South Asia and Beyond

Xi Jinping’s Military ‘PLA’n: Party Comes First

 Xi Jinping’s Military ‘PLA’n: Party Comes First

NEW DELHI: “Political power grows out of the barrel of the gun” is a famous saying credited to the late Chairman Mao, who founded the Chinese People’s Republic in 1949. And it was also Mao’s dictum that the Communist Party must always control the barrel. So how would the so-called mutiny by Russia’s Wagner Group have impacted China?

Beijing was cautious and sparing in its comments, describing it as Russia’s “internal affair”, adding, “As Russia’s friendly neighbour and comprehensive strategic partner of coordination for the new era, China supports Russia in maintaining national stability and achieve development and prosperity.”

But a document titled Study Reader on the System of Chairman Responsibility of the Central Military Commission, was issued to all Communist party cadres and officials on June 30. The reader, it appears, is like a basic textbook for military personnel, which seeks to enhance their understanding of, and their loyalty to the system. All officers and soldiers were urged to integrate their study of the Reader with Communist Party principles and Xi Jinping Thought.

The Reader does not appear to be new. According to Lt. Gen. SL Narasimhan (Retd), former Director General of the MEA-run Centre for Contemporary Chinese Studies, “the Chairman Responsibility System came in 2015-16, people are only now realising its import. It underscores Xi Jinping’s command over the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the need for all ranks to be ideologically aligned with his thinking.”

It is possible the Reader is among the many ways whereby the party “controls the barrel”, and ensures its subservience. Even today, the PLA remains the army of the party, and its duty is to ensure the survival of the party.

Xi visited the headquarters of the PLA’s Eastern Theatre Command on July 6, where he focused on the importance of military innovation and enhancing combat training. It’s not clear if the visit was linked to the Wagner mutiny, but as head of the Central Military Commission, such visits would be on his calendar. China also marks Army Day on August 1, and Xi’s remarks calling on the party to transform its military governance to accelerate defence modernisation, has been widely quoted.

“We must uphold the party’s absolute leadership over the armed forces and adhere to the fact that combat effectiveness is the sole and fundamental criterion for all military endeavours,” he was quoted as saying. “Relevant party and government departments … at all levels … should bear in mind the awareness of national defense and strengthen overall coordination … the armed forces should communicate and coordinate well with local governments.”

Over and over again, the emphasis is on the military’s subservience to the party. Incidentally, the PLA is not the only armed force that China fields. It also deploys armed militias all over the country. The militias comprise all three services and serve as a reserve force for the PLA, providing logistical and other support whenever required. The militias are lightly armed and given their limited capabilities, cannot be expected to turn against the party.

“More interesting are companies providing security to projects abroad,” says Gen. Narasimhan. “These are staffed by ex-PLA officers and men and generally they are not armed. In some countries they are armed, so they could be used in an emergency, but not in the sense of any conventional conflict.”

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China has eschewed all conflicts since the 1979 war with Vietnam, where the PLA’s limitations were brutally exposed. It has preferred diplomacy, and over the last decade or more, has used its phenomenal money power and technology to build influence overseas.

This is not to say China does not value force. It has a “calculative strategy” in place, one based on a cost benefit analysis, where the force used is carefully calibrated to stay below a certain threshold. This strategy can be seen in the South China Sea where China has occupied small shoals and reefs belonging to its neighbours, built runways on them and “militarised” them.

The message going out is that as part of its new strategy, China is reclaiming all its so called “lost territories”, and that it is prepared to use a degree of force to take or defend them. This is ongoing. But unlike Russia, which has outsourced some of the Ukraine fighting to the private mercenary Wagner Group, China armed elements are owned by the state. A Wagner Group-like mutiny is unlikely in China.

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