All posts by Ching Chang

PRC Defense Policy Noted in the Nineteenth CCP National Congress

China’s Defense and Foreign Policy Topic Week

By Ching Chang

Predicted Event and Statements

The Nineteenth National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party and its subsequent First Plenary Session of the Central Committee was concluded as scheduled in late October 2017. As predicted, the Secretary General of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping, on behalf of the Eighteenth Central Committee, delivered the working report at the Nineteenth National Congress on October 18, 2017. This report was titled Secure a Decisive Victory in Building a Moderately Prosperous Society in All Respects and Strive for the Great Success of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era describes all the previous major efforts and achievements completed in the past five years with retrospective perspectives. Nonetheless, certain visions were also noted in the same report.

For instance, in Xi’s report, he has addressed that, “We have initiated a new stage in strengthening and revitalizing the armed forces.” To elaborate this concern more detail, this report noted:

With a view to realizing the Chinese Dream and the dream of building a powerful military, we have developed a strategy for the military under new circumstances, and have made every effort to modernize national defense and the armed forces. We convened the Gutian military political work meeting to revive and pass on the proud traditions and fine conduct of our Party and our armed forces, and have seen a strong improvement in the political integrity of the people’s armed forces. Historic breakthroughs have been made in reforming national defense and the armed forces: a new military structure has been established with the Central Military Commission exercising overall leadership, the theater commands responsible for military operations, and the services focusing on developing capabilities. This represents a revolutionary restructuring of the organization and the services of the people’s armed forces. We have strengthened military training and war preparedness, and undertaken major missions related to the protection of maritime rights, countering terrorism, maintaining stability, disaster rescue and relief, international peacekeeping, escort services in the Gulf of Aden, and humanitarian assistance. We have stepped up weapons and equipment development, and made major progress in enhancing military preparedness. The people’s armed forces have taken solid strides on the path of building a powerful military with Chinese characteristics.”

Later, Xi further emphasized the goal of the Chinese Communist Party, that “… the Party’s goal of building a strong military in the new era is to build the people’s forces into world-class forces that obey the Party’s command, can fight and win, and maintain excellent conduct.” In the eleventh point of his “Fourteen Upholding Issues” titled Upholding Absolute Party Leadership over the People’s Forces, Xi addressed that,

“Building people’s forces that obey the Party’s command, can fight and win, and maintain excellent conduct is strategically important to achieving the two centenary goals and national rejuvenation. To realize the Party’s goal of building a powerful military in the new era, we must fully implement the fundamental principles and systems of Party leadership over the military, and see that Party strategy on strengthening military capabilities for the new era guides work to build national defense and the armed forces. We must continue to enhance the political loyalty of the armed forces, strengthen them through reform and technology, and run them in accordance with law. We must place greater focus on combat, encourage innovation, build systems, increase efficacy and efficiency, and further military-civilian integration.

Finally, in Chapter Ten of Xi’s report titled Staying Committed to the Chinese Path of Building Strong Armed Forces and Fully Advancing the Modernization of National Defense and the Military, Xi repeatedly underscored the following efforts for the future:

“We have reached a new historical starting point in strengthening national defense and the armed forces. Confronted with profound changes in our national security environment and responding to the demands of the day for a strong country with a strong military, we must fully implement the Party’s thinking on strengthening the military for the new era, adapt military strategy to new conditions, build a powerful and modernized army, navy, air force, rocket force, and strategic support force, develop strong and efficient joint operations commanding institutions for theater commands, and create a modern combat system with distinctive Chinese characteristics. Our armed forces must be up to shouldering the missions and tasks of the new era entrusted to them by the Party and the people.

Xi also concluded that, “We will adapt to the trend of a new global military revolution and to national security needs; we will upgrade our military capabilities, and see that, by the year 2020, mechanization is basically achieved, IT application has come a long way, and strategic capabilities have seen a big improvement. In step with our country’s modernization process, we will modernize our military across the board in terms of theory, organizational structure, service personnel, and weaponry. We will make it our mission to see that by 2035, the modernization of our national defense and our forces is basically completed; and that by the mid-21st century our people’s armed forces have been fully transformed into world-class forces.

Regarding the party leadership above the military, Xi insisted that, “We will strengthen Party building in the military. We will launch activities with the theme of passing on the traditions of revolution; stepping up to the task of making the military strong. We will move forward with the development of the military honors system. We will train the revolutionary officers and soldiers of a new era with faith, ability, courage, and integrity, and see that our forces forever preserve their nature, purpose, and character as the forces of the people.” Indeed, it is no surprise to readdress the principle of “party commands the gun” that emphasizes the party leadership within military command authorities.

