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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Xi and Ma in Historic Summit: Status Quo on Taiwan Persists…for Now

Last Saturday saw an unprecedented meeting between the respective leaders of the People’s Republic of China (PRC – Mainland China) and the Republic of China (ROC- Taiwan). Presidents Xi Jinping of the PRC and Ma Ying-jeou of the ROC shook hands and smiled for the cameras before their brief summit in Singapore, an historic but largely symbolic dialogue.

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An historic handshake

Since the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) won the Civil War in 1949 and forced Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang (KMT) comrades to flee to Taiwan, there has existed a very tense cross-Strait relationship between Beijing and Taipei whose rulers both claim their governments to be the true and sole representatives of all China.

Three serious ‘crises’ have broken out between the mainland and Taiwan since 1949. The first crisis occurred during 1954-5 when the PRC seized several islands from the ROC and conducted heavy shelling of KMT defensive positions. The US administration was so concerned by the aggression of the communists that the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended dropping a nuclear bomb on the Chinese mainland, a suggestion fortunately dismissed by President Eisenhower.

In 1958, the PRC again resorted to heavy shelling of KMT positions on several disputed islands in the Tawain Strait. The ROC responded with their own artillery with the end result being 2,500 dead on the Taiwanese side, compared with 200 PRC troops killed. America intervened on the side of the ROC by providing them with howitzers and air-to-air missiles, honouring an agreement of mutual defence that had been signed after the first crisis four years earlier. The Soviets, too, put diplomatic pressure on Mao Zedong to halt his assault, fearing the American response should the conflict intensify.

Beijing did not react well to US involvement in the 2nd Taiwan Strait Crisis
Beijing did not react well to US involvement in the 2nd Taiwan Strait Crisis

For the next four decades an uneasy peace existed across the Taiwan Strait, with both the PRC and ROC largely concerned with ensuring domestic stability and (after Mao’s death at least) economic development. In 1992, a Consensus was reached between Beijing and Taipei that unequivocally stated that there was only one sovereign state encompassing all of China, the disagreement remaining over which government was the legitimate ruler.

This seemed set to cement the peace but its impact was almost immediately undermined. In 1995-6, trouble flared up again as the PRC embarked on a series of provocative missile tests in the coastal waters off Taiwan. A response to Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui’s supposed agitation for independence – which of course went against the 1992 Consensus – Beijing’s actions prompted the Clinton administration to send two aircraft carrier groups into the Taiwan Strait, the biggest American military deployment in Asia since the Vietnam War. The PRC responded by undertaking live firing training drills in the build-up to Taiwan’s 1996 presidential election. The attempts to intimidate Taipei and the Taiwanese electorate failed, however, with Lee’s popularity receiving a boost in the aftermath of the scare.

Since 1996 the relationship has remained relatively stable, improving significantly during Ma’s tenure, with a renewed focus on economic engagement. This has led many Taiwanese to become increasingly wary about Ma’s intentions and his decision to meet with Xi in Singapore met with widespread disapproval back home. With only a few months remaining in office and no possibility of a further term given constitutional constraints, Ma’s gesture appears one of egotism designed to secure his place in history. For many Taiwanese, however, his diplomacy has simply led to a strengthening of the PRC’s hand and given the impression that Taipei’s resolve to oppose pressure from Beijing is failing.

Protesters took to streets across Taiwan in opposition to Ma's China diplomacy
Protesters took to streets across Taiwan in opposition to Ma’s China diplomacy

There was never any likelihood that the Xi-Ma summit would lead to significant policy change. In this respect, it is similar to the meeting that took place between Mao and Chiang Kai-shek at Chongqing in 1945. With the Japanese enemy defeated and World War Two ended, the US hoped that they could broker a peace deal between Mao’s communists and the Nationalist KMT government, which had been sporadically fighting a civil war for the best part of two decades.

The Double Tenth Agreement that arose from the three-month negotiations included the CCP concession that the KMT was the legitimate government of China and a declaration by the Nationalists that they recognised Mao’s group as an official opposition party.

Mao and Chiang raise a toast at their August 1945 meeting in Chongqing
Mao and Chiang raise a toast at their August 1945 meeting in Chongqing

Of course in reality neither party had any intention of stopping short of outright victory and the internal conflict would rage brutally for a further four years before Chiang eventually realised that his days were numbered and he escaped across the Strait where he would rule until his death in 1975.

There will come a time when the historical enmity between the PRC and ROC will explode again and it is likely to involve America when it does. At the moment the relationship is as strong as it is ever going to be, Ma’s efforts over the course of his presidency ensuring temporary peace even if it is at the expense of his people’s honour.

Make no mistake, though. The PRC views Taiwan as part of its territory and will ultimately be prepared to use force to secure this economically-vibrant island. When its leaders choose their moment, America will have a choice whether to enforce its traditional commitment to Taiwanese territorial integrity or allow a scenario similar to the one that resulted in Russia annexing Crimea from Ukraine last year.

Xi and Ma posed for the cameras, as Mao and Chiang did back in 1945. As with their predecessors, today’s leaders know that the status quo will not last forever.