China's Military Reforms Advance Power Projection

by WILLIAM R. HAWKINS October 26, 2017

On the eve of the 19th Session of the Communist Party of China National Congress (CPCNC), all sectors of the country were mobilized to support the regime led by President Xi Jinping. The party's media outlet Global Times ran a story about the Children's Day letter campaign, featuring messages from primary school students to "Grandpa" Xi. One young girl had designed postage stamps themed around Xi's "socialist core values," writing about how she "realizes the significance of spreading such values across society." This was part of the official effort "to educate young pioneers to get ready for realizing the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation." At the party congress, which ran October 18-24, President Xi (who is also General Secretary of the CPC) was elected to a second five year term to fulfill his "China Dream" of becoming the world's leading power (though the much more formal phase "Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era." was added to the CPC constitution). Many believe that President Xi will not settle for the standard two terms but will seek at least a third in order to insure his "dream" is carried on.

In Washington, thinks tanks held events in anticipation of the CPCNC to examine what Beijing's rise means to the United States and to world order. On October 11, the Jamestown Foundation, whose sole focus is international relations, held its annual "China Defense and Security Conference." The main theme of the day-long meeting was the regime's military reform effort and its impact on the balance of power in Asia and beyond.

Using Chinese parlance, the reform effort involves both "above the neck" (training, organization, strategy and policy) and "below the neck" military muscle. China has been amassing new weapons and equipment, and is now rethinking how best to use them. On the surface, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) seems to be copying American models. For example, the PLA has moved away from divisions to combined arms brigades as the basic maneuver unit as the U.S. Army did some time ago. This has extended into the PLA Air Force where fighter and attack aircraft are now organized as brigades, though heavy bombers still operate in divisions. Brigades allow more flexibility and can be reinforced by additional battalions as the situation warrants. They also require lower commanders able to exercise initiative and who will be allowed to do so by higher authority, something communist armies have not done well. PLA units across the services still have political commissars attached to maintain party control.

Much has been written about the reduction of troop strength in the PLA, but this is not a sign of any slacking off in Beijing's military buildup. Reductions are coming primarily from bloated bureaucracy and a top-heavy command structure which President Xi considers to be corrupt. Throughout Chinese society, President Xi has been waging a campaign against corruption, worried that the sudden affluence of the nation's elite due to rapid economic growth will waken its nationalist fervor. Decadence will subvert resolve. He has also used corruption charges to remove political rivals. Replacing generals who he feels have gone soft with his own men fulfills both aims. He is also shifting some support functions to the civilian sector.

Another sweeping reform took place in February. China's sevens Military Regions were regrouped into five Theatre Commands. President Xi personally presented the new commanders with their flags in Beijing, expounding on the goal of "winning wars." The old regions risked becoming domestic fiefdoms, whereas the new theaters are designed to more actively deal with threats. The large western command contains the restive areas of Tibet and Xinjiang and faces India. Southern command has responsibility for the South China Sea and the Vietnam border. Eastern command faces Taiwan while Northern command includes the North Korean border. Central Command is the safeguard of Beijing and the Communist Party. 

In other reforms, the four military departments, General Staff, General Political, General Logistics and General Armaments, were reorganized into fifteen departments. The PLA's Second Artillery Corps, which controls strategic nuclear force, was elevated to the level of a service named Rocket Force. A Strategic Support Force Department has been set up which includes cyber warfare, intelligence and psychological operations, the topic of John Costello of Flashpoint Intel at the Jamestown conference. The aim is to streamline decisions while maintaining central control. More reforms in the Central Military Commission (CMC), which President Xi chairs, are in the works.

With these organizational changes, there has been a shift of resources from the army to the navy and air force marking an increase in power projection forces. This change did not start with President Xi, but with his predecessor Hu Jintao who proclaimed that China must become "a great maritime power." In a 2004 White Paper, The PLA Navy was given "new historic missions" in the open seas. It would develop a blue water fleet that would not just protect its own sea lanes but interdict those of others. The creation of island bases out of thin air in the South China Sea are one manifestation of this defense/offense posture as is having submarines patrol in the Indian Ocean and operating along the oil routes of the Middle East on the basis of fighting Somali pirates.

Rear Admiral Michael Devitt (Ret.) of the Center for Naval Analysis gave a sobering overview of Chinese fleet expansion during a period when U.S. Navy shipbuilding was not even keeping up with goals set during the placid post-Cold War era. Beijing has built 99 "blue water" warships since 2004 as well as 160 other ships for traditional naval service in coastal waters. Its second aircraft carrier is undergoing trials and a third is under construction, as are four large cruisers unlike anything the U.S. is currently building. By 2020, Devitt forecast that China would have the world's second largest "blue water" fleet. More pertinent, its fleet would outnumber what the U.S. and Japan combined have deployed in the Western Pacific. Backed up by air and missile units based in China's coastal regions (whose increasing capabilities were well covered by Ken Allen of the Chinese Aerospace Studies Institute), Beijing is poised to dominate the vital sea lanes out to the "first island chain" which runs from Japan through Taiwan and the Philippines to Indonesia and the critical Malacca Strait off Singapore.

Though most media attention has focused on the South China Sea, a panel of experts (Mark Stokes of Project 2049, Dr. Andrew Erickson of the Naval War College and Cristina Garafola of RAND) looked at China's rising militancy in the East China Sea which borders Japan and the Korean peninsula. A naval build up here and improved joint operations with the PLA Air Force should not be surprising. Domestic propaganda in China is intensely anti-Japanese and fills the popular media with movies and TV series based on past conflicts (as discussed by Dr. Willy Lam of the Jamestown Foundation on a later panel). During the 2010 Korean crisis, Beijing declared any movement of foreign warships in the area to be threat to China.

Professor Erickson mentioned two other areas of concern. He has long drawn attention to China's creation of a "maritime militia" as a third arm of the fleet. While posing as civilians; this force is clearly a government entity and is used to swarm into disputed territory. It should be remembered that the strategy game of China is GO, a game in which the accumulated effect of small moves that erode the "liberties" of rival pieces can suddenly swing control of large territories, the basis for ultimate victory.

Erickson was also the only speaker to explicitly argue that China may be building a two-ocean navy: Western Pacific and Indian Ocean. There is no stated limit in available Chinese official papers as to how large a fleet Beijing is building. The country has the world's largest shipbuilding industry and could continue to grow indefinitely. American leaders need to take a serious look at the full depth of the Chinese challenge.   

 The final panel of the Jamestown conference was devoted to Taiwan. China's expanding horizon does not mean any less determination in Beijing to take control of the island democracy. Indeed, President Xi's has made it clear that the "China Dream" cannot be realized until this is done. The strategic value of Taiwan is apparent. Its fall would break the "first island chain" and give Beijing a launch pad for further expansion. Having made many trips to Taiwan, I can attest to the desire of its fine people to remain free of the mainland's tyranny.

Taiwanese industry and technology are first rate, but the island cannot do everything. It needs American support to keep its defenses up and there should be no hesitation on this side of the Pacific to provide whatever the Taiwanese need. Japan should also be encouraged to do more as well; as relations between the two countries are strong. But, ultimately, only American power can contain Chinese aggression. This power must be credible, both in capabilities deployed in the region and in the will to use them seen to be residing in Washington. President Xi cannot be appeased, as he has staked his career on expansion; but he can and must be deterred.

William R. Hawkins is a consultant specializing in international economic and national security issues. He is a former economics professor and Republican Congressional staff member.


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