Heated rhetoric out of Chinese military commentators in recent months has some observers wondering whether the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is playing an increasing role in Beijing’s foreign and national security policymaking. China’s ostensibly more assertive turn—seemingly in line with hawkish pundits—even if more clever, makes the question of military influence in Zhongnanhai important for understanding whether the U.S. policy of shaping China is actually working.
Can the apparently rising influence in Beijing of the PLA be explained without resorting to the regularly heated rhetoric from hawkish commentators—whose authority is at best unclear—such as the prolific Yang Yi and Luo Yuan? The short answer is yes and evidence is accumulating to this effect. The full implications of PLA influence, however, are far from clear.
First, at a time when political factions seem less coherent and relevant than before, observers should note the PLA controls just over 20 percent of the Central Committee—the body that ostensibly selects the Politburo and its Standing Committee. The PLA may not be a kingmaker; however, it may be able to veto senior selections at the 18th Party Congress this fall. This potentially puts the military in the position to extract concessions, collect promises, and encourage the politically ambitious to support PLA preferences.
Observers however should be careful not to read too much into this—at least not without further research. The last major study of PLA factions was published almost 20 years ago and we do not know the cohesion of the PLA’s Central Committee representation as a power bloc. Moreover, the PLA has only two seats on the Politburo and none on the Standing Committee, so the military’s role in politicking may be indirect and not necessarily day-to-day.
Second, as David Finkelstein of CNA Corporation noted earlier this year, the PLA also can present the leadership with policy options. During the 1995/96 Taiwan Strait crises, the PLA had to admit to the civilian leadership that it could do very little either to Taiwan or to the U.S. forces deployed to the area. That is no longer the case today. Whether the evacuation of Chinese citizens from Libya or the anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden or new capabilities to coerce (but not take) Taiwan, the PLA has proven it has something to offer Chinese policymakers. Those who can present options and solutions almost always win out at the decision-making table over those who present only obstacles.
Third, the PLA is becoming increasingly professional as a fighting force with a wider array of capabilities across the land, sea, air, and space domains. In pursuit of modernization, the Chinese military is trying to break down the service stovepipes across these domains. The growing focus on precision operations on top of a “system of systems operational capabilities” to cross these stovepipes will allow the PLA to fight in a fundamentally different way. The PLA repeatedly has surprised observers with the pace of its modernization; however, it is still an army in transition amidst great change in doctrine and technology. This means understanding what the PLA can do is a far more difficult task than it was when China invaded Vietnam in 1979 or sent the “People’s volunteers” into Korea in 1950.
Fourth, today’s civilian leadership has almost no direct experience with military affairs and must rely entirely on the PLA for military and, to a slightly lesser extent, political-military expertise. Unlike Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping, Hu Jintao and his apparent successor Xi Jinping do not have the direct experience with using military force to achieve political ends and probably have to rely on others for that expertise. In a system that deliberately limits civilian access to the military, this means Hu and Xi must depend in large part on their limited experience with military affairs to make judgments about appropriate courses of action. Do they know what questions to ask? Does the PLA present jargon-free, sensible decision memos that they understand? How responsive is the PLA and the Central Military Commission staff to requests for further information?
It also is not clear if Hu and Xi can find intellectual support when they need it. Whether searching for military affairs articles on the China National Knowledge Infrastructure or perusing Chinese bookstores, PLA authors dominate strategic studies. In contrast to the United Kingdom or the United States, China does not seem to have a well-developed civilian defense analysis sector.
If the White House, for example, wants an alternative assessment to the Pentagon, it can go to any of a number of research institutes and think tanks—e.g. Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the Center for a New American Security to name but a few, and not counting the Federally-Funded Research and Development Centers—and get professionally done military analysis. If Zhongnanhai however wants to shake the trees, it is not clear that China’s leaders can get any assessment independent of the PLA. This gives the PLA tremendous power—even unintentionally—to obscure what it is really doing and the full implications of its actions without penetrating scrutiny.
Observers often point to the anti-satellite missile test in 2007 as a sign that China’s decision-making process lacks coordination. Some suggested the senior civilian leadership was not informed—or fully informed. But what if the PLA only presented Hu Jintao with a memo asking “Should we continue with the planned test of experimental program X?” Banal bureaucratese can hide a tremendous amount unless someone has the time and energy to pursue the full implications. And at that time, Hu was the only civilian with authority over the PLA.
The PLA’s influence probably is increasing for a number of reasons. Irrespective of the personalities involved, the PLA is well-positioned to press its interests and its views within the Chinese foreign and national security policymaking apparatus. However, it remains unclear whether there is an institutional voice on party politics and national policy—not just the PLA’s material interests and how to fight—and whether that voice is coherent across the military’s different branches.
Even if the PLA has a greater say in Chinese foreign and national security policy, what the PLA says is not obvious. Dealing with challenges of modernization is more likely to keep the PLA focused internally and there are clear signs the PLA makes a determined effort to self-assess. The Central Military Commission headed by President Hu endorsed the most important evaluation, known as the “two incompatibles,”—PLA capabilities are incompatible with winning a war under informatized conditions and incompatible with fulfilling the PLA’s historic missions. This does not sound like hawks, constantly edging the leadership to take action. And the sophistication of PLA doctrinal and technological innovation suggests the generals are not slavering warmongers enamored of a brutish approach.
The real concern should be whether China’s civilian leaders have the intellectual experience or the ability to draw on military expertise independent of the PLA to manage the PLA’s increasing competence and influence. The Party controls the gun—1.8 million out of roughly 3 million PLA and armed police personnel are party members—but this is not a question about whether the PLA is rogue or will turn on Zhongnanhai. This issue is to what extent China’s civilian policymakers, especially Hu and Xi, truly understand the capabilities and limitations of the PLA and the options it puts forward—and how that understanding affects decisions of war and peace.
Peter Mattis is Editor of China Brief at the Jamestown Foundation.