For deepening national defense and military reform, Xi signified that, “We will continue to deepen national defense and military reform. We will further the reform of major policy systems, including the career officers system and the system for posting civilian personnel in the military. We will push ahead with transformation of military management, and improve and develop our distinctively Chinese socialist military institutions. We must keep it firm in our minds that technology is the core combat capability, encourage innovations in major technologies, and conduct innovations independently. We will strengthen the system for training military personnel, and make our people’s forces more innovative. We will govern the military with strict discipline in every respect, push for a fundamental transformation in the way our military is run, and strengthen the role of rule of law in enhancing national defense and military capabilities.

For the basic goal of the military, Xi also reminded that, “A military is built to fight. Our military must regard combat capability as the criterion to meet in all its work and focus on how to win when it is called on. We will take solid steps to ensure military preparedness for all strategic directions, and make progress in combat readiness in both traditional and new security fields. We will develop new combat forces and support forces, conduct military training under combat conditions, strengthen the application of military strength, speed up development of intelligent military, and improve combat capabilities for joint operations based on network information systems and the ability to fight under multi-dimensional conditions. This will enable us to effectively shape our military posture, manage crises, and deter and win wars.

Of course, Xi also adopted the following statements to boost the morale of the military and armed police force members:

“We should ensure that efforts to make our country prosperous and efforts to make our military strong go hand in hand. We will strengthen unified leadership, top-level design, reform, and innovation. We will speed up implementation of major projects, deepen reform of defense-related science, technology, and industry, achieve greater military-civilian integration, and build integrated national strategies and strategic capabilities. We will improve our national defense mobilization system, and build a strong, well-structured, and modern border defense, coastal defense, and air defense. We will establish an administration for veterans; we will protect the legitimate rights and interests of military personnel and their families; and we will make military service an occupation that enjoys public respect. We will carry out further reforms to build a modernized armed police force.

Eventually, Xi concluded with a sensational statement to readdress his vision of fulfilling the dream of building a powerful military: “Comrades, our military is the people’s military, and our national defense is the responsibility of every one of us. We must raise public awareness about the importance of national defense and strengthen unity between the government and the military and between the people and the military. Let us work together to create a mighty force for realizing the Chinese Dream and the dream of building a powerful military.”

Frankly speaking, no particular new idea related to the defense policy was disclosed by Xi in this report except two deadlines of force building. However, it is still important for political observers and military analysts to read the above contents for understanding the direction and goals of Chinese military policy.

Assessing Future Developments

It is quite hard to digest specific substance on policies from the statements shown above though they were quite inspirational to the members of the People’s Liberation Army. We should understand that a cover-all report of this type delivered in the vital political assembly may not necessarily reflect all the essential details associated with any specific policy. Nevertheless, we may still offer several credible assessments.

The first feature possibly concluded from the aforementioned text is that most present ongoing efforts within the Chinese defense communities will remain unchanged. These efforts include deepening national defense and military reform as well as military-civilian integration. Stability and continuity of the policies around these two dimensions can be expected in the foreseeable future.

The second feature emphasized by Xi is the relationship between the party and military. Particularly, the party leadership over the military has been repeated for several times in Xi’s report. We may also expect this iron rule of the party-military relationship will not change as long as the Chinese Communist Party still retains its governing power in China. Whether this insistence of party leadership may affect the military professionalism of the People’s Liberation Army is an issue worth of continuing observations.

Last but not least; two deadlines, 2020 and 2035, were emphasized for separate objectives in Xi’s report for force building. The details of these efforts require more attention for clarifying the objectives attached to these two deadlines. How this two-stage force building vision possibly affect future developments of the People’s Liberation Army is still obscure to many though plausible speculations have already emerged.

Conclusion: Uncertainties Still Exist

One swallow does not make a summer, neither a single speech, even though it was delivered by the highest PRC leadership, could cover all the contents of the defense policies associated with the People’s Liberation Army. Many policies are fundamentally adaptive and circumstantial. There are many uncertainties around Chinese defense policies before these two newly declared deadlines. Two existing efforts of deepening national defense and military reform as well as civilian-military integration are basically unstoppable for now. The party-military relationship remains compatible to the political culture of the Chinese communist regime for the time being and will likely be retained into the future. Nonetheless, uncertainties remain and nobody may have the crystal ball to tell what exactly the future development of the Chinese defense apparatus entails.

Dr. Ching Chang was a line officer in the Republic of China Navy for more than thirty years. As a very productive commentator on the Chinese military affairs, he is recognized as a leading expert on the Peoples Liberation Army with unique insights on its military thinking.

Featured Image: In this November 3, 2017 photo released by China’s Xinhua news agency, President Xi Jinping (center) visits the Central Military Commission in Beijing as part of an inspection tour. (AP)

The CCP National Congress: Milestone for Policy Revision?

