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China: Xi wrests greater control over military

News Agencies | Updated on: 5 January 2021, 14:35 IST

On December 26, 2020, the Standing Committee of the 13th National People's Congress rubber-stamped a revised National Defense Law, and it passed into legislation on the first day of this year. The casual observer might consider this yet another piece of meaningless legalese, but this law ushers in important changes first mooted two years ago.

Three of the existing law's articles were entirely removed, six were added, and 54 articles were amended. The new law now comprises 73 articles arranged in twelve chapters. A Central Military Commission (CMC) official said the revised National Defense Law "reflects that China's national defense adapts to the times, serves righteous purposes and involves and serves the whole people".

Official Chinese commentary listed seven significant changes in the law. First off, it listed that "Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era is established as the guiding thought over China's national defense activities". Mentioning it first can be construed as political correctness, something essential in an ideological system such as communism.

The commentary's second point is that the defense duties of state organs are "adjusted", and "contents regarding the system wherein the CMC chairman shall assume overall responsibility are added". However, this description conveniently glosses over critical alterations in authority and process.

The result is that the CMC, led by none other than Chairman Xi, now has full power to mobilize military and civilian assets to defend national interests both within China and abroad.

Chinese acolytes applauded the move as strengthening the country's military under Xi's leadership. Outsiders see it as a dangerous move that gives Xi even greater powers to send the PLA into combat under far more spurious circumstances.

It significantly weakens the role of the State Council - essentially China's cabinet - and allots far more power to the CMC, which is under Xi's control. This continues a trend that Xi instigated some time ago, of amassing far greater control and power directly beneath his mantle.

Now the CMC has stronger decision-making powers, bypassing the 35-member State Council altogether. This council also has a reduced part to play in formulating national defense policy, and the right to mobilize troops. In other words, this law allows Xi to do an end run around the State Council, which now has a mere supporting role.

Instead of the PLA being under civilian authority, as occurs in most Western countries through their ministries or departments of defense, China's military is now fully under Xi and the entirely military-dominated CMC. This raises the stakes, permitting greater Chinese adventurism without civilian oversight or intervention from China's state apparatus.

Some members of the PLA have already been expressing hawkish sentiments and a desire to test its mettle against opponents like the USA. They will now have a greater ability to do so, and the threat of a disproportionate PLA response to a slight from a foreign power grows dangerously. If some elements are itching for a fight, they now have a greater ability to do so.

The third major alteration in the law, as expressed by Chinese officialdom, is elaboration of the tasks and goals of constructing the armed forces. However, the fourth point of "defense policy for major security domains is specified in view of activities and interest-defending needs in new-type security domains" is another very important one.

This is reflected in revised wording in the National Defense Law. For example, "disruption" and protecting "national interests" are added as reasons for mobilizing active-duty and reserve People's Liberation Army (PLA) troops. These terms are deliberately vague, giving the CMC enormous latitude in deciding what disruption and national interests may actually refer to.

Thus, Collin Koh, Research Fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies in the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, commented that "development interests" are a term as "vaguely defined as it gets".

The inclusion of "development interests" obviously includes Chinese investments and supplies of raw materials such as oil, upon which the Chinese economy is reliant. It will also incorporate Chinese citizens living abroad. Should any of these come under threat, Xi and his CMC companions could quickly declare a mobilization and launch offensive actions by the PLA.

It remains unspoken, but this aspect of the new law clearly targets Taiwan. After all, what national development interests are more central and important to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) than the ongoing democratic existence of Taiwan? Not that it requires it, because China never relinquished the "right" to use force to unify Taiwan with China. This law adds the imaginary weight of Chinese jurisprudence to act against Taipei and anyone there advocating independence.

Supporting this application to Taiwan, an op-ed by Song Zhongping in the Global Times tabloid, mentioned: "If the Taiwan question remains unresolved and the island continues to be manipulated by the West, it will impair China's development interests and thus lead the two sides of across the strait into huge internal friction. This will greatly hamper the development of Chinese mainland as a whole. Therefore, solving the Taiwan question is key to safeguarding national interests."

Another aspect to the modified National Defense Law is greater stress on a national coordination mechanism to mobilize both state-owned and private enterprises to conduct research and development into domains such as conventional weapons, cybersecurity, space and the electromagnetic spectrum.

