All China will be expected to stand to attention today to salute the 2.3 million strong People’s Liberation Army on its 90th birthday as the drums of war are starting to beat at opposite ends of the vast nation.
China is bolstering its defenses along its 1420km border with North Korea, establishing a new border defense brigade, building bunkers against nuclear and chemical weapons, and deploying drones, as the world ponders how to respond to the latest launch by Pyongyang last weekend of an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching New York or Melbourne.
Last weekend China’s North Sea Fleet held a live-fire exercise covering 40,000sq km off the coast of Qingdao to the west of the Korean Peninsula.
And 3000 PLA soldiers are engaged in an increasingly testy stand-off against an Indian Army force over a border dispute high in the Himalayas.
Defence Ministry spokesman Colonel Wu Qian warned India last week: “Don’t push your luck. Shaking a mountain is easy, but shaking the PLA is hard.”
China’s military has never been busier, at home and abroad, as it rapidly modernizes and projects its new-found capacities globally to meet paramount leader President Xi Jinping’s soaring expectations that it will spearhead the realization of his “China dream” of glory.
On Sunday Xi, chairman of the Central Military Commission that controls the army and commander-in-chief of the PLA’s new Joint Battle Command, donned combat fatigues and a peaked cap to receive the pledges of loyalty and commitment to “serve the people” of 12,000 troops at China’s biggest military base, at Zhurihe in Inner Mongolia, 400km north west of Beijing.
Covered live on every state broadcasting platform, the massive parade of armed might, placed in the context of the PLA anniversary, is dominating China’s mass media this week.
After the parade, which featured tanks, helicopters, J-20 stealth jet fighters and a new, more mobile ICBM, Xi told the troops: “The world is not peaceful” — but China stands on the verge of restored greatness.
“Today we are closer than any other period in history to the goal of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, and we need more than any period in history to build a strong people’s military,” he said.
China’s communist leaders remain convinced the PLA is all that stood between their party in 1989 and the fate that befell the Soviet Communist Party the following year.
They have rewarded the army since its deployment to Tiananmen Square in Beijing and elsewhere in China to crush demonstrators calling for greater freedoms and accountability, increasing its budget by an average 10 per cent a year.
During this same period, however, the PLA gradually has been squeezed out of its former substantial commercial interests, especially in real estate — although this was arranged in a way that gave officers the choice of pursuing a business rather than an army career, and ensured that few if any lost revenues or assets during the transition to a more purely militarily focused disciplined service.
China as a nation does not have an army. The PLA is the party’s army, as the plethora of commemorative events this week will underline.
A recent article in party-owned newspaper Global Times explains that “calls for the nationalization of the army, which mostly came from those who wish to see fundamental changes in China’s political system, have tapered off recently”.
It says that in the run-up to the crucial 19th national congress of the party — when Xi’s power will be consolidated — “the PLA has repeatedly sworn allegiance to the party’s central committee”. Senior PLA officers have vowed, it says, “firmly to follow the party’s central committee and President Xi Jinping”. The army is becoming “even more loyal” to the party.
A soldier with the border force in Tibet, who gives only his family name, Xu, agrees, saying party members in the army are required to learn Xi’s sayings, “and to be able to tell two stories about Xi”.
Sergeant-Major Zhao Yunxiao, a delegate to the previous national party congress, where 13 per cent were from the PLA — explains that army promotions are decided at party branch meetings.
Major General Peng Guangqian says: “We should learn the lessons from the collapse of the Soviet Union, in which the Communist Party gave up its leadership over the army. We have been stressing … the party commanding the gun.”
The PLA reports not to the State Council or cabinet, which is the supreme body responsible for all government departments and agencies, but to two Central Military Commissions, one part of the state and the other of the party.
In practice, these bodies never meet separately, since their membership is exactly the same — except for the few months between a five-yearly party congress and the ensuing National People’s Congress or parliament, which formalizes new state CMC members.
The present CMC has 12 members: Xi, two vice-chairmen, and nine members. All except Xi are generals, including the Defence Minister, who is General Chang Wanquan.
Xi’s signature anti-corruption campaign has not spared top army officers. The two top generals, Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou, who were vice-chairmen of the CMC when Xi became China’s leader five years ago, were charged with corruption. The former received a life sentence; the latter died while facing a court martial.
Xi also has led a restructuring of the PLA, widely viewed as his most successful single reform program.
He created a joint staff directly attached to the CMC. He replaced four general headquarters of the PLA with 15 functional departments. He reorganized China’s seven military regions, which principally administered ground troops, into five theatre commands that coordinate all services in their areas.
He consolidated the army into five services: the ground force with its own new separate HQ, navy, air force, rocket force and strategic support force.
And he is cutting the total military size by 300,000 personnel to two million while upgrading the remaining force’s access to and training for modern resources.
Xi, whose catchphrase “the China dream” conceives of a nation rediscovering its former glory, has consistently pushed this restructured PLA to accompany China’s businesses — especially its state-owned enterprises — in spearheading the country’s thrust towards global ubiquity.
The PLA has participated in 24 UN peacekeeping missions, involving 31,000 military personnel, 13 of whom have died in duty. In the past decade, the navy has dispatched 26 escort task force groups, including more than 70 ships, for escort missions in the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia. The PLA recently sent to Djibouti its initial deployment of military personnel for its first overseas military base, which it began building last year.
Xinhua news agency says: “The base will ensure China’s performance of missions such as escorting, peacekeeping and humanitarian aid in Africa and west Asia … and military cooperation, joint exercises, evacuating and protecting overseas Chinese and emergency rescue, as well as jointly maintaining the security of international strategic seaways.”
