Militarization of China's Civilian Leaders?
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Militarization of China's Civilian Leaders?


The Diplomat last month published a penetrating article by Peter Mattis that asked how much influence the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was having on foreign and national security policymaking, and whether that influence was growing as China’s armed forces expand. That article, which didn’t receive the attention it deserved, however, only asked — and perhaps answered — half the question.

What Mattis, and several others, haven’t asked is whether the civilian members within the Politburo are becoming more enamored with the PLA as an instrument to achieve their political objectives. In other words, the question that needs to be asked is whether recent Chinese assertiveness in the East and South China Sea is the result of greater “push” by an increasingly vocal PLA, or more “pull” by the civilian leadership.

The answer to that question is more important than it might appear, as it could reveal the pressure points that are key to understanding, and in turn dealing with, the future behavior of the Chinese military. It could also shed light on the deployment of a military garrison on Sansha Island in the South China Sea, and whether the move is a purely political expression or part of the militarization of China’s foreign policy.

As Mattis rightly notes, the PLA only “controls” a limited number of spots on the CCP Central Committee, which, while not making it a kingmaker, could give it enough clout to “extract concessions, collect promises, and encourage the politically ambitious to support PLA preferences.” While the PLA element within the CCP has traditionally been described as an advisory body that simultaneously must “educate” and “convince” the CCP — thus limiting its influence to its ability to make its case, and consequently keeping militarism in check — what if the remaining members of the Central Committee who are not part of the PLA are themselves becoming more amenable to the concept of the military as an acceptable element of policymaking?

That possibility is not as outlandish as it seems. Western powers, the U.S. included, have a long tradition of civilian leadership that did not hesitate to turn to the military to fix foreign policy problems. In many instances, it was civilian members of the National Security Council and the State Department, not the top brass, that sought to use force, as epitomized by Clinton’s Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, in her famous rebuke to then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell “What's the point of having this superb military you're always talking about if we can’t use it?”

While Clinton’s relationship with the U.S. military was initially uncomfortable, his administration eventually changed its attitude vis-à-vis the use of force abroad, leading to interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo at a time when the Pentagon, chief among them Powell, was reluctant to involve itself in operations that did not meet Powell’s operational preferences. After Clinton, George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 to oust Saddam Hussein was much more the result of civilian members of his Cabinet, people like Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney, than U.S. generals, who again signaled a certain reluctance to use force. After Bush left office and was replaced by Obama, who ran for office as a peacemaker intent on repairing Washington’s image abroad following eight years of military adventurism, the U.S. again embarked on military adventures — from Afghanistan to Libya — that, particularly in the case of Libya, were largely driven by the civilian leadership. From Clinton to Obama, the militarization of U.S. foreign policy was not the result of growing influence of the U.S. military on the White House, but rather greater willingness on the part of the civilian Cabinet to use the immense powers and reach of the armed forces to accomplish its political aims.

There is no reason why things should be any different with China, especially as its civilian leadership, for the first time since 1949, is endowed with a military that is modern and flexible enough to complement foreign policy imperatives. Factor in the element of nationalism, which is undeniably on the rise within China, and it becomes clear that the recent saber rattling by Yang Yi, PLA Major-General Luo Yuan, and others could be the result not of the PLA pressuring the CCP, but rather of militarists recognizing that the civilian leadership has created an environment that is more permissible for such expressions.

Under a “push” scenario, trends toward militarism would conceivably progress slowly and as per calibration by the civilian leadership. Conversely, a “pull” by civilians would likely accelerate the process, as both factions would work toward the same objective.

To come back to an earlier point, the differences are crucial, as they could very well determine the extent of the PLA’s role in formulating Chinese foreign policy. If, as Mattis and others argue, the question is how much influence the PLA has on the Politburo, then we can safely expect that militarism will remain a fringe factor in an otherwise carefully balanced foreign policy. However, if the key point isn’t PLA influence, but rather growing willingness among the civilian leadership to rely on the PLA to achieved its political objectives, then the checks on militarism disappear, and suddenly augmentations on Sansha, to use one example, become much more alarming than would otherwise be the case.

The same holds true for China’s recent assertiveness in its disputes with Japan over the Diaoyutai/Senkaku islands in the East China Sea and other claimants in the South China Sea. If Beijing’s recent behavior is the result of pressure from the PLA, at some point the civilian leadership, aware of the political costs, will stand back and allow the situation to calm down. If, however, China’s recent behavior is the result of an increasingly militaristic civilian leadership, then the chances that it will back off become smaller, unless the PLA, much as Powell did in the 1990s, decides that adventurism isn’t worth the risk and attempts to stymie the civilians.

