The recent military reforms in China appears to have given President Xi Jinping a better hold over the armed forces, according to Lt. Gen. S.L. Narsimhan (Retd.), presently a member of the National Security Advisory Board.
Speaking at a workshop on ‘China’s Military Modernization: Recent Trends’ at Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, Lt. Gen. Narsimhan said China is now entering new domains (space, cyber) with the goal of increasing its influence not only in the region but also in the world, paving the way to make China a strong power to reckon with.
Lt. Gen. Narsimhan’s presentation focused on the new perspectives as far as the recent military reforms in China are concerned. He said post reforms, directed towards the modernisation of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), sweeping changes have been announced in the operational structure in the Chinese military with a reorganization of the Ministry of Defence. The seven military regions in China-have been reorganised into five theatre commands namely the East, West, South, North, and Middle battle zones. Troops have also been reduced. However, according to Lt. Gen. Narsimhan, one of the major concerns for the PLA remains the optimisation of the operational force to achieve enhanced jointness and efficiency.
Saying the challenges faced by the Chinese security establishment are many, Lt. Gen. Narsimhan listed the major ones. The most important challenge is the doctrinal changes that have been introduced which stand in contradiction with the structures within which they operate. The doctrine proposes decentralisation while the operational culture focuses on centralisation. There is also a lack of Joint Command and Staff Personnel, who train, plan and execute jointly. The reforms have also proposed a reorganisation of the Group Army Divisions and Brigades. The PLA has reduced force levels to 30 divisions with the introduction of a new Ranking system because of the incompatibility of the earlier one with armies around the world.
He also spoke about the future trajectories for the PLA which include a modernised armed force within an improved integrated operational structure. This would, however, mean a greater danger to the Central Asian Republics and increased power projection in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). His closing remarks focused on how the will to reform the existing structures and the process of self-assessment by identifying the gaps in PLA will go a long way to build a stronger Chinese military in the future.
Mr. Pravin Sawhney, the author of ‘Dragon on Our Doorstep: Dealing with China through Military Power’, focused on the purpose of the military modernisation in China and its execution. He pointed out that since 2008 the PLA has adopted an assertive foreign policy. The need for modernisation has arisen to safeguard the assets and interests of Chinese people in nations that are a part of the one belt one road in the Eurasian and Western Pacific oceans, through regular interactions, military exercises and military exchange programmes with the aim of developing intra-operability through the commonality of the equipment that China exports to these countries.
He said to meet the new roles, the PLA is seeking a transformational shift to win what they have termed as informationised local wars. The PLA is emphasising a network centricity of all weapons systems of land, sea and air, which are connected in real time for the protection of assets. The PLA’s emphasis is on non-contact wars and the development of a strong navy, army aviation, and the conduct of special warfare operations in far seas. Joint command at the highest combat level is most important. There is now a separation between the conventional and nuclear chain of command. To provide better combat support there are also deliberations regarding the creation of a PLA strategic force.
According to Mr. Sawhney, what is relevant for India though is the establishment of the Tibetan military command. He believes that a two-front war is no longer relevant for India, as we should be looking at a one front war supported by other arms especially in strategic capabilities, operational logistics and cyberspace. Beijing’s policy of a non-contact war will not only help in diplomatic and military coercion but it will also challenge US supremacy. The Chinese establishment is paying a lot of attention to the political and psychological dimensions of warfare.
Dr. Manoj Joshi, who chaired the discussion, gave his take on China’s military reforms. He pointed out how 2049 is the year China envisions becoming an accepted world power and China is working very hard to achieve this goal. He analysed China’s foreign policy objectives, the major thrust of which has been to increase China’s influence. The Central Military Commission (CMC) reforms, Dr. Joshi, believes will result in flattening of the higher management. The major priority, however, remains the development of a second strike capability in case of a nuclear war with the US.
He said China sees space capabilities as a means to obtain intelligence and the offensive military power. Beijing has developed the Beidou system as an integral part of its military planning. China is making large investments; to develop ballistic missiles capable of destroying geo-synchronous satellites; high-energy weapons; laser technology and high power microwave systems. China in the words of Dr. Joshi is strengthening capabilities and shifting focus from an Informationised War to what he calls an Intelligencised War. In the field of Artificial Intelligence China has surpassed the US, by developing over the horizon technologies. China launched its first Quantum Communication satellite in August 2016, a technology that is not fully developed. China has already tested the XPNAV satellite with pulsar navigation technology that NASA is still developing.
The speakers noted that China, which was earlier known for cloning Western technology, has taken a leap ahead and is developing its own technology utilising innovative ideas. They agreed that China is on a progressive course to transform itself into a strong military power, though how it achieves the same remains uncertain.
This report is prepared by Maleeha Mukhtar, Research Intern, Observer Research Foundation, Delhi