Perspectives on China’s Evolving Military: Part 4


by Richard Weitz

The final panel of the Jamestown Conference addressed China’s civil-military relations.

Andrew Scobell, Senior Political Scientist at the RAND Corporation, spoke about “PLA Professionalization and the Civil-Military Gap.” He argued that “civil-military relations in China” no longer is the same as “party-army” relations. Today, the relationship is much more complex and multifaceted than when the two institutions were created in the 1920s. The PRC is not a “party-state” but a “party-army-state.” It has been a “dual-hyphenated dragon” since the foundation of the PRC in 1949, though Chinese “society” is becoming an even more important actor over time and may need to be added to the mix.

Scobell argued that the Chinese military has become more “professional” in the sense that Chinese soldiers are younger, better educated, and more focused and better trained in warfighting skills. But the PLA is still a political army, something that PRC civilian leaders insist on since they fear that the PLA’s de-politicization could weaken the military’s loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The PLA has become more cognizant of its corporate interests and seeks to advance them through legitimate decision-making institutions.

Scobell warned the audience not to exaggerate the civil-military gaps in China. It is true that the party and military have different attitudes and perspectives. Fewer PRC civilian leaders now serve in the PLA, ending the previous pattern of “soldier-statesmen.” In general, military leaders tend to adopt more hardline and nationalist positions than the civilians, but they are not warmongers. And civilian leaders still always make the key decisions to go to war and use force.

According to Scobell, civilian control of the military remains strong due to the system of commissars, the requirement that all PLA officers be CCP members, various interlinking bodies with membership from both institutions, and other means of ensuring party penetration of the military. China’s senior leader is still the PRC president. He is in charge of both the CCP and the PLA as head of the Central Military Commission. But the PLA enjoys considerable autonomy on military matters, with considerable flexibility in implementing policies. The PLA is not a rogue military, but it can exploit “ambiguous guidance” from a hands-off civilian leadership. This situation could degrade the PRC’s ability to manage crises, which require rapid decisions and close civil-military coordination.

Scobell stressed that civil-military relations in China have become more complex over time. One can no longer speak about party-army relations as the sole civil-military dyad. For example, many see the Party decision to order the military to eliminate its large-scale business operations in 1998 as a sign of the CPp exerting its control over the military. But the PLA leadership seemed to favor this decision since they too wanted to reduce the corrosive effects of corruption on the military.

The Chinese Military is Getting Legs Credit Image: Bigstock

Isaac Kardon, a Research Fellow at the National Defense University in Washington, offered a presentation on “the PLA as an Interest Group in Chinese Politics.” He agreed that the PLA is gaining influence on PRC policy making in the realm of national security affairs due to its monopoly of expertise in this area and a more narrowly defined corporatist interest expressed in a more rational and institutionalized policy-making arena. Kardon also agreed that the military was becoming more professional in the sense that it was narrowing its scope of attention, becoming more focused on military issues, and becoming better able to determine national policy on the key issues that interest the PLA. Thus one sees more institutionally defined interests, greater elite bifurcation and professionalization, and a military that was becoming a more rational buraucratic actor capable of articulating and promoting its interests.

Kardon also felt comfortable calling the PLA an “interest group” since it had institutionally defined interests independent of other groups. The PLA’s spectrum of interests included many that were common to other militaries. Those widely shared with other militaries include having an impact on military affairs, many political issues, and maximizing its budget, prestige, and autonomy. For example, the PLA strongly fights to increase its budget, and had been successful at this during the past two decades.

Kardon saw the military’s coherence (level of factionalism) as varying by issue. In some cases, the military voice is in harmony with the civilian leadership, whereas in other cases, most likely when the Chinese are trying to develop new policies to new issues, it differs. And in some cases the PLA is able to mobilize its resources on behalf of a single agreed policy, whereas on others it cannot, which naturally weakens its influence. This dual variability makes it harder for outside observers as well as the Chinese to determine which group or faction wins any particular issue in dispute, especially given the added complexity of how much Chinese society and China’s place in the world is changing. In essence, the Party is becoming less a “party army” and more a “national army.”

David Finkelstein, Vice President and Director of China Studies at the CNA Corporation, ended the panel with a presentation on “China’s National Security Policymaking Capacity.” Finkelstein lamented that there was so much that we do not understand about the PLA. Still, he did offer the conclusion that China’s capacity to influence events abroad has expanded faster than the capacity of its institutions to manage these interests.

Finkelstein recounted how the PRC’s interests had become global and prolific as a result of the globalization of China’s economy, Beijing’s “going out” strategy, the PRC’s expanding international footprint resulting from these two developments, and China’s growing need for overseas resources. The PRC’s White Papers testify to these growing global interests.

At the same time, China’s interests have expanded faster than PRC institutions can manage them as effectively as Beijing would like. The PRC institutions suffer from “stressed capacity” due to increased demands on the institutions, which often challenge their existing structures, procedures, and resources.

The limited capacity of PRC institutions was evident in how employees of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) based overseas have been assigned a growing number of tasks. For example, they now had to provide many more consular services due to growing number of overseas Chinese workers, tourists, students, etc. The PRC also had to evacuate thousands of its citizens from Libya last year and help its nationals deal with more pirate attacks and kidnappings. Tellingly, the MFA recently had to establish a 24-hour crisis management center, following the pattern of other major global powers.