Should that be the case, then Mattis’ question as to 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,” becomes doubly important, especially as the CCP is about to undergo a power transition. Unlike his predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, Xi Jinping, Hu’s likely successor, actually has a close relationship with the PLA and worked in its upper echelons for three years, which could make him more comfortable with the military, if not more inclined to call upon it to fix political problems.

Whether the influence of the PLA on the Chinese civilian leadership is growing remains to be seen and must be monitored closely. Just as importantly, albeit often ignored, is whether the civilians in the Politburo themselves are becoming more inclined to use the increasingly powerful arsenal at their disposal to conduct foreign policy. Instead of looking at the Politburo in terms of the balance of power between brass and civilians, we should perhaps try to determine whether the civilians are not themselves calling on the military to do more.

J. Michael Cole is a regular contributor to the Diplomat's Flashpoints Blog.

August 31, 2012 at 22:13

I believe that is the USAs strenght.
It is a melting pot that can take the best from the world and make it American. They can then use this and act accordingly.
If China cant accept that those with bright ideas can be heard then I guess it is a repeat of WW2 and we know who won that.
So, don't worry.

David China Vs Goliath U.S.
August 31, 2012 at 15:58

"Militarization" is the wrong word.  China in thiese difficult times – threatened as they are by the U.S. and smearing their image simultaneously while stirring up tensions between it and its neighbours – does not deserve weak, timid peaceniks administrators like Hu, like Attlee.  It needs someone more "militaristic" like Winston Churchill.  Anyhing wrong with that?
No more invasion and conquest of China's territories by small puny nations or that bully U.S.  Any Chinese would support a nuclear response against the U.S. if it keeps up its aggressive, bullying and threatening moves.

George Capen
August 31, 2012 at 00:09

This possibility is all the more alarming given the Chinese cultural deference to seniority. A "senior" civilian is not likely to encounter any Powell-like reluctance or push-back from a "junior" military member. Where US decision makers often pack a room full, and listen to voices from all angles and all heights, that does not happen in a similar Chinese decision making session.  Usually, the senior member begins the meeting with a prepared statement and the others fall in line with supporting comments on the margins.  And most of this is all worked out in advance anyway, so that the meeting is merely pro-forma.  I have been the junior guy on US delegations where the Chinese delegation looks at me like I'm an alien for opening my mouth.  This was so much the case that they would not believe my actual rank as written on my namecard (then an O-3, vice what they wanted to believe — O-6).  I was repeatedly asked if I was an O-6, on multiple trips, in an attempt to square my behavior with my rank in the eyes of a Chinese decision making context.

Errol T
August 30, 2012 at 09:03

We can't overlook the fact that Egypt isnt' a monolithic religious state. There's a dissonance between the elected government and the military. As long as the US can influence the Egyptian military, it's unlikely that China can access those technologies you had mentioned. Also, China's lack of action regarding the deaths of Sunni rebels in Syria isn't making China that attractive to a lot of people in the Arab world right now.

Mark Thomason
August 30, 2012 at 04:17

It is incorrect to say simply that the Chinese military is expanding.  In common with all other modern countries, its military is shrinking in number of people and units.  What is expanding is its budget, and the shrinkage of numbers is done to increase the impact of that extra money on the remaining people and units.  
This is an important distinction.  The budget expansion is a measure of the potential of that military.  But the sheer numbers of people in the military was an important part of the military's political power.  The gigantic numbers of people dominated the Party.  The gigantic numbers of units put senior officers and their commands everyhwere, and US base closure politics is a clear lesson in the importance of that.  
So the budget is expanding.  The "threat" is expanding.  But the military is shrinking in numbers and its political influence may be shrinking too.

August 29, 2012 at 18:57

Militarisation of the CCP leadership? God help us all…..

August 29, 2012 at 17:11

We walk together but independently, comfortable silence, like couples that have been together for a long time, make sure they don't get bashed.

August 29, 2012 at 17:05

Who know, who care in 2007 it was economists in 2010 PLA. They all live around me anyway, nice people.

August 29, 2012 at 08:56

That 'the tail is wagging the dog' has been going on in US for the last decade and so.
The NeoCons always look forward for another target with the usual logic: 'The next war is differnet'.
Cutting the BS short:
I agree that if Obama wins the next election, there will be civil war starting from Texas.