Dr. Ching Chang

The Coming Power Reshuffle

The Nineteenth National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party will be held on October 18, 2017. As many China political observers already know, the Communist Party National Congress itself and the First Plenary Session of the Nineteenth National Congress of the Communist Party of China that gathers immediately after the National Congress will be the defining event for the reallocation of power for the next five years.

This National Congress will select new membership for the Central Committee, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, and the subsequent First Session of the Central Committee will select Politburo, Politburo Standing Committee, and party Secretariat members. It will also decide on the members of the Military Commission of the Central Committee, in addition to leadership selection such as the General Secretary. Additionally, many states that are tightly associated or affected by future Chinese political maneuvers are concerned about whether any new policy will also be formulated through the same mechanisms.

This article will provide certain credible references as the basis to judge the possibility of revising existing policies by scrutinizing the institutions of these two meetings and reviewing actual practices of previous similar meetings. Whether these two meetings can become platforms for substantial policy discussion, debate, and reconciliation is the core matter that needs to be understood in order to identify any PRC policy revision and grasp a more overt picture of how the Chinese Communist Party manages their political and power transitions. Yet this still might not be necessarily implying any immediate policy shifts and adjustments.

Examining the Nature from the Institutions

It is necessary to review the Chinese Communist Party Constitution to understand the nature of the National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. According to Article 19 of the Constitution:

The functions and powers of the National Congress of the Party are as follows: 1. To hear and examine the reports of the Central Committee; 2. To hear and examine the reports of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection; 3. To discuss and decide on major questions concerning the Party; 4. To revise the Constitution of the Party; 5. To elect the Central Committee; and 6. To elect the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.

As we review the meeting records of previous Chinese Communist Party National Congresses, we may notice that all six functions and powers have been well exercised except the third one which is, “To discuss and decide on major questions concerning the Party.” This is actually the only function that contains the possibility of formulating or revising policies, yet it is rarely utilized in previous congressional agendas. The first and the second functions are fundamentally a top-down model of political communication and the examination process is in essence a formality conducted by applauding. The fourth function is focused on internal institutions by setting operational rules within the party and hardly associated with any policy toward the outside world. And finally, the fifth and the sixth functions are basically serving the purpose of internal power reallocation. We therefore hardly find any trace of substantial policy formulation.

Nonetheless, the first function of the Party General Secretary is to identify certain elaborations and interpretations of policies. For instance, Hu Jintao, in his capacity as the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, delivered his report to the Eighteenth National Congress of the Communist Party of China titled, “Firmly March on the Path of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics and Strive to Complete the Building of a Moderately Prosperous Society in all Respects” (堅定不移沿著中國特色社會主義道路前進,為全面建成小康社會而奮鬥) on Nov 8, 2012, is a typical case of identifying the contents of PRC’s policies.

The major portion of this policy report may address domestic issues. Nevertheless, contents mainly within several chapters of this report such as the Chapter IX, “Accelerating the Modernization of National Defense and the Armed Forces” (加快推進國防和軍隊現代化), Chapter X, “Enriching the Practice of ‘One Country, Two Systems’ and Advancing China’s Reunification” (豐富”一國兩制”實踐和推進祖國統一) and Chapter XI, “Continuing to Promote the Noble Cause of Peace and Development of Mankind” (繼續促進人類和平與發展的崇高事業) may naturally trigger concerns from  international audiences.

There are several features we should address here to remind the readers that these statements within the report are not the result of policy formulation process contained by the meeting agenda. First, the contents of the report are concluded from the actual practices during the period of the previous Central Committee still in power. The perspectives are more or less retrospective and relatively less prospective in nature. Second, it is a report delivered by the party General Secretary of the past five-year term Central Committee. Unless the same General Secretary of the party extends for another term for five years, power may pass to new leadership right after the party National Congress. Although there certain elements of policy continuity may exist, the contents revealed by the report are no assurance for their applicability in the future.

And last, it is a unilateral political communication, not a multilateral discussion at all. It therefore could not be a result of a policy review occurred within the National Congress itself. We may expect Xi Jinping will follow the same modus operandi to conclude all his achievements in his previous five-year term and mention still valid policies for his next term. The possibility of declaring new policy is relatively low since no proper policy review is likely to happen in this enormous political gathering. There also is no meeting agenda to accommodate any provisional policy proposal.

As for the First Plenary Session of the Nineteenth National Congress expected to be held right after the National Congress, its main mission at this period is to select new leadership for the party, not revise or promulgate new policies. According to Article 22 of the present Constitution of the Chinese Communist Party:

The Political Bureau, the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau and the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Party are elected by the Central Committee in plenary session. The General Secretary of the Central Committee must be a member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau. When the Central Committee is not in session, the Political Bureau and its Standing Committee exercise the functions and powers of the Central Committee. The Secretariat of the Central Committee is the working body of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee and its Standing Committee.

