forces’ grip on power so that it would be at the same level as the air force, navy, and strategic missile forces. At the same time, the new organizational paradigm was joint command between the service arms. This new command structure was given particular prominence in late April when Xi was pictured touring the Central Military Commission’s (CMC) new Joint Battle Command Center with a new title as its commander-in-chief.

Command and control: The establishment of this Battle Command Center is a key component of one of the most far-reaching reorganizations of the PLA’s power structure in its history. Xi reversed a trend dating from Deng Xiaoping’s time in charge in the 1980s of allowing military chiefs to have more authority to manage the PLA’s affairs by reducing the grip of the CMC and increasing the role of the PLA general headquarters departments. At the end of last year, Xi merged the PLA’s general departments back into the CMC and expanded the latter’s role and authority to include being in direct charge of the PLA’s combat operations, which is the main function of this new battle command center.

Technological change: Xi has called on the PLA, China’s defense industry, and its legions of scientists and engineers to engage in a revolution in military technological affairs and develop new generations of weapons to close the gap with the likes of the U.S. Over the past decade, the PLA has been able to make major progress with the introduction of increasingly advanced capabilities, especially in areas such as precision strike missiles, warships, and combat aircraft. The research and development pipeline is bulging with plenty of new projects, and the big issue going forward is how will the military be able to afford to purchase all of these expensive systems.  

Over the past few decades, the PLA has struggled mightily and without much success to find an effective working balance between being red, expert, and clean. Xi is hoping that he has laid the foundations and provided a detailed roadmap of the path that the PLA should take over the next 5-10 years (he still has at least another 6 years as commander-in-chief) to become a politically reliable and world-class military power.