Author : Manoj Joshi

Originally Published 2014-02-07 06:58:01 Published on Feb 07, 2014
While the unified structure being adopted by China will lead to the strengthening of its military prowess to back up the country's global ambitions, in India, political waffling has so far prevented the emergence of a similar combined structure for its armed forces.
Joint command: Theme for a Chinese dream
" Earlier this month, a Japanese newspaper revealed that China was planning to drastically overhaul its military commands by restructuring the present seven military regions and the Second Artillery, which controls China's strategic forces, into five joint commands. Three of these would face the maritime areas of China in the East China Sea and the South China Sea while the other two would presumably look towards China's land-based adversaries, primary among these being India. Currently, the forces confronting us are primarily handled by the Chengdu military region, with a small part of Ladakh, including the Depsang Plains area, by the Lanzhou military region.

This report gained credence when a day later the China Daily cited the Chinese Ministry of Defence to confirm that China would implement a joint command system "in due course", and that it had already launched pilot schemes towards that end.

Curiously, over that weekend, the Chinese seemed to have had another thought and the Ministry of Defence declared that the earlier reports were "without basis." However, the tenor of the denial in the nationalist Global Times suggested that this disavowal was pro forma. In essence, the joint commands would be the equivalent of theatre commands where all four elements of military power — army, navy, air force and nuclear forces — would be wielded by a single commander through a unified command structure. At one level, it signals the growing sophistication of Chinese military thinking, and at another, the expansion of its military vision beyond its continental confines to the oceans and the airspace above.

Like all Chinese leaders, Xi Jinping, who became the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in November 2012, has displayed interest in military matters. The People's Liberation Army (PLA), as is well-known, owes its allegiance to the CPC and not China, the nation. Its importance to the party was reinforced by its role in the Tiananmen events in 1989. Leaders till Deng Xiaoping had been either PLA veterans or political commissars in the PLA.

In Xi's case, his father Xi Zhongxun was a noted revolutionary leader, who had led the PLA forces. More importantly, between 1979 and 1982 Xi junior had served as an assistant to Geng Biao, who was Secretary-General of the powerful Central Military Commission (CMC) , the body which oversees the PLA. As Xi set out to take command of the country, he made it a special mission to keep the PLA close to himself.

Modernising the PLA

Perhaps, the greatest indicator of this was his adoption of the notion of the "Chinese Dream" as his theme-song soon after he became the boss of the party and the military. The idea was the product of Colonel Liu Mingfu, a former professor at China's National Defence University, who wrote a book with the same name calling for policies that would enable China to surpass US as a world power. Xi's more guarded notion of the 'Chinese Dream' is the "rejuvenation" of the Chinese nation but it is clear from his remarks and policies that military power is an important component of this revival.

Xi became Chairman of the CMC at the same time that he took over as the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China in November 2012. He lost little time in stamping his authority over the PLA. Within two months, he carried out systematic personnel changes in key areas of the PLA command structure comprising four general departments and seven military regions, as well as passed orders to "administer the army with strictness and austerity." This is a process that has continued since.

Xi's views on matters military became apparent through his publicised tour to the Guangzhou military region in December 2012. This is the region that fronts to the South China Sea where China has made extravagant maritime boundary claims that affect Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. Interestingly, the official media used the term Guangzhou War Theatre, rather than Military Region.

Xi's message was that the state would give the PLA everything to modernise itself but in turn it wanted two things in return — an army, which would win the wars it fought, and, perhaps more important, one that was completely loyal to the Communist Party of China. To this end, the PLA needed to beef up its institutional structures and train under realistic conditions of combat and in what the Chinese call "informationised" (information technology) conditions.

As the official PLA daily quoted Xi, "We must ensure that our troops are ready when called upon, that they are fully capable of fighting, and that they must win every war."