August 29, 2012 at 07:34

I find all of this to be somewhat disturbing. not the article per se, but where all the trends–one of which it embodies–are leading, namely a concerted, long term effort by the PRC as the latest iteration of the Chinese Empire to re-establish its suzerainty over the greater asia-pacific region, including territories that were not claimed by the original Chinese Empire.
There are trends that have already been noted on this forum, such as the active colonization and disenfranchisment of the peoples of Tibet and East Turkmenistan (the latter now being called the Xinjiang Semi-Autonomous Region), as well as the use of military and paramilitary force to coerce nations that were once vassals of the Chinese suzerainty (voluntary (Japan) and involuntary (Vietnam, Korea)), the most recent examples of which include the dispute over the Senkaku islands (in reality a territory grab for strategic and resource gains) and the seizure of the spratly islands from vietnam (cluminating in the Sansha garrison). There are other subtler shifts towards this end as well, such as the slow rebranding of the PRC military from "PLA, PLA navy, PLA airforce" to "China army, China airforce, China navy", which is both an attempt to coerce Taiwan, as well as a rather obvious link to the Qing Empire of old, which had conquered inner and outer mongolia, as well as Taiwan by the 17th century, less than half a century after its foundation (the qing conquered mongolia in 1645, a year after its founding, and Taiwan in 1683–a conquest that resulted in the slaughter and enslavement of the portugese traders who had previously resided there).
The problem is twofold. First, is that the Qing Empire is viewed as a golden age, at least up until the Opium Wars, and it is thus that the humiliation of this agressive empire–one which demanded the sufferage of all peoples–is the source of the humiliation which, according to modern Chinese education, must be corrected, and is the geographical model upon which the PRC now bases its expansion. 
Second is that the fenqing–literally "angry youth"–who were brought upon on the post tianmen-square-incident educational program which emphasizes the role of America and the west as enemies which impede China's path to greatness and must therefore be defeated–are going to come to power within the next 15 to 20 years, meaning that the PRC populace which demands action and the government will suddenly align in viewpoints, much to the chagrin of its neighbors and those who comitted "crimes" against China in the past.
Of course, these events are not taking place in a vacuum, which is why these trends within the PRC are so signifcant. They are made significant because of happenings in the middle east; the muslim brotherhood–once thought to be a harbinger of democracy and the Arab people, but now increasingly revealed to be a theocratic pseudo-democracy–is increasinly turning to the PRC and Iran for alliances, most notably in Egypt. Egypt is significant for two reasons. First, it owns and can shut down a major avenue of trade. Second is that it is a liscenced producer of critical US military systems such as the M1A2 and the F-16. The PRC has offered several billion dollars in aid, and–as one author on the asia times suspected–the aid will most likely come in return for the keys to those factories, enabling the PLA to directly study some of the most advanced US military technologies and–thanks to direct examples–be able to come up with direct methods to defeat them reliably, ending US armor and air superiority on the battlefield.
In essence, an increasingly theocratic Arab world will turn towards Tehran and Beijing precisely because the latter provides funds and alliances with no strings attached, as well as the fact that it will allow them to subjugate their peoples unmolested. I suspect that in 60 years, when authors in a hegemonic China (China was the one who gave the west the term "hegemon") write about how they defeated the United States, they will ascertain that Theocratic Egypt had a large role to play, handing over technologies and intelligence that made it impossible for the US to challenge the ressurection of the Chinese Suzerainty over the first and second island chains, as well as to aid Japan when Chinese wrath and memory turned to the exacting of revenge for crimes that no-one left alive within Japan had committed.  
of course, the US and Japan are not the only ones negatively affected by all this; Israel will suddenly face modern armies bent on the idea–imported from western europe by nazis and other anti-semetics*–that the Jewish people must be exterminated for their existence as well being provided a home in the territories surrounding Jerusalem in defiance of the palestinian people who, incidentally, were offered the idea of a dual-state upon Israel's founding and promptly rejected it for religious reasons. Cue, of course, Muslim egyptian tanks being sent to the sainai in direct violation of the 1967 treaty with Israel on the grounds of "chasing terrorists". The greater reason is probably to prevent Israel from stopping the nuclear program of Iran–the purposes of which should be clear, as Iran long ago passed the level of enrichment needed for nuclear reactors (20%). Don't get me wrong: Israel has committed numerous war crimes, all of which it should be held in trial at the ICC. But the world would be a darker, lonlier place if the new extremist governments of Egypt, Iran, Libya and–possibly–Syria get their way and managed to erase Israel from the word map in what would be the ultimate culmination of religious bigotry.

Oro Invictus
August 29, 2012 at 03:08

I’ve noted my concerns on the possible growing power of the PLA relative to the civilian leadership, but I’d like to further state that there is little difference between this and the inclination of CPC leaders to utilize the military in foreign policy, it