The members of the Secretariat are nominated by the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee and are subject to endorsement by the Central Committee in plenary session. The General Secretary of the Central Committee is responsible for convening the meetings of the Political Bureau and its Standing Committee and presides over the work of the Secretariat. The members of the Military Commission of the Central Committee are decided on by the Central Committee.

It is also noted at the end of the same article that, “The central leading bodies and leaders elected by each Central Committee shall, when the next National Congress is in session, continue to preside over the Party’s day-to-day work until the new central leading bodies and leaders are elected by the next Central Committee.

Obviously, the power rearrangement is the major concern for the First Plenary Session of the Chinese Communist Party Nineteenth National Congress. Although it is clearly noted in  Article 21 of the present Chinese Communist Party Constitution, “The Central Committee of the Party meets in plenary session at least once a year, and such sessions are convened by its Political Bureau. The Political Bureau reports its work to these sessions and accepts their oversight,” it is not always practical to conduct these for the First Plenary Session of each party National Congress since the members of the Central Committee and the Politburo are newly elected at the moment. We therefore may expect that no policy review and reformulation process will be exercised during the coming First Plenary Session of the Chinese Communist Party Nineteenth National Congress.

Assessing Meeting Practices

Reviewing actual meeting practices, we may also assess whether the Chinese Communist Party National Congress and its subsequent First Plenary Session of the Central Committee can be a platform for policy revision and formulation. As many political observers have already concluded, although the Chinese Communist Party National Congress and the Central Committee are theoretically the highest political power mechanism as noted by Article 10, Point 3 of the CCP Constitution: “The highest leading body of the Party is the National Congress and the Central Committee elected by it,” all the important decisions including personnel arrangements and policy stances are generally settled before the actual meetings. After all, the actual political practices are the consequences jointly achieved by political institutions and political culture together. Hidden rules in human societies always exist.

Premier Li Keqiang delivers a speech during the National People’s Congress in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. (AFP)

So far, the Chinese Communist Party has persistently tried to keep a harmonic and systematic power transition process since Deng Xiaoping in the mid-1980s though this political design was still unavoidably disrupted by the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989.  The routine CCP National Congress may always attract international media attention simply because it has the capacity to present the major leadership shift every ten years in its even number term gatherings. On the other hand, the CCP National Congress will also reveal the future political leadership by promoting young generations to key party posts for preparing to shoulder the duties of leadership in those odd number party assemblies of the national level like this time.

Given the size of congregation, well over two thousand including voting delegates plus specially-invited delegates who are retired seniors but granted equal delegate privileges for the CCP National Congress in the previous two terms. As for the Central Committee, its full members and alternate members are generally selected from the leadership of provinces, direct-governed municipalities and autonomous regions, top brass of the People’s Liberation Army, operational theater and major staff establishments of the Central Military Commission, leadership at the minister level of the State Council and CCP administration apparatus, as well from the leadership of state-owned enterprises or state-sponsored institutions. No meaningful and substantial policy reconciliation process can be managed within a meeting of such a complicated composition and with members from so diversified backgrounds. And this is exactly the reason why we had never seen any PRC’s policy shift after those CCP National Congresses for power reshuffles and their subsequent First Session of the Central Committee.

Predicting Policy Orientation from Personnel Structures

As noted above, the nature of the CCP National Congress and its subsequent Session of the Central Committee is power reorganization and transition, personnel reallocation and revisions to party institutions as necessary. These two meetings are by no means an appropriate or useful venue for policy review, discussion, debate, and formulation. Although certain traces of policies can be identified from those political reports, most of the contents in these political statements are retrospective but less prospective.

Nonetheless, policies are defined and designed by those holding the legitimate positions in the decision-making systems. Fresh arrangements of PRC’s personnel structure in various dimensions can be the catalysts for formulating new policies towards the external world. Those states that have deep concerns about how new Chinese policies will affect their interests have the opportunity to observe these decision-makers, and their selection, through these two political conferences. Even though we should remember that it always takes two for tango, many policies are the result of interactions and not unilaterally decided. For those cases where Beijing does not have full capacity to dominate all future developments, it is hard to precisely expect how Beijing may react to outside challenges with any specific policy.

We should also remember that the process of negotiating personnel arrangements before these two party meetings among the party leadership may also practically reflect the significant political positions that will eventually affect policies. Many active political figures may not be promoted in these party meetings as many international observers would expect. Those PRC government officials who are not assigned any party posts are encountering the dead end of their political future.

