What to Make of Xi Jinping’s PLA?

For Foreign Policy, John Garnaut explores the rise of China’s military and the steps taken by new president Xi Jinping to tighten his grip over it. From Xi’s moves to curb corruption within the People’s Liberation Army, to his push for troops to raise their level of combat readiness amid escalating tensions with Japan, Garnaut examines the underlying tactics of China’s new leader:

Xi, then, has ultimately chosen to defend the Communist Party against internal political threats rather than prepare it to face external military threats. There is little doubt the Communist Party has been sharpening its identity in a post-communist world by defining itself against the West, fanning nationalist fervor, and promising a restoration of China’s ancient grandeur. Xi thus has little choice but to keep pumping enormous resources into a war machine if he is to justify his party’s continuing monopoly on power. “This dream can be said to be the dream of a strong nation,” Xi told sailors on board the destroyer Haikou. “And for the military, it is a dream of a strong military.”

To many observers, however, his speech seemed to confirm that China’s provocations against Japan were in fact “evidence of profound domestic insecurity rather than rational policy,” a Beijing diplomat who closely studies China’s military machinations told me. “It is the fact of party control,” he says, “that makes the PLA weak. Everything else — the corruption, the risk aversion, the hierarchy — is a symptom of that.”

Then, too, there is the very real risk that if China or Japan miscalculates over the Senkaku Islands and actually does spark a war, China may lose. That, at least, is the assessment of several military analysts with whom I spoke, who believe Japan’s disciplined, professional forces would prevail even without direct U.S. intervention. More broadly, I have heard growing doubts about China’s actual fighting capabilities in some sections of the Chinese military, foreign diplomatic corps, and U.S. academia, many of whose members are revising their views on the PLA. “Our assessment is they are nowhere near as effective as they think they are,” a Beijing-based defense attaché from a NATO country told me.

What if the recent drums of war are a sign of China’s weakness and not its impressive new strength? “When Xi tells his troops to be ready for war, it’s really an admission that they’re in disarray,” says the defense attaché. “He’s saying, ‘You guys are drunk, fat, and happy, siphoning off all the money into private accounts, and you need to get real.’”

Garnaut has previously suggested that the Diaoyu stand-off marks a bid to cement Xi’s standing within the military at The Sydney Morning Herald (via CDT).

Xi’s new directives include a requirement for top military commanders to serve a stint among junior soldiers every few years, a move intended to reduce impropriety, improve discipline and boost morale among the troops. And while Xi’s predecessors also took their own symbolic actions when assuming power, The Diplomat’s Zachary Keck questions whether Xi can actually affect real change within the PLA:

Unlike Jiang and Hu, though, Xi Jinping is a princeling whose father was a commander in the Red Army during the wars that brought the Communist Party to power. This gives Xi a certain amount of respect with the military brass, many of whom he has known for years. Notably, Xi also differs from his two immediate predecessors in that he inherited the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission, the country’s top military decision-making body, at the same time that he became head of the Party in November.

All of these factors better position Xi to bring change to the military than were Hu and Jiang. Still, the order Xi issued over the weekend is unlikely to have much impact, the Rand Corporation’s Harold predicts.

“I don’t see much reason to think that 15 days out of 365 spent cleaning latrines or eating grunt rations will systematically reshape the thinking of military leaders whose perquisites are almost certainly beyond the imaginings of most enlistees,” Harold says.

“And moreover the nature of Chinese political culture, as well as the mere practical realities of how hierarchically-structured organizations like the armed forces [operate], will make it extremely difficult for the common soldier to treat the generals as genuine colleagues given that they will shortly thereafter go back to being their superior officers.”