Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2020 > Knowing the Chinese PLA | Bhartendu Kumar Singh

Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 38, New Delhi, September 5, 2020

Knowing the Chinese PLA | Bhartendu Kumar Singh

Friday 4 September 2020

by Bhartendu Kumar Singh

While the Galwan imbroglio continues and we ponder towards the next improbable, China’s Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA), the villain-in-chief, may be celebrating on the other side! The one-time guerrilla army is a formidable force propelling China’s rise as a great power. It’s aggressive posturing on conflict issues with many neighbours is indeed key theme in international relations. The loss of twenty soldiers in Galwan could also be attributed, amongst others, to lack of in-depth knowledge about PLA’s cunning war strategies. Understanding and decoding the PLA’s complex milieu is a major strategic challenge for us!

The PLA, without any doubt, is the most important pressure group in Chinese foreign policy decision making, often diluting the state-party-military trifecta in Chinese politics. Apart from Central Military Commission (CMC), the PLA also has significant representation in party (and vice versa) and state machinery including legislature. Absence of representational politics in China means ample space for PLA to play one up-man ship game in influencing key strategic decisions affecting China’s neighbours and other countries. And yet, we in India, have often undervalued its role while interacting with Chinese interlocutors; often placing diplomatic bets on other stakeholders. A 2018 study by Tyler Jost and Austin Strange from Harvard University finds that Chinese PLA has accounted for nearly half of the country’s high-level public diplomacy in recent years. Xi Jinping’s ‘military diplomacy thought’ is gaining currency in strategic planning. Above all, China is likely to bring more military into diplomacy with target states possessing three characteristics: advanced military capabilities that China might emulate; demand for Chinese arms export; and propensity for inter-state conflict crisis with China.

While militarisation of Chinese politics has been well established fact, the incremental shift towards centralisation of decision-making process has not been properly understood outside China. Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao pampered the PLA through double digit budgetary support. Xi Jinping has, however, abrogated all powers to himself through emphasis on CMC Chairman responsibility system, establishment of Central National Security Commission (CNSC) and a host of other Central Leading Groups (CLGs) led by Xi himself. In return, he has supported the modernisation process of PLA and its expansionist move to South China Sea and beyond. Xi has taken personal interest in ‘revolutionary restructuring’ of the PLA’s organisational structure in recent times and has replaced the top PLA brass with his own loyalists. He has issued numerous statements asking the PLA to support and obey Xi Jinping thought process and implement his ideals. For outsiders, it is difficult to make simple and objective inferences from such statements.

While engaging PLA, the salience of ancient Chinese military thought and culture are often misperceived to have only tangential impact on current military leadership. China’s military thought process has evolved over centuries beginning with the Seven Military Classics (including Sun Zi’s The Art of War). The characteristic features of China’s military culture remain the same: deception, offensive strategy (couched in defensive language), expansion and violence (loaded with morality, ethics and just war jargons), self-defence (stretchable to any extent including attack on hapless neighbours) and valuing stratagems and tactics over weapons (largely at a notional level to hide combat weakness). Studying China’s military culture and its changing dynamics is, therefore, sin-qua-non to understand the functioning of PLA. For example, superficial reading of Chinese military strategy may not help understand its recent military support base in Djibouti (Africa) unless one has background knowledge of Chinese military culture and its changing dynamics.

While a basketful of research studies (based on primary materials) about contemporary Chinese military thinking are available in Western universities, Chinese strategic thinkers and military officers associated with the National Defence University (NDU), military academies and think tanks have also been writing prolifically. For example, PLA generals have been speaking a lot about un-conventional warfare like military operations other than war (MOOTW) where non-state actors are involved. However, very few writings are available in English; most write ups remain hibernated in Mandarin. Without access to such documents, it is difficult to cull out hidden truth on MOOTW in China’s official military documents such as the White Paper on Chinese National Defence in New Era (2019).

Similarly, PLA’s actual combat capabilities remains largely unknown despite modernisation leaps and proliferation in global outreach. Barring the 1962 War, China has paid heavy price in military adventures like the Vietnam War of 1979 or had to back out like Sino - Soviet crisis of 1969 and the Taiwan Straits crisis of mid-nineties. Its border skirmishes with neighbours have led to stalemate. In recent times, China has made commendable progress in manpower reduction, mission-mode military modernisation, and institutionalisation of theatre command system and joint operations. However, the exact impact of these reforms may not be duly reflected through research papers in Delhi-based think-tanks. It needs shoulder-rubbing with PLA generals to gauge their newly engendered confidence.

Chinese PLA has also emerged a role model in military diplomacy. It conducts more than 150 joint military exercises with foreign militaries every year, including the hand-in-hand military exercise with India. China markets its military diplomacy through a ministerial website, a dedicated PLA website and half a dozen other websites on military issues. All these websites speak same language and follow same analytical line. They target global audiences to minimise doubts and debates about lack of transparency in Chinese military modernisation and budgetary expenditure and promote China’s peaceful development against the China-threat theories coming from western scholars, practitioners and policy makers.

Barring the US, most states dealing with China suffer from knowledge gap about various aspects of PLA’s functioning and strategic thought process. This deters building strategies about an increasingly hostile and expansionist PLA. There is, therefore, a need to enlarge the knowledge basket about the PLA for India’s meaningful engagement process with China.

Note: The author is in the Indian Defence Accounts Service. Views are personal.

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