Those who expect any PRC policy revision towards any specific objective or aspect after the coming Nineteenth Chinese Communist Party National Congress and the following First Plenary Session of its Central Committee should reconsider the nature of these political events before jumping prematurely into conclusions. Without knowing the result of power sharing arrangements, how can we fairly foresee the future Chinese policy? As we have no idea of the general characteristics and power structure of the PRC’s leadership over the next five years, how can anyone tell what will possibly be the results of their policy review and revision process?

It takes time for the new echelon of the PRC leadership to review the present policies before any future revision. That nothing regarding policy can be really determined immediately after the power transition is the best advice that we should keep in mind. And of course, no reliable or credible predictions of PRC’s future policies can be made before these two meetings, either.

Dr. Ching Chang was a line officer in the Republic of China Navy for more than thirty years. As a very productive commentator on Chinese military affairs, he is recognized as a leading expert on the Peoples Liberation Army with unique insights on its military thinking.

Featured Image: The ceiling of the 10,000-seat auditorium in China’s Great Hall of the People. (Wikimedia Commons)

China’s Synchronization of Party and Military

By Dr. Ching Chang

The Coming Synchronization

As many political observers have already noted, the Nineteenth National Congress of the Communist Party of China is expected to be held in Beijing soon, most likely in the late fall of this year. Generally speaking, this event may lead to a major power reshuffle within the top leadership of the Communist Party of China (CCP). According to the general precedent in Chinese Mainland politics so far, the majority of the members in the Politburo Standing Committee will retire right after this meeting.

Members of the delegations from various provinces, municipalities, and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) commands will elect members and alternate members of the Central Committee as well as members of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. The new members of these two Central Committees form the power basis for the CCP leadership in the future. The First Plenary Session of the Nineteenth National Congress of the Communist Party of China will be held immediately after the CCP Nineteenth National Congress to elect General Secretary, members of Politburo, Politburo Standing Committee, endorse the members of the party Secretariat, and finally decide the members of the Military Commission of the Central Committee.

Per the political and strategic culture known as the principle of “the party commands the gun” established through the Sanwan Reorganization in 1927 and the Gutian Congress in 1929, the Communist Party of China is tightly linked with the military organizations of the People’s Liberation Army. As noted in the General Program of the Party Constitution of the Communist Party of China: “The Communist Party of China persists in its leadership over the People’s Liberation Army and other armed forces of the people, builds up the strength of the People’s Liberation Army, ensures that it accomplishes its historic missions at this new stage in the new century, and gives full play to its role in consolidating national defense, defending the motherland and participating in the socialist modernization drive”, the leadership over the People’s Liberation Army is absolutely non-negotiable to the Communist Party of China.

However, the party and military are interdependent in several aspects, including personnel career management and organizational alignment. Given the recent political reforms and consequences of the administrative power reorganizations in the mainland China, there are three issues concerning the synchronization of party and military that need to be well-managed in the coming CCP Nineteenth National Congress itself or the subsequent First Plenary Session of the Nineteenth National Congress.

Party Post and Military Billet

The party post is a required element for professional career development within the People’s Liberation Army and a prerequisite for further promotion. Any PLA members assigned to key leadership billets should have matching party posts compatible with their decision-making and policy formulation authorities. Those senior leaders with high military ranks who lose their party posts in the next five-year term National Congress of the Communist Party of China are likely to enter retirement in the near future.

On the other hand, under the leadership of Xi Jinping, the prerequisite of appropriate party posts, such as members and alternate members of the Central Committee as well as members of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection for those who want to be promoted to the rank of three-star general or admiral, may be a thing of the past. Since his inauguration as the Chairman of the Central Military Commission, Xi has personally handpicked five senior military members, two on July 31, 2015 and another three on July 28, 2017, to be promoted to the rank of the three-star general officers with no proper party post in the top tier of the Communist Party of China. Among these five senior newly promoted high rank general officers, none of them owns the party post such as members or alternate members of the Central Committee or even members of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. Apparently, there is a certain gap between party post and military billet developing in the top layer of the PLA leadership.

Three-Star PLA General Officers Promoted by Xi With No Proper Party Post

Name Billet as Promotion Promotion Date
宋普選Song, Puxuan Commander, Northern Theater Command July 31, 2015
李作成Li, Zuocheng Commander, Chengdu Military Region

(Now, Chief of Staff, the Joint Staff Department of the Central Military Commission)

July 31, 2015
韓衛國Han, Weiguo Commander, Central Theater Command

(Now, Commander, PLA Ground Force)

July 28, 2017
劉雷Liu, Lei Political Commissar, PLA Ground Force July 28, 2017
于忠福Yu, Zhongfu Political Commissar, PLA Air Force July 28, 2017

There are various interpretations to explain why the mismatch of the party post and military billet may occur in such a high tier of the PLA leadership. Natural attrition together with unexpected disciplinary actions disrupted original leadership echelon arrangements is perhaps the most acceptable explanation to PLA observers. After all, a total of 24 incumbent, former, or alternate members of the Central Committee and members of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection have been disciplined, including one former Politburo Standing Committee member and four present or former Politburo members under Xi’s leadership.

