In my research about the PLA, I came across literature which suggested that the Boss-subordinate relationship between the Chinese Communist Party and the PLA is not exactly a flourishing one. While there are no doubts about the superiority of the CCP, there is a growing schism between the two pillars of the state; the CCP & the PLA. This article is trying to highlight this growing distance.
PLA & The CCP
PLA (People's Liberation Army), China's military forces owe their allegiance to the CCP (Chinese Communist Party). The Communist Party is supreme in China. PLA also called the 'Party Army'. The CCP had not envisaged PLA a part of the party organisation till the conflict with Guomanding (Kuomintang Party) and the CCP which resulted in the long march. This experience of Mao Zedong convinced the CCP members that an armed force is necessary for the survival of the Party. Since then the PLA has been an arm of the Communist Party. PLA has bailed out the CCP on many occasions, the most famous being the Tiananmen Square uprising.
The relationship between the CCP and PLA have always been of absolute obedience. There are no official indications that there is any conflict of interests. However, since the beginning of this century, there is a simmering thought in the CMC (Central Military Commission) the highest military decision-making body, that PLA needs to improve its act. The Chinese President heads the CMC; Xi Jinping, also the General Secretary of the CCP. Thus, there is single point control over the PLA. As per observers, lately, the party hierarchy is less confident of the PLA's loyalty and its performance in war and peace. Xi Jinping has made it clear that loyalty to the Party is paramount, and that's the prime criteria for promotions.
While all officers of the rank of Senior Colonels and above are compulsory party members, PLA is getting more aloof from the activities of the CCP. There are a couple of reasons for such a trend. First, the PLA is becoming a more professional force that prides on doing their military job well, and not playing politics. Second, in the Deng era, the Party's top hierarchy and the PLA shared a past, as most had struggled together in the early days of the Mao era. The bonhomie allowed them to interact and exchange ideas; thus, a synergy flowed out of mutual respect. There was, therefore, a common goal for both the Party and the Military of nation-building. However, with time, the personalities changed, and the informal bond between the CCP and the PLA's leaders no longer existed, as there was no common ground. The CCP leaders were technocrats, and the military leader came out of professional military academies with no common links between them. This widening gap resulted in a strictly professional relationship with minimal scope for personal bonds. Thus, the PLA has been drifting away from the Party's affairs, despite its absolute obedience and loyalty.
When Xi Jinping came to power, he was wary of the PLAs presence in the Politburo and Central Committee of the CCP. His efforts to integrate himself with the PLA's affairs by regularly meeting the Commanders and formations on ground convinced him about the lack of cohesion and a need to improve the PLA's fighting abilities. He had also sensed a wide-scale corruption prevalent in the senior ranks of the PLA. He purged two senior PLA army Generals Xu Caihou and Gua Boxiong, the Military's two most powerful officers as vice chairman of the CMC, on corruption charges. He thus passed his first test of coming out scathe free with no opposition to his purging the PLA of corruption. When President Xi Jinping assumed a larger role after the 19th congress, where he declared himself President for life, he announced that PLA would play a more significant role in nation-building and foreign affairs. As per Xi Jinping, China has already entered the 'New Era'; its trajectory for greatness is already on course. And in reaching its final goal, China would continue to extend beyond its borders to influence and claim its rightful place.
The cornerstone of this strategy is economic superiority with military might. Yet by own admission of Xi Jinping, the PLA has to grow and improve to become the best Military in the world, which he seeks PLA to become by 2049. Thus, he has embarked upon large scale transformation of its armed forces. The transformation was guided by the desire to become the best, backed by the most modern weapon systems, the best-trained manpower and a battle hardy military. It is not surprising that in his foreign policy guidelines, Xi has propounded a more significant role for the PLA; 'In 2019, the PRC recognised that its armed forces should take a more active part in advancing its foreign policy, highlighting the increasingly global character that Beijing ascribes to its military power. China has started laying more significant stress in using military power combined with soft power to enhance its global reach.
