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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 September 2018

Why the Chinese military’s rising clout troubles Xi Jinping

Relations between politicians and the army are strained, writes Brahma Chellaney

People's Liberation Army soldiers wave a Chinese national flag at a stadium in Beijing. Kevin Zhao / Reuters
People's Liberation Army soldiers wave a Chinese national flag at a stadium in Beijing. Kevin Zhao / Reuters

China’s president Xi Jinping has stepped up his domestic political moves in the run-up to the critical 19th national congress of the Chinese Communist Party next month, but he is still struggling to keep the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in line. China’s political system makes it hard to get a clear picture, yet Mr Xi’s actions underscore the troublesome civil-military relations in the country.

Take the recent standoff with India that raised the spectre of a Himalayan war, with China threatening reprisals if New Delhi did not unconditionally withdraw its forces from a small Bhutanese plateau, which Beijing claims is Chinese territory. After 10 weeks, the face-off on the Doklam Plateau ended with both sides pulling back troops and equipment from the site on the same day, signalling that Beijing, not New Delhi, had blinked.

The mutual-withdrawal deal was struck just after Mr Xi replaced the chief of the PLA’s joint staff department. This key position, equivalent to the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, was created only last year as part of Mr Xi’s military reforms to turn the PLA into a force “able to fight and win wars”. The Doklam pullback suggests that the removed chief, Gen Fang Fenghui, who has since been detained for alleged corruption, was an obstacle to clinching a deal with India.

To be sure, this was not the first time that the PLA’s belligerent actions in the Himalayas imposed diplomatic costs on China. A classic case happened when Mr Xi reached India on a state visit in September 2014. He arrived on Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s birthday with a strange gift for his host, a predawn Chinese military encroachment deep into India’s northern region of Ladakh. The encroachment, the worst in many years in terms of the number of intruding troops, overshadowed Mr Xi’s visit.

It appeared bizarre that the military of an important power would seek to mar the visit of its own head of state to a key neighbouring country. Yet Chinese premier Li Keqiang’s earlier visit to New Delhi in 2013 was similarly preceded by a PLA incursion into another part of Ladakh that lasted three weeks.

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Such provocations might suggest that they are intentional, with the Chinese government in the know, thus reflecting a preference for blending soft and hard tactics. But it is also possible that these actions underscore the continuing “disconnect between the military and the civilian leadership” in China that then US defence secretary Robert Gates warned about in 2011.

During his 2014 India trip, Mr Xi appeared embarrassed by the accompanying PLA encroachment and assured Mr Modi that he would sort it out upon his return.

Soon after he returned, the Chinese defence ministry quoted Mr Xi as telling a closed-door meeting with PLA commanders that “all PLA forces should follow the president’s instructions” and that the military must display “absolute loyalty and firm faith in the party”. Recently Xi conveyed that same message yet again when he addressed a parade marking the 90th anniversary of the PLA’s creation on August 1, 1927. Donning military fatigues, Mr Xi exhorted members of his 2.3-million-strong armed forces to “unswervingly follow the absolute leadership of the party.”

Had civilian control of the PLA been working well, would Mr Xi repeatedly be demanding “absolute loyalty” from the military or asking it to “follow his instructions”?

China does not have a national army; rather the party has an army. So the PLA has traditionally sworn fealty to the party, not the nation.

Under Mr Xi’s two immediate predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, the PLA gradually became stronger at the expense of the party. The military’s rising clout has troubled Mr Xi because it hampers his larger ambition.

As part of his effort to reassert party control over the military, Mr Xi has used his anti-corruption campaign to ensnare a number of top PLA officers. He has also cut the size of the ground force and established a new command-and-control structure.

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But just as a dog’s tail cannot be straightened, asserting full civil control over a politically ascendant PLA is proving unachievable. After all, the party depends on the PLA to ensure domestic order and sustain its own political monopoly.

The regime’s legitimacy increasingly relies on an appeal to nationalism. But the PLA, with its soaring budgets and expanding role to safeguard China’s overseas interests, sees itself as the ultimate arbiter of nationalism.

To make matters worse, Mr Xi has made many enemies at home in his effort to concentrate power in himself, including through corruption purges. It is not known whether the PLA’s upper echelon respects him to the extent to be fully guided by his instructions.

In the past decade, the PLA’s increasing clout has led China to stake out a more muscular role. This includes resurrecting territorial and maritime disputes, asserting new sovereignty claims, and using construction activity to change the status quo.

China’s cut-throat internal politics and troubled civil-military relations clearly have a bearing on its external policy. The risks of China’s rise as a praetorian state are real and carry major implications for international security.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books.

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