Other interpretations may include that Xi is basically following the tradition to promote those senior officers with party posts unless their specialties are in areas where appropriate military billets cannot be assigned. As no suitable candidate with proper party post may be available, the selection list may naturally extend to those without a party post in the high tier of the Communist Party of China.

General Li Zuocheng, who was newly promoted to Chief of the People Liberation Army’s Joint Staff Department. (Ren Dong/Color China Photo via AP Images)

In any case, the personnel reshuffle is unavoidable in the coming Nineteenth National Congress of the Communist Party of China in order to let the military billets match with party post. Further, certain military elites with strong professional career potential also appeared in the list of members and alternate members of the Central Committee as well as members of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. Most importantly, members given positions on the new list will likely have a better potential for further promotion since they are chosen by Xi and he may stay in power for at least another five years.

Reinstitutionalization of the CMC after Military Reform

The second issue concerning the synchronization of party and military is the possibility of re-institutionalizing of the Central Military Commission after the PLA military reform. Members of the Central Military Commission were not matched with military posts until the Fourth Plenary Session of the Sixteenth National Congress of the Communist Party of China on September 16, 2004, when Jiang Zemin resigned the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission.

As Hu Jintao succeed Jiang to be the new CMC Chairman, several senior members were selected into the Central Military Commission as new members according to their military billets. Members of the Central Military are institutionalized since then by the following order:  Defense Minister, Chief of the General Staff Department, Chief of the General Political Department, Chief of the General Logistics Department, Chief of the General Equipment Department, Commander, Commander of the PLA Navy, Commander of the PLA Air Force, and Commander of the Second Artillery Corps. Apart from the Chairman of the CMC, two senior military professionals will be appointed as the deputy Chairman of the CMC. An extra First Deputy Chairman of the CMC is likely to be appointed for the next generation of leadership. This similar practice was adopted for the cases both for Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping.

President Xi Jinping greets personnel at the Central Military Commission’s Joint Command Headquarters, where he called on the Chinese military to continue improving its capabilities for joint command. (Photo by Zhou Chaorong/China Daily)

So far, this institutionalized Central Military Commission structure was followed in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Military Commission of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. Following selection of the Central of Military Commission membership, the National People’s Congress will elect another set of the members, drawing on the same pool of candidates, to the National Central Military Commission in late March after the National Congress of the Communist Party of China in the previous year. Obviously, there is a gap between the establishment dates of these two Central Military Commissions of the party and the nation separately. Nonetheless, the existing National Military Commission will somehow automatically cease to function in order to assure the synchronization of party and military.

The Central Military Commission is the highest mechanism for determining the military and defense policy proposals prior to submittal to the Politburo for further discussion and review. As we already know, there have been many organizational revisions in the People Liberation Army’s administrative chain of command and operational command and control structure. It is necessary to reorganize the members of the Central Military Commission to reflect the present PLA administrative and command structure. For instance, a new service equivalent organization known as the PLA Strategic Support Force was established in January 2016. The Joint Logistics Support Force directly subordinated to the Central Military Commission is another significant reorganizational arrangement. Four General Departments are reorganized into fifteen functional departments or agencies. Most importantly, there is no representative for the newly formed PLA Ground Force, the army equivalent, as the member of the Central Military Commission so far.

Due to the recent reforms noted above, the current PLA organization structure and the organization of the Central Military Commission are obviously not aligned. These reorganizations likely need to be matched with newly institutionalized Central Military Commission representation structure in order to assure their smooth operation. It is a reasonable prediction that this reorganization of the Central Military Commission will be a priority in the coming First Plenary Session of the Nineteenth National Congress of the Communist Party of China right after the CCP National Congress itself.

Revision of Associated Party Constitution

Last but not the least, the PRC’s National Defense and Military Reform is a part of overall social reform policies as noted by a policy document known as “The Decision on Major Issues Concerning Comprehensively Deepening Reforms” (中共中央關於全面深化改革若干重大問題的決定) that was approved by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party at the Third Plenary Session of the Eighteenth Chinese Communist Party Central Committee on November 12, 2013. It is naturally no surprise that numerous institutions need to be amended and experience organizational reforms in various aspects of Chinese political, legal, and social systems. This is also the case for the PLA organizational reform.

