From the Great Hall, a focus on the PLA

One of the most awaited sections of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s wide-ranging work report was on the Chinese People’s Liberation Army; there are far-reaching implications

October 22, 2022 12:08 am | Updated 10:25 am IST

At the 20th National Congress of China’s ruling Communist Party

At the 20th National Congress of China’s ruling Communist Party | Photo Credit: AP

The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) President Xi Jinping delivered a wide-ranging work report laying out the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) agenda for China over the next five years. The speech covered everything — from the economy, to the environment and technology, to Taiwan. One of the most awaited sections of his report was on the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Here are four important takeaways from Mr. Xi’s speech for the PLA.

Policy alteration and nuclear expansion

One, the most noticeable aspect of his speech was his use of the phrase “powerful strong strategic deterrent capabilities system” (qiangda zhanlue weishe liliang tixi). This was missing from his previous speeches and work reports. This emphasises a slight shift in Chinese policy thinking on nuclear deterrence. As Tong Zhao, a China nuclear strategy scholar, highlights, the traditional policy of a “lean and effective nuclear force” (jinggan youxiao), which was only completely explained in a defence white paper in 2006, was altered in 2021 to “an advanced/high-level strategic deterrent system” (gao shuiping zhanlue weishe tixi).

The recent policy alteration explains the ongoing nuclear expansion in the past two years, where China has built at least 250 missile silos in three missile silo fields in Yumen, Gansu province, near Hami in Xinjiang province and Hanggin Banner, Ordos City, Inner Mongolia. An educated guess is that China is attempting to move towards a launch-on-warning (LOW) nuclear posture, meaning to launch at an adversary on detecting an incoming missile.

More importantly, the change in language along with a building of silos more conclusively establishes that China aims to increase its nuclear warhead stockpile. Currently, it has around 350 nuclear warheads, which could double in the next five to 10 years. Second, on the sections on the PLA’s modernisation and China’s military reforms, unlike the previous work report, the focus is more on reforming military academies, improving military logistics and resource management. The 2017 work report was published after Mr. Xi flagged off military reforms in 2015.

Logically, the first phase of reforms focused on structural and bureaucratic changes along with speeding up the modernisation (acquisition process), which was started under the Hu Jintao administration. It looks like structural reforms are completed, modernisation which is the first step to achieve mechanisation, one of the three stated goals by Mr. Xi — others being informatisation and achieving world-class status, is delayed by a couple of years but is still in process. It appears that the PLA has shifted its attention towards improving personnel policies and military education. Although this had already started in the first phase of reforms, the report indicates that it would be the focus for the next five years.

PLA training and loyalty

The report also briefly touched upon improving the PLA’s military training and operations. On November 13, 2020, the Central Military Commission (CMC) issued guidelines on “Joint Operations of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (Trial)” focusing on providing guidance to the PLA on how it will conduct “integrated joint operations” with new structures, news services, and a continuously changing threat environment under emerging technologies and new battle space domains. The report reinforces this and highlights the importance for the PLA to adapt and train for “integrated joint operations”.

Third, like in previous work reports, there is an added emphasis on the PLA’s loyalty to the CCP. Mao Zedong, the founding father of Communist China, once famously said, “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” The PLA’s absolute loyalty is extremely crucial for the CCP and the General Secretary to rule by force. The recent work report emphasises that the PLA improves mechanisms to carry out the party’s military-political work with the armed forces and to enforce party discipline within the cadre.

Earlier, following the 19th Party Congress, the CMC composition was restructured and the head of the PLA’s discipline inspection commission was included over service chiefs. His inclusion in the CMC was indicative of the efforts to deepen political loyalty within the armed forces and the enduring concern about ideological weakness and corruption. This time, it is likely that the discipline inspection commissioner will retain the seat, and China will continue purging officers who could emerge as a threat to Mr. Xi or his faction in the future.

A regional focus

Finally, as Joel Wuthnow, a China security scholar, points out, this report mentions “winning the local wars” (da ying jubu zhanzheng). This was missing in the previous work report. The previous report only mentioned “fighting and winning wars”. This indicates that the PLA, despite slowly moving towards long-ranged capabilities such as mid-air and mid-sea refuelling and commissioning vessels and aircraft that could venture into the Indian and South Pacific Oceans, still primarily focuses on regional contingencies such as Taiwan, the South China Sea and the border dispute with India.

Besides these four major takeaways, there are other minor ones such as an emphasis on the role of technology, improving force mobilisation and border defence capabilities and transfer for scientific advances to combat capabilities. These goals will not only impact the PLA’s warfighting capabilities but also will alter the landscape of the Indo-Pacific region in the future.

Suyash Desai is a research scholar specialising in Chinese security and foreign policies, and the People’s Liberation Army. He is studying Mandarin at National Sun Yat-sen University, Taiwan

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