China has been transforming under Xi Jinping, which is reflected through several new guidelines and strategy documents. Also, the PLA has undergone massive change since 2015. It has seen an overhaul, transforming it into a new modern organisation to keep pace with the growing aspirations. The raising of military theatre commands by leaving out the redundant military regions concept is a step in that direction. There are now five theatre commands in place of seven military regions. The concept of joint-manship is woven in the joint command concept. There has been a creation of two new forces in addition to the PLAA, PLN, PLAAF. These are the PLARF (PLA Rocket Force) and PLASSF (PLA Strategic Support Force). As per the journal JSTOR article; 'China's sweeping Military reforms, Implications for Australia', by Bates Gill & Adam Ni ( Refer vol 15, No 1, 2019): "The PLA effort is an ambitious program of an organisational restructuring aimed at improving both political and operational outcomes. In particular, these reforms have two key reforms - especially in the eyes of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership - mutually reinforcing objectives (1) strengthening CCP authority over the PLA; and (2) reorganising the PLA to a more effective in conducting joint operations." Due to the reorganisation, the PLA command structure has undergone a substantial change. The PLA's reorganisation leads to dismantling the four General departments under the old General Staff, Political Department, Logistics and General Armaments Department and their functions now concentrated with the CMC. The dismantling has removed the entire bureaucratic level dominated by the PLA and was becoming too independent from the CMC, and could pose a challenge to Xi- Jinping.
China has embarked upon a journey of transformation. The CMC has culled out a new national security strategy out of the new guidelines and laid for themselves to use the PLA as an instrument of foreign policy and allow the Military to take an active part in pushing forward the Chinese national interests. While the above is set in motion, the reality of ground is that the Chinese Communist Party is deficient in its trust in the PLA and its leadership. For this reason, the command & control of the PLARF, the new nuclear missile-carrying force lies exclusively with Xi Jinping. They have been kept out of the theatre commanders' loop, and their reins lie solely with the CCP, albeit, Xi Jinping. Even amongst the PLA, the Army, i.e. PLAA, has lost favour. Before the reforms, the PLA Army did not have a service HQs, and the four General Departments were carrying out its administrative functions as they were primarily ground forces dominated. In December 2015, an Army HQ was established for the first time, putting it at par with the other Forces in the PLA. The appointment of the commander of Western Theatre command General Zhang Xudong is an indication that the CMC, read XI Jinping would like to have more say in matters of a dispute against India and East Turkmenistan movement, where the Uyghurs are fighting the state. General Zhang Xudong has never served either in Tibet or Xinjiang, which has set speculations rife of a more intimate control by Beijing in Tibet and Xinjiang. There is also an erosion of the PLAA representation in the CMC. There is currently only one member of the PLAA in the CMC, which China watchers see as a dilution of their authority.
In China, it is challenging to understand the real equation that exists in the layers of the hierarchy. It is almost impossible to state with certainty how the PLA stands in the eyes of the CCP. But if the latest efforts in changing the structures and increasing presidential control on its employment are any measures, it reflects a lack of confidence in their abilities. Xi Jinping does want to take the PLA along, not in its current Avatar, but a more battle-hardy and loyal PLA is what he would have in mind. By his admission, the PLA would be the best military force in the world only by 2049. By 2035, he aims to complete the PLA modernisation of a military force, and by 2021 he had desired to mechanised the entire PLA.
Another vital pointer towards change in the relationship is the truncation of its role. In the earlier years of the Mao and Deng era, the PLA was responsible for both the nation's internal and external security. The Internal security role has been divested from the PLA, and that has gone to the PLAAPF; the PLA Armed Police Force, which now reports directly to the CMC. PLA is now responsible only for external security. This dilution has greatly taken away from the PLA the leverage to manipulate the Public and bureaucrats alike. Handling insurgent groups like the Uyghurs would give great powers to the PLA, but now these are vested with the Police force.
China has made far-reaching changes to the organisational structure of the PLA. The confidence of the CCP in PLA is at its lowest ebb at the moment. There is a trust deficit in its capabilities and warfighting abilities. The recent deadlock on the withdrawal of troops from the LAC in eastern Ladakh could very much be a test of the PLA ability to sustain real war-like conditions, then testing the resolve of the Indians, or it may be a case of killing two birds with one stone. The lack of confidence in the PLAA abilities is likely to see greater Beijing's influence in decision-making in matters of the standoff, making more significant interference in Eastern Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh's decision-making.
The distance between the CCP and the PLA is growing under Xi Jinping. There is an effort to cut PLA to size. Among the Forces in the PLA, the Army has been the biggest loser due to the reorganisation. Their turf has been cut and occupied by more young Force like the PLARF and the PLASSF. Also, the PLAN and the PLAAF have now are independent of the ground forces domination. The joint commands have improved the integration of the PLA resources. The PLA is also becoming a more professional force, and hence it would be premature to think that the Army Generals would feel slighted. They could very well take it as a larger good for the PLA. 2022 would be a crucial year, as the Xi Jinping comes to relinquish his General Secretary's post. His ambition and stance towards the PLA may be a significant factor in deciding his fate as the Party's head and his desire to continue to head the CCP beyond two terms