For instance, the previous General Political Department of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army was consolidated into a newly established organization known as the Political Work Department of the Central Military Commission on January 11, 2016. It remains the chief political organ under the Central Military Commission and still leads all political activities in the People’s Liberation Army.

Nonetheless, after this reorganization process, the authorities of this new Department are inconsistent with the Article 23 of the Constitution of the Communist Party of China:

“Party organizations in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army carry on their work in accordance with the instructions of the Central Committee. The political work organ of the Military Commission of the Central Committee is the General Political Department of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army; the General Political Department directs Party and political work in the army. The organizational system and organs of the Party in the armed forces are prescribed by the Military Commission of the Central Committee.”

Although clearly the Political Work Department of the Central Military Commission is intended to succeed the previous General Political Department of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army with all its powers, it is still necessary to revise the bureaucratic language in the Constitution of the Chinese Communist Party to fit with the new military establishment.

Since, per the point four of the Article 19 of the same constitution: “The functions and powers of the National Congress of the Party are as follows: ………4) To revise the Constitution of the Party;” we should expect certain work for revising the Constitution of the Communist Party of China will be taking place in the coming Nineteenth National Congress of the Communist Party of China.

During his inspection of the PLA Hong Kong Garrison Force in this June, Xi Jinping himself called for efforts to build a highly centralized and unified military force, and run the military in accordance with law to forge a strong force with ironclad belief, faith, discipline, and responsibility. We should expect the synchronization of party post and military billet, institutionalization of the CMC after reform, and revision of the Chinese Communist Party Constitution to align with new military structures that will be a part of Xi’s legacies in the coming Nineteenth National Congress of the Communist Party of China and its subsequent First Plenary Session of the Nineteenth National Congress in October 2017.

Dr. Ching Chang was a line officer in the Republic of China Navy for more than thirty years. As a very productive commentator on the Chinese military affairs, he is recognized as a leading expert on the People’s Liberation Army with unique insights on its military thinkings.

Correction: The month which the Nineteenth National Congress will occur is in October, not November.

Featured Image: President Xi Jinping, also general secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and chairman of the Central Military Commission, and other senior leaders Li Keqiang, Zhang Dejiang, Yu Zhengsheng, Liu Yunshan, Wang Qishan and Zhang Gaoli attend a grand gathering in celebration of the 90th founding anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, capital of China, Aug 1, 2017. (Xinhua)

PLA Air and Maritime Maneuvers Across the First Island Chain

By Ching Chang

Between late 2016 and early 2017, there were several People’s Liberation Army (PLA) air and maritime maneuvers penetrating the so-called First Island Chain, including a deployment of the only People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) aircraft carrier Liaoning battle group, for a routine exercise in the South China Sea. It went through the Miyako Strait between Miyako Island and Okinawa Island as well as the Bashi Channel, a part of the Luzon Strait between Taiwan and Philippines. All these maneuvers were perceived by strategic commentators and military observers as a milestone that can be signified in the efforts of the PLA’s force building.

Nonetheless, all the military maneuvers penetrating the First Island Chain during this period of time were not entirely revolutionary. Since early 2015, similar air maneuvers have been executed eight times. The Liaoning battle group only cruised through the waters on the east side of the First Island Chain, but no significant or even substantial drill was executed during this leg of maritime maneuvers. While these air and maritime maneuvers are intentionally showing off the PLA’s strength, these military deployments exposed many weaknesses strategically, operationally, and tactically.

First, it is debatable whether these maneuvers are really fulfilling the strategic blueprint of maritime dominance of various island chains as set forth by PLAN Admiral Liu Huaqing in 1982. Liu’s perspectives are widely addressed by many Western strategic thinkers, yet his argument had never been converted into any official PLAN doctrine. At least, the actual developments of PLAN deployments and operations are not consistent with Liu’s original concepts. We must consider whether the PLAN’s strategic planning is still directed and guided by Liu’s visions as presented in 1982. Otherwise, the blindness of self-fulfillment conviction can be a fatal factor in interpreting the PRC’s maritime or naval endeavors.

Second, penetrating the First Island Chain itself is not a strategic barrier but merely a psychological threshold. There are three factors in operational planning and execution: force, space, and timing. The essential strategic space is a geographical space which must be dominated or be occupied by the offensive forces as well as secured or controlled by the defensive side. The nature of the strategically essential space is quite dynamic. A perfect match of the three operational planning and execution factors may turn any geographical space into a strategically essential space at the right time for the right forces. It is meaningless for maritime forces to cruise in the waters that nobody would like to utilize and declare the dominance of these waters. 

