Xi Takes on the PLA: military reforms could turn toxic

With almost 2.3 million personnel, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), China’s military, is undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with. The largest army in the world, the PLA has taken advantage of China’s vast population to maintain a standing force unsurpassed in the modern era.

China's military is unsurpassed in size
China’s military is unsurpassed in size

Despite this, it is has only been in recent years that the PLA has begun to close the vast technological and logistical gap that exists between its military and those of its rivals, which include the Japanese Self-Defence Forces, the Russian Armed Forces and the United States Army, though it still has plenty of catching up to do with the latter in particular.

In theory, the announcement in September by President Xi Jinping that 300,000 men and women would be trimmed from this monstrous force was unsurprising. As China embraces its rapid economic growth to improve the capabilities and efficiency of the PLA, fewer conventional forces should be required.

However, this view does not appear to be shared by elements within the PLA and the wider public, forcing the Beijing government to use its main news mouthpiece, The People’s Daily, to warn people not to ‘speak nonsense, make irresponsible comments, have your own points of view, act as you see fit or feign compliance’ over this issue.

Indeed, a large army is a source of both pride and success in recent Chinese history. Having fought the nationalist Kuomintang for the best part of two decades, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was only eventually able to seize power after amassing a force of almost 4 million men by 1949.

During the Korean War, Chinese forces scored historic victories over the vastly more experienced and better-equipped troops of the US Army and its international colleagues, largely because of the sheer weight of numbers the PLA could send into battle. Indeed, Mao Zedong was content to sacrifice many thousands of his soldiers to prove to his then Soviet benefactors that he was a crucial ally in their Cold War struggles, and he would use the leverage gained by his country’s involvement in Korea to secure nuclear secrets from Moscow.

PLA troops pursue remnants of the routed 25th US Infantry Corps during the Korean War
PLA troops pursue remnants of the routed 25th US Infantry Corps during the Korean War

Likewise, after centuries of foreign invasion and internal conflict – particularly during the ‘century of humiliation‘ – the vast size of the PLA has been credited with securitising China’s borders and preventing ‘separatist’ counter-revolutions by the country’s myriad ethnic minorities.

What is more, for many thousands of China’s downtrodden peasants, the army offers an escape from a life of drudgery and poverty. To deprive unskilled and uneducated people of this traditional right – which Xi’s cut is likely to do – could serve to provoke unrest amongst the civilian population.

With the PLA generals also unlikely to look kindly upon the downsizing of their prestigious force – many officers are set to lose their jobs in the restructuring – there is the potential for a toxic combination of military and popular pressure to take hold which, if harnessed by one of his political foes, could lead to a significant challenge to Xi’s rule.

That his government has felt compelled to issue a public warning against dissenting this historic decision shows that its implementation is likely to prove difficult, with potentially powerful opposition voices certain to resist the upending of their convenient status quo.

If there has been one consistency in the history of the People’s Republic of China it is the influence of the armed forces. To be seen to ‘weaken’ this powerful institution, however reasoned such a decision may be in seeking to modernise the PLA, could prove Xi’s undoing.

Xi must modernise China's military structure without alienating allies in the PLA
Xi must modernise China’s military structure without alienating allies in the PLA
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Fear of Japanese Nationalistic Revival Unfounded: public opinion and government prudence dictate otherwise

There is a fear, both in East Asia and the world at large, that rising Japanese nationalism will lead to an inexorable decline in relations and eventually conflict between that country and China.

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These fears are, of course, predicated on the history of ultra-nationalism in Japan which gradually increased in the first part of the 20th century into a rabid racism and superiority complex. This laid the foundations for the aggressive expansionism of the Japanese Imperial Army into China in the 1930s and against USA and the rest of East Asia in the 1940s.

However this perception of a ‘shift to the right’ does not hold much ground. Firstly, the Japanese public remains firmly against Japan taking a more assertive military stance. In a recent poll, 64% of respondents were against revising Article 9 of the constitution, which prohibits Japan from taking any offensive military action. 82% of people wanted to maintain Japan’s three non-nuclear principles of refusing to manufacture, possess or store nuclear weapons. 77% were against exporting Japanese military technology abroad.

Anti-nuclear sentiment is strong in Japan
Anti-nuclear sentiment is strong in Japan

Perhaps, interestingly, 65% of respondents believed that the administration of Shinzo Abe would cause tensions in East Asia (particularly in relation to China) to rise. Related to this are the 63% who believed a territorial dispute was the most likely cause of conflict and 55% who saw China as the main state threat to Japanese security.

The territorial dispute between Japan and China in the East China Sea has intensified during Abe’s premiership and does seem a potential flashpoint for regional security. Yet despite respondents fearing the growing tensions over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, the majority still do not desire a revision of the military and constitutional status quo in Japan.

Aligned with public opinion are the ‘Big Business’ interests of Japanese corporations, who depend on a stable relationship with China to maintain the economic equilibrium. Abe is not stupid; he has staved off an ultra-nationalist revival by making symbolic gestures (such as visiting the Yasukuni Shrine and mobilising the Japanese coastguard in the East China Sea) whilst urging restraint and dialogue.

If anything, Chinese nationalism is the concern. Part of the CCP’s agenda is to stir up a hatred of the ‘other’; this is perpetuated by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which has shown in its recent confrontation with Vietnam in the South China Sea that national interests will not be subordinated for any concession.

China, rather than Japan, threatens to escalate conflict in East Asia
China, rather than Japan, threatens to escalate conflict in East Asia

Ultimately, despite Japan’s history of destructive nationalism, there is cause for optimism. Whilst tensions may be rising in the East China Sea, there is no reason to believe that this will end in conflict. Firstly, China and Japan are too economically interdependent; second, Japan’s public are clearly against a resuscitation of military aggression; thirdly, despite his seemingly nationalist outlook, Shinzo Abe will not allow it. He has engineered a position of dominance for the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which the interlude of Democratic Party (DPJ) rule threatened to render impossible.

Whatever the case, a repeat of the ’30s and ’40s is not on the cards.

Poll Data

http://mansfieldfdn.org/program/research-education-and-communication/asian-opinion-poll-database/listofpolls/2014-polls/asahi-shimbun-special-public-opinion-poll-040714/