Official commentary listed the above as the fifth major change, whereby "the systems of national defense education and mobilization are enriched and perfected in consideration of the reforms in their leading and managing systems". This reflects urgency on the part of Xi to get the PLA ready for war, and for the Chinese people to adopt such a mindset of acceptance.

Indeed, the legislation is a rallying cry for China's populace to get ready for war, as it permits nationwide mobilization. Never in the history of modern China, since it was established in 1949, has such a call for national combat readiness been issued. The inclusion of such articles in the law, and the continuous stream of edicts from Xi for combat readiness, should be ringing a clarion call of alarm to all.

Commentary posted on a website connected to the PLA Daily stated, "The revised law further embodies the character that China's national defense is a whole-of-people cause. It added contents about strengthening the national defense awareness and the crisis consciousness of all citizens, as well as improving the technology and capability level of national defense." This includes organizing military training for students.

The same article noted "that all state organs and armed forces, political parties and people's groups, enterprises and public institutions, social organizations and organizations of other types should support national defense and participate in its development, fulfill their defense duties and accomplish defense tasks in accordance with the law".

The sixth change in focus is "protection of the position, rights and interests of military personnel is intensified to make sure service members are respected across the society". The PLA has long been viewed as corrupt, but does implementing a law solve this deep-seated mistrust?

The seventh and final change covers "policies and systems concerning foreign military relations are refined following the overall national security outlook". The law also stipulates that China "follows a defensive national defense policy". It therefore actively promotes "cooperation, safeguards world peace and opposes aggression and expansion, fully showing its anti-war and peace-loving beliefs," according to an official. However, these are mere epithets, as are empty phrases such as "building a community with a shared future for mankind".

This National Defense Law is but one revision in a raft of legislation being pushed through by Xi, all of which concentrate power in his person. Indeed, the Regulations on Work of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, promulgated on 30 September 2020, concluded that "party leadership and building the military is the first priority for developing China's military power".

It was Mao Zedong who said, "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun". All these laws simply tighten CCP, and more specifically Xi's, control of that gun.

For instance, from July 1, 2020, China's 510,000-strong military reserve forces were centralized and unified under the CMC and Central Committee (both chaired by Xi, of course), after the Standing Committee adopted a draft Law on the People's Armed Police Force. Prior to that, reserve forces were under the dual leadership of the CMC and local CCP committees. Thus, the link between such forces and local party leaders has been severed, reducing the risk of subversion or of their questioning loyalty to Xi.

It was necessary for "upholding the party's absolute leadership over the army and building a strong military in the new era," according to Xinhua. The 1.5 million-strong People's Armed Police was itself put directly under CMC control in 2017.

Recently, the PLA also modified its operational doctrine, but this secretive document remains heavily classified. M. Taylor Fravel, professor of Political Science and Director of the

Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, noted, "This marks only the fifth time that the PLA has changed its operational doctrine since 1949." The last time it was altered was in 1999, when the PLA promulgated its first joint operations campaign outline.

Fravel commented, "The new joint operations outline is described as 'the top-level regulation of our military's operational regulations system in the new era'. That is, it provides a framework to guide the subsequent development of the PLA's operational doctrine. In other words, a process has begun that will unfold over several years to issue additional outlines/regulations for each of the services. The 'fourth generation' of operational doctrine included 89 regulations. The 'new era' doctrine will likely include even more."

The PLA's operational doctrine could well be more dynamic too, and a shift from "campaigns" to "operations" indicates a more nimble and refined approach to using force.

Fravel added: "The promulgation of a high-level doctrinal document suggests that the PLA is consolidating the changes to improve joint operations that were part of the unprecedented reforms that began in late 2015. In fact, it likely signals confidence that the reforms have been successful."

Chinese analysts immediately pointed to growing strategic tensions between China and the USA as making revisions to the National Defense Law necessary. They need the legal grounds to be able to swiftly respond to such challenges, they said.

China sees its handling of the COVID-19 crisis, which began in Wuhan but was ruthlessly controlled by Beijing's whole-of-government approach, as legitimizing its form of authoritarian governance under one-party rule. Furthermore, this law reflects Xi's unparalleled confidence in wielding stricter, indeed absolute, control over the PLA as the barrel of the CCP's gun.

As this law passes into existence, Mao would doubtless be proud of Xi and his gun-handling prowess.


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First published: 5 January 2021, 14:35 IST