PLA writers also complain that they lack the institutional and organizational capacity to deal with the increasing number of missions they are being assigned. This problem is compounded by the fact that PLA officers typically remain more insular and travel less than their party or state equivalents.

The PRC also faces severe policy coordination problems with these institutions, manifested in turf-conscious bureaucracies, stove-piped processes, and poor horizontal communication. Even Chinese observers acknowledge significant bureaucratic infighting between the MFA and the PLA as well as uncertainty over how inter-agency processes resolve differences among bureaucratic actors. It is unclear whether any of the numerous “leading small groups” have the authority to resolve these differences, with the sole exception of the CCP Politburo, the party’s supreme policy making institution whose purview is naturally limited. For years the Chinese have discussed establishing a structure like the U.S. National Security Council, but this has not occurred. It appears that the bureaucratic resistance is too strong.

As a result, we have seen a series of recent instances in which coordination appears to have broken down and the military has taken actions that surprised the civilian authorities. In 2007, the PLA destroyed one of its own satellites, breaking a twenty-year international moratorium on testing anti-satellite weapons and, by producing an enormous quantity of space debris, placing the MFA in a difficult position. More recently, the PLA decided to conduct the first test of its new stealth fighter on the same day that U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was meeting the Chinese president in Beijing, resulting in reporters asking both men whether China was trying to send a warning to the Pentagon. In Africa and other developing regions, China’s state-owned companies act in exploitative ways that undermine the MFA’s good-will efforts towards those regions.

Finkelstein also described an expanding list of bureaucratic actors trying to influence national policy or acting under the radar of central authorities. As a result, China now has many bureaucratic bodies with overlapping and competing authorities. This is quite evident in the dozens of Chinese actors having some say in determining China’s maritime policies. Even the provincial governments and municipalities have their own foreign policies regarding many issues. One also sees a growing debate among Chinese over what are core the PRC’s national security interests and which ones should take priority when they come into conflict. This situation presents a confusing message to foreign audiences. For example, for the past two years, some Chinese have been using terms that describe the South China Sea as a core interest of China, whereas others have challenged this label. One purpose of the many speeches and white papers that Chinese state bodies are producing is to influence internal policy deliberations and ideally achieve a consensus.  Many Chinese are calling for a comprehensive PRC National Security Strategy to bring some closure to these disputed issues. This could be on the agenda of the next (fifth) generation of Chinese leaders.

According to Finkelstein, many factors have amplified the PLA’s influence in recent years over foreign and defense issues. China’s national security interests have expanded and its national leaders are demanding more of the military, including four years now of anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden, something few Western experts would have expected even a few years ago. A reinforcing development is that the PLA’s new capabilities are giving Chinese leaders more options and tools to use. For example, the improving capabilities of the PLA Navy have given the PRC government the option of dispatching a flotilla to the Gulf of Aden to protect Chinese ships from Somali-based pirates.

Other factors have meant that the PLA often has the upper hand in confrontations with the MFA.

The PLA has higher status than the MFA. For example, it has privileged access to PRC party and government leaders. The PLA also has seats on some of China’s highest decision making organs, including two seats on the Politburo. In contrast, the MFA mostly executes rather than determines policy.

In addition, the military has a monopoly over defense expertise since there are few civilian defense experts, even among PRC government officials, due to demographic changes that are removing the older generations who fought in the Chinese Civil War or the Korean War from top positions.

Finkelstein was ambivalent about how the PLA has used its increased bureaucratic room to maneuver. He termed the PLA not a “rogue actor,” but sometimes a “roguish actor,” exploiting the limited ability of PRC policy makers to coordinate policy development and execution. He sees considerable evidence that the PLA has had decisive influence even early in the policy making process. Finkelstein also said that the PLA has become increasingly skilled at media relations and that the PLA even owns some large media outlets. This media influence gives the PLA great potential to shape the views of Chinese citizens.

In sum, Finkelstein argues that both push and pull (supply and demand) factors are driving the PLA to act more overseas. In addition, one sees greater instances of “disconnects” between Chinese foreign and defense policies, with some egregious cases when their policies have conflicted at the expense of both sets of interests. The combined effect of all these recent developments is to call into question long-accepted maxims regarding China’s interests, strategies, and policies. Western analysts find it increasingly difficult to determine which Chinese officials and institutions determine policy in any given area. Even so, Finkelstein stressed the need for the U.S. defense establishment to keep trying to engage with China’s military institutions given its enhanced role in shaping China’s foreign and defense policies.

The moderator of this session, Ambassador Stapleton Roy, who is Director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, posed several questions for the panelists and audience to consider in their future research in this area:

  • To what extent does rising nationalism challenge Party control of the military?
  • How does the PLA deal with internal threats to PRC rule?
  • Has corruption in the Chinese Communist Party weakened its legitimacy in controlling the military or has corruption penetrated the military too?
  • Is Taiwan really seen as the key adversary target after the recent decrease in tensions or does the PLA now cite the United States as their main pacing target for developing their capabilities?
  • How do PLA leaders balance their internal institutional interests with the interests of China as a whole?