Last week the PLA sent three warships led by guided missile destroyer Hefei, one of its Navy’s most advanced vessels, to participate in a joint exercise in the Baltic Sea with a Russian fleet — China’s first such engagement in European inland waters.
Global Times says the navy “will surely get stronger and stronger and march further and further, which the West should get used to.”
Song Zhongping, a Beijing-based military expert who formerly served with the People’s Liberation Army’s rocket force, says China’s naval forces will protect the country’s overseas interests, “especially under the Belt and Road Initiative”.
Fu Mengzi and Xu Gag wrote in a Foreign Ministry think tank magazine last month that “military and police forces need to ‘go global’ with Chinese firms” as a core part of Belt and Road, with “concrete security provisions included in bilateral trade and investment agreements”.
Hu Bo, a researcher with Peking University Ocean Strategy Research Centre, urges China also to “send more submarines to the Indian Ocean to make concerned countries get used to their presence in that region”.
A week ago, Australia’s Defence Department revealed that a Chinese navy Type 815 Dongdiao class intelligence-gathering vessel had been sighted “in the vicinity” of the Talisman Sabre 17 exercise involving about 33,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines from Australia, the US, New Zealand, Japan, and Canada, centred in the Rockhampton area.
Such patrolling in Western waters may be an ideal response to Western interventions in the South China Sea, Global Times says: “In the future, Chinese warships should be able to go to waters off Guam, Hawaii, the Caribbean Sea, or even to the San Diego base on the US west coast.”
The country is building and selling abroad large numbers of military drones and has become the third largest arms seller.
The PLA played the central role in Xi’s recent visit to Hong Kong to mark the 20th anniversary of the handover from Britain, his inspection of the garrison comprising the most striking event, and with China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, also making its first visit to the city.
Xi praised this growing, innovative global role of the PLA when he led China’s top leaders, 10 days ago, in visiting a Beijing exhibition celebrating the army’s 90th anniversary. He said there: “We should remember the glorious history, inherit the red gene, and advance the great cause initiated by the older generations of revolutionaries from a new starting point.”
On Friday night the leaders attended a gala concert at the Great Hall of the People that depicted the Army’s story in song and dance.
A government-made action-focused feature film, The Founding of an Army, about the PLA’s birth, has just been released throughout China, in cinemas that have been instructed to ensure that it immediately soars to the top of box office lists — which may require the cinemas to bolster the audience takings.
But descendants of key founding PNA generals have complained that the film, whose producers they say “hired an entertainment movie director”, distorts revolutionary history.
David Martin Jones, formerly of the University of Queensland and now a visiting professor at the war studies department at London University’s King’s College, tells The Australian: “The party recognises not only that power comes out of the barrel of a gun but that the gun must be kept in good order and regularly improved.”
The party legend, he says, holds that when the military was weak China was humiliated. Now that China is rich, it is not surprising it has revolutionized its military technology, especially its force projection capacity.
Since 2010, China’s real military strength increasingly has been vested, he says, in its “anti-access/area denial” capabilities.
The strategy involves ground attack and anti-ship missiles, a growing fleet of modern submarines, and cyber and anti-satellite weapons to destroy or disable another nation’s military assets from afar.
“The ultimate aim is to render American power projection in Asia riskier and more costly,” he says, “so that America’s allies would no longer be able to rely on it to deter aggression or to combat subtle forms of coercion. It would also enable China to carry out its repeated threat to take over Taiwan if the island were ever to declare formal independence.”
To realize Xi’s China dream of eventual major power status, Jones says, “China must achieve the regional hegemony it enjoyed prior to the appearance of the western barbarians during the Qing dynasty.”
He says this dream involves “the preferred Chinese method” of both carrots — giving access to Chinese investment and the Belt and Road scheme — and stick, punishing or isolating countries that reject China’s regional claims.
China’s top foreign affairs leader Yang Jiechi observed at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting in 2010: “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that is just a fact.”
Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, says: “The PLA is modernizing at a fast pace. President Xi’s most significant initiative for the military has been to create a joint command structure, meaning that the PLA is thinking hard about how it would fight a modern war.”
He says the PLA’s biggest risks are “overconfidence and a lack of real war fighting experience”.
It also is stretched very thin, he says, attempting to project power everywhere from Africa to the Arctic and even into space.
“Believing your own propaganda is a dangerous thing for a young and inexperienced military with no allies abroad other than North Korea,” Jennings says.
He also emphasizes that the West “shouldn’t underestimate the PLA’s growing military power, particularly its missile and naval capabilities, which means that China has a very credible ability to dominate the air and sea space within the so-called first island chain that dominates the sea approaches”.
Xi himself summed up last week that “bold and resolute” reform had “achieved historic breakthroughs in major fields, pumping great power into building a strong army”.
PLA: BY THE NUMBERS
Personnel: 2.3 million volunteers
Motto: Serve the People
Insignia: Red star with characters for 8 1 — meaning August 1, the first PLA action, in 1927
Services: Ground force (1.6 million soldiers), navy including marines, air force, rocket force controlling missiles including nuclear arsenal, strategic support force including hi-tech operations
Theatre Commands: Eastern, Western, Northern, Southern, Central
Budget: $270 billion (but there are claims that this official figure conceals a much larger sum)
Chairman of Central Military Commission: President Xi Jinping
Vice-Chairmen: General Fan Changlong, air force General Xu Qiliang