On the other hand, cruising through several international waterways during peacetime does not prove the capacity of breaking wartime blockage since no other party had ever expressed objection to these legitimate maritime maneuvers. The fundamental question about these PLAN air and maritime maneuvers is how these maneuvers may imply potential wartime actions. The answer will be inconclusive since these maneuvers can be interpreted as everything but will not be firmly identified as anything. If dominating the waters around the East side of the First Island Chain failed to undermine potential adversaries’ maritime interests, then all the significance emphasized by various strategic commentators are in essence overstated. No matter how routine the People’s Liberation Army Navy and the People’s Liberation Army Air Force crossing the First Island Chain for air and maritime exercises may be, the strategic significance is relatively limited.

Third, unless all the island territories of the associated island chains can be well-controlled before executing any maneuvers, dispatching maritime forces and their airborne counterparts through the First Island Chain runs many risks during wartime periods. In fact, adopting the island chains as the relative geographical indexes may expose the strategic thinking as nothing but an extension of coastal defense. The core of maritime strategic thinking should be the command of the sea, including sea control and sea denial. The essence of maritime majesty is to compel adversaries to follow your will, not to control a space with no strategic value. As compared with Chinese global maritime activities, interests, and naval presence, the actual deployments of the PLAN fleet are already beyond those island chains. Without the dominance of the island chain land territories, the wartime operational sustainability beyond the island chains can be very questionable.

Fourth, many political commentators insisted these People’s Liberation Army exercises and military maneuvers penetrating the First Island Chain are about sending coercive signals to neighboring states, particularly, Taiwan, Japan, and the United States, about the Taiwan issue. The viewpoint can be another overstated bias. Given the three major channels of the PRC for declaring external policies associated with Taiwan, those spokesmen of the Foreign Ministry, Defense Ministry and Taiwan Affairs Office had never taken the initiative to deliver any related intimidating statements during these military maneuvers. In contrast, as many media expressed such speculations, all the PRC mouthpieces, including these three formal spokesmen systems, denied any association between the situations in Taiwan and these military activities. Of course, we still need to scrutinize the realities with the People’s Republic of China’s official statements. Although the cross-strait relationship has significantly deteriorated after President Tsai’s inauguration, the likelihood of employing these military exercises to coerce the Republic of China is still reasonably slim.

Fifth, as reflected by these military maneuvers and exercise scenarios, many operational and tactical features are worthy of discussions. These air maneuvers not only put the focus on air battles but also emphasize the considerations of engaging with the surface combatants, either surface vessels or military sites on land. Attempts for combining different air platforms and integrating units from People’s Liberation Army Air Force and People’s Liberation Army Naval Air Force (PLANAF) are obvious. Certain rules of engagement can be expected since a stable modus operandi is revealed by these maneuvers in different periods of time. The major task for the PLANAF is to practice engagement tactics for targeting surface vessels. Several PLAN surface vessels are concurrently directed as the counter forces for such exercises. Maritime patrol aircraft attend as the scouting platforms, and the airborne early warning and mission control platforms are effectively conducting their command and control functions for air combat and surface attack missions.

No indication of live fire exercise has  been seen with the air and maritime maneuvers across the First Island Chain conducted by PLAN surface vessels or their airborne counterparts so far, but it is only a matter of time. Also, very little evidence proves any significant electronic warfare drills having been executed during these maneuvers, though certain platforms may have the inherent capability for electronic warfare. There are flaws in the exercise plans as well. There are few indications for search-and-rescue arrangements or mechanisms or contingency measures for malfunctions or emergencies. Whether we need to praise the bravery of these PLA military professionals for long-range exercise without a bailout mechanism or speculate the reckless of the PLA operational staff is a topic for further observation.

Last but not least, nobody could ever properly describe the exact scenario for these air and maritime maneuvers until now. There is no clear PLA doctrinal norm to support these exercises with different combinations of platforms. The possible operational concepts reflected by these exercises are still yet arguable. Whether these military exercises may well support the possible political aim is still a myth to be further scrutinized. We fail to generalize any possible operational directive from the same well-known modus operandi for concluding possible rules of engagement since it is very hard to tell what should be the expected operational situations for employing these air or maritime maneuvers. After all, to firmly conclude any meaningful implication from events that only occurred less than ten times is indeed a challenge.

At most, we may successfully exclude some plausible speculations and groundless accusations with political smear intentions. To summarize a prompt judgment on these PLA maneuvers penetrating the First Island Chain recklessly, without military professionalism and political consciences, would be a sin of contributory negligence as we misperceive the potential challenge today and are forced to swallow the catastrophic failure in the future.

Dr. Ching Chang was a line officer in the Republic of China Navy for more than thirty years. As a visiting faculty member of the China Military Studies Masters Program at the National Defense University, ROC, he is recognized as a leading expert on the People’s Liberation Army with unique insights on its military thinkings. 

Featured Image: J-15 fighters launching off of PLAN carrier Liaoning (China Daily)