External Affairs

Xi’s in Camouflage but Everything is in the Open Now

The recent military reforms in China are in sharp contrast to what is happening in India. The idea of jointness is formally upheld, but the fact is that the three Indian services remain separate in their organisation and doctrine.

Xi Jinping, president of China and now also commander-in-chief of the Peoples Liberation Army. Credit: Screengrab/CCTV

Xi Jinping, president of China and now also commander-in-chief of the Peoples Liberation Army. Credit: Screengrab/CCTV

On April 20, 2016, Chinese president Xi Jinping decided to put on yet another hat – that of commander-in-chief of the People’s Liberation Army. Besides being the president of the People’s Republic of China, Xi is also the general secretary of the central committee of the Communist Party of China and chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) that runs the PLA.

Clad in military camouflage fatigues, Xi’s new role was revealed through his inspection of the joint battle command centre which will direct the newly reorganised PLA. According to Chinese TV reports, besides the joint staff of the PLA, the  commanders of the new north, south, east, west and central battle commands or ‘theatres’ gave their respective reports to Xi through video links. Though some parts of the video shown in the Chinese TV were deliberately blurred, the command centre itself did not appear to be particularly high-tech or sophisticated. Of course, the whole thing, complete with the C-in-C sitting in his chair, could have been a Potemkin affair.

Xi’s key message was, however, quite practical – the need to internalise the idea of reform, which requires breaking down parochial service barriers, as well as the imperative of encouraging innovative thinking over the tried and tested ways which are no longer relevant. Yet, this new PLA has to not only be “resourceful in fighting, efficient in commanding and courageous and capable of winning wars” but also loyal to the Communist Party of China.

In the recent round of reforms earlier this year, the seven military regions of China were reduced to five theatre commands, the four general departments that ran the PLA were folded into the CMC and reorganised into 15 different functional units, the Army was given a new command of its own, the second artillery force that ran China’s nuclear strike forces was upgraded into the PLA Rocket Force, and an entirely new PLA Strategic Support Force was created to fuse China’s space and cyber-space capabilities to support its combat forces.

The new, flatter, higher command system was termed the “CMC chairman responsibility system” in which authority ran from the CMC chairman directly to the theatre commands and to the combat forces in the field. So Xi’s authority had already been enhanced. What then was the point of assuming the C-in-C rank?

Chinese analysts say that the CMC responsibilities really relate to the management and construction of the PLA’s capacities, while as C-in-C, Xi would focus on the actual employment and conduct of China’s combat forces. Once again, this appears to emphasise the extent to which PLA reforms are influenced by the US system, even though the Chinese insist their aim is to build a “joint battle command system with Chinese characteristics.”

The US president is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, but that role gains salience  in wartime, a situation which the US is frequently in, and to the extent that the president has to take key decisions in the employment and use of combat forces for a mission. However, in the US, and presumably in China, ordering a nuclear strike remains the prerogative of the civilian hat as president.

Manoj Joshi columnA comment in the authoritative People’s Daily noted that skilfully run joint commands were the key to the outcome of modern war. In line with Xi’s admonition, the article called on the PLA to develop its expertise in joint battle command through the mastery of the theory of war, training and command skills. The commentary emphasised that the joint battle command centres of the CMC and the theatre commands “were already up and running.”

It said that the possibility of conflict “on the nation’s doorstep was increasing” because of a host of factors, including traditional and non-traditional threats, as well as disputes of territorial and maritime rights and terrorism.

Beyond the issue of new organisation, command systems and technologies, is the Chinese effort to push the PLA to become as professional and modern as its US counterpart. One key part of this is better military education, evolution of new and innovative battle-fighting concepts, and the promotion of talented officers, which alone can guarantee victory in what the Chinese call the “informationised wars” of today. The big Chinese problem, however is that their forces have not been involved in war since 1979, while the US military has been fighting almost continuously right through – in Iraq, Serbia, again Iraq, Afghanistan and so on.

Media reports suggest that the next step in the reform process will be the official release of the fifth generation of operational regulations for the PLA. These are the equivalent of a doctrine or guidance applied at the operational and tactical level. The previous iteration was released in 1999. There were revisions and expectations of a new document in the past decade, but nothing  formal was actually issued. Now, with the dramatic changes in the organisation and leadership of the PLA, a doctrinal updating is only to be expected. The work on the new doctrine is being done by the Academy of Military Sciences, which is now headed by General Cai Yingting, who is said to be one of Xi Jinping’s favourite officers.

Developments in China are in sharp contrast to what is happening in India. The idea of jointness is formally upheld, but the fact is that the three Indian services remain separate in their organisation and doctrine. Efforts to create jointness have been foiled by the political leadership and the IAS-led bureaucracy which believes that a joint military system – which will have to be headed by a new four, and preferably five-star officer – will undermine their authority. So, the three services have three different doctrines, none of which have been vetted by the civilian authorities who, in any case, do not have the expertise to understand them. Jointness, and the ability to fight and win modern wars, remains a distant dream in India.

The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi