On the same pedestal as Mao, Xi Jinping has once again asserted at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China that he is Chinas undisputed leader, writes BRIG GURMEET KANWAL. He holds three posts - President of China, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China and the Chairman of the Central Military Commission - and has all his chosen people at top posts. Large-scale military reforms were initiated by Xi Jinping to make the PLA a more modern force that can preserve China's territorial integrity and project power in China's area of strategic interest to extend China's strategic outreach through increased military presence overseas, especially in the Indo-Pacific region through the PLA Navy.
On the same pedestal as Mao, Xi Jinping has once again asserted at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China that he is Chinas undisputed leader, writes BRIG GURMEET KANWAL (RETD). He holds three posts — President of China, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China and the Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) — and has all his chosen people at top posts. What does all this mean for India?
As had been widely anticipated, President Xi Jinping consolidated his position as the undisputed “core” leader of China at he 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China held at Beijing in the third week of October 2017. Xi was also re-elected to all three posts that he has been holding for almost five years since the 18th National Congress: dent of China, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China and the Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) with effect from March 14, 2003.
In a move that placed him on the same pedestal as Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, the National Congress unanimously passed an amendment to the party’s constitution to include “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” in the party’s constitution as one of its guiding principles.
Xi’s “Belt and Road Initiative”, an ambitious infrastructure development programme designed to link China with its regional neighbours and beyond was also included in the party constitution. Xi ensured that only his protégés and those personally loyal to him were elected to the seven-member Standing Committee of the Politburo, China’s most powerful governing council.
Reading out his report card at the marathon opening session of the National Congress, Xi presented China as an indispensable force in countering global economic sluggishness. He said China had contributed significantly to dealing with international peacekeeping, regulating global economic governance, reshaping multilateral institutions, spurring global efforts to fight climate change, enhancing energy security and improving global health. He made no mention of the instability caused by Chinese military assertiveness in the East and South China Seas and by the blatant disregard of a rules based international order.
Jayadeva Ranade, President, Centre for China Analysis and Strategy, New Delhi, and former additional secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India, has written, “Today Xi Jinping holds 13 formal positions…Included among the organisations under his direct supervision are the sensitive national security apparatus, Cyber security, the National Security Council, the military and the economy. The princeling son of a revolutionary leader, Xi is the first civilian chairman of the CMC and presides over a 2.3 million-strong PLA, the world’s largest armed forces. The 19th National Congress was utilised by Xi Jinping, who is also the Commander-in-Chief, to demonstrate his complete control over the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). One of the key stratagems that facilitated his rise to the position of undisputed numero uno was his carefully choreographed plan to gain control over the PLA.
Bold Military Reforms
Xi realised this goal through military reforms, the promotion of loyalists and the removal of Generals who did not happily toe the line. Ranade has written, “… in the PLA at least 86 officers of the rank of major general were under investigation or had been arrested for corruption. By March 2017, a total of 4,885 PLA officers were officially reported to have been “punished” for graft. Another 50 generals were retired this January, clearing the way for Xi Jinping to promote over 135 general officers and ensure that the PLA’s senior echelons are filled with persons of his choice”.
Large-scale military reforms were initiated by Xi Jinping to make the PLA a more modern force that can preserve China’s territorial integrity and project power in China’s area of strategic interest to extend China’s strategic outreach through increased military presence overseas, especially in the Indo-Pacific region through the PLA Navy. China Is growing increasingly more assertive about sovereignty claims in its neighbourhood, particularly in the East and South China seas.
The reforms have led to the disbandment of the four ‘traditional’ General Departments (General Staff, Political, Logistics and Equipment) and the establishment of 15 new departments all of which have been placed directly under the CMC. Under these 15 departments will be 84 restructured corps-level ‘units. These units include the provincial military commands, military academies and universities that come directly under the Ministry of Defence. They also include the headquarters of the PLA Army, Navy, Air Force,Rocket Force (erstwhile Second Artillery) and the newly constituted Strategic Support Force.
The seven existing Military Regions have been dismantled and five ‘outward looking joint theatre commands have been established. Five group armies have also been disbanded, leaving 13 still standing. Monika Chansoria, Senior Fellow, Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi, is of the view that, “Xi has further tightened his grip over the PLA by assuming a more direct role as head of the new Joint Operations Command Centre, which puts him in command of the PLAs military operations and plans. This new role holds tremendous political significance.”
The PLA Navy is getting the maximum attention in the military modernisation drive energised by Xi Jinping. launched its first aircraft carrier in April 2017; in June it introduced Asias most advanced guided missile destroyer; it is developing cutting-edge propulsion technology; and, is building large amphibious assault vessels. Besides sweeping reforms of the military to enhance combat readiness and operational efficiency, Xi has ordered the cutting of troop levels by 300,000 to a total of two million. He has devoted time and effort to the modernisation of the PLA and directed its leadership to streamline the organisational and command structures for a more effective fighting force.
Demanding the PLA’s Loyalty
Officially, the PLA is the armed wing of the Communist Party and Xi Jinping has often reminded the PLA leadership of this fact. In April 2017, Xi Jinping demanded that all military units should be absolutely loyal to the Communist Party. In August 2017, Xi asserted, “You shall be unswervingly loyal to the absolute leadership that the party has over the army, heed the call of the party, follow the party.” These repeated calls for loyalty and obedience had the desired effect with “state-run and controlled newspapers carrying full-page expressions of absolute loyalty by military commanders across regions”.
The PLA sent 253 delegates to the 19th Party Congress at Beijing. The selection criteria focussed on professionally competent officers who were considered politically reliable. Previous battle experience also weighed-in in favour of selection. Those tainted by corruption charges were weeded out. At the Congress, Xi again asked the PLA to be absolutely loyal to the ruling Communist Party. He set two goals for the PLA: first, to become a modern fighting force by 2035 and to, then, graduate to the worlds best military force by 2050; and, second, to intensify its combat readiness by focusing on how to win wars. The message to India is clear: expect more transgressions of the Doklam variety.
Having consolidated political and military power through some deft manoeuvres, Xi Jinping expected to be reelected as General Secretary of the Communist Party at its 19th Party Congress and he was not disappointed. No other General Secretary has had as much power as Xi Jinping in the last few decades. Both Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin had struggled to get a firm grip over the Party and the PLA because of the lingering influence of their predecessors.
With the support of the Party and the PLA, President Xi Jinping plans to continue his pursuit of the “Chinese Dream’ – an inspirational slogan coined by him to reflect the peoples aspiration for a rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. However, the unfettered realisation of the Chinese Dream will be possible only in a peaceful and stable environment, which is lacking at present. Chinas physical occupation of some of the disputed islands in the South China Sea and its pro-active posture over the disputed Senkaku/ Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea in defiance of international norms and tribunal rulings are seen as tactics that are part of a revisionist and hegemonic strategy, which is inherently destabilising.
Chinas increasing military assertiveness (some analysts use the term aggressiveness) and uncertainty about its longterm intentions, is leading to concern being openly expressed by several of its neighbours. Senior officials of Australia, India, Japan and the US, meeting on the side-lines of the East Asia Summit in the Philippines in November 2017, agreed that a “free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region serves the longterm interests of all countries in the region and of the world at large.” This has fuelled the speculation that the idea of a Quadrilateral Security Dialogue is being revived after a hiatus of ten years. It is expected that this development will lead to Strategic realignment for peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific.
In order to promote a regional security environment conducive to socio-economic development, China will have to tone down its military assertiveness and confrontational attitude and graduate to cooperation and respect for a rules-based international order. Ideally, China should join hands with the other countries in the Indo-Pacific to establish a cooperative security architecture for peace and stability and security of the global commons. Only time will tell whether China will rise to the occasion like a worthy great power, or continue to plough a lonely furrow in international relations.