Apart from professional ability and loyalty, Xi has stressed the need for the PLA to change its entire culture and adopt a style of "frugality and austerity." In December 2012, the PLA also passed its "Ten regulations on improving the work style of the PLA" which formally banned liquor in PLA functions, forbade the holding of big banquets and called on the PLA brass to adopt a simple style in their inspection tours.

Subsequently, in April 2013, new instructions were issued ordering the PLA and People's Armed Police generals and senior officers to spend two weeks in the frontline as enlisted soldiers. Regiment and brigade commanders were called on to do this once in three years, the division and corps commanders once in four years and higher leaders from the headquarters and military regions and districts once in five years. The idea of declassing is, of course, part and parcel of Maoist practice. But the PLA had generally been exempted from the humiliating periods when they were forced to undertake menial labour.

To go back to the issue of the joint command: Actually, the Japanese report was probably triggered by the Chinese Ministry of Defence press conference of November 28, 2013, when the spokesperson, Yang Yujun had said the PLA would deepen reform in good time, "and blaze a trail in reform on a joint operation command system with Chinese characteristics." He had gone on to add that joint operations were a compulsion of modern information-led warfare and that "the Chinese military has made explorations in that field."

Autonomous military regions

Since the emergence of the People's Republic, the number of military regions have waxed and waned from six to start with to 13 for a brief while, finally stabilising at seven in the mid-1980s. Given the way they thought of war, the Chinese deliberately made these military regions autonomous, capable of fighting a war without a central direction.

But with the compulsion of fighting highly mobile war in "informationised" conditions, as well as to take on new aerospace and maritime threats, the Chinese clearly feel the need to reorient their forces, which have become increasingly sophisticated, away from its historical reliance on ground forces, towards a command structure that can take advantage of their new capabilities over land, sea and space.

This issue has come up in the background of the Third Plenum of the Communist Party Central Committee that had taken place two weeks earlier in November 2012. While the emphasis, and a great deal of reportage, of the Plenum was on economic and governance reform, there were important decisions taken in relation to national security. For one, China had announced the creation of a National Security Council-like structure to deal with challenges in internal and external security.

The Plenum directives reiterated what Xi had been telling the PLA from the time he had taken charge: The government would clear all obstacles to PLA modernisation but the PLA itself had to reorganise, adopt new doctrines, even while remaining a force which "obeys the Party's command, is capable of winning battles and has a sound work style." Since then, writing in the Chinese media revealed that the thrust of the reform was in three areas — first, reforming the leadership mechanism in the PLA, second, optimising the size and structure of the forces and third, developing a more comprehensive education system to cultivate advanced military thinking.

The Indian dilemma

There is an interesting coincidence here since a great deal of Indian thinking and reform measures, too, have suggested the eventual move of our armed forces to the integrated theatre command concept.

Based on recommendations of the GoM that it had set up in April 2000, the NDA's Cabinet Committee on Security approved the creation of several apex new institutions and management organisations, which also laid stress on greater coordination and jointness. Among these were the Chief of Defence Staff, the Strategic Forces Command to manage all strategic forces, and a tri-Service Andaman & Nicobar Command. The CDS was the beginning point from which the Indian military would be restructured to create tri-Service theatre commands.

A committee headed by former Cabinet Secretary Naresh Chandra has also recommended the creation of a CDS-like figure. Sadly, political waffling has prevented the appointment of the CDS-like figure and hence organisational reforms that would see the emergence of theatre commands in the Indian military system remain frozen.

All military reform usually descends from the political system. Generals, as the saying goes, only tend to learn to fight the last war better. In China, clearly, the party is ensuring that its global ambitions will be backed by a military, which has the wherewithal to confront global challenges. In India, the political class has taken a leave of absence from managing the national security apparatus altogether.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi. He was a member of the Naresh Chandra Task Force on national security)

Courtesy: The Tribune, February 7, 2014

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Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow at the ORF. He has been a journalist specialising on national and international politics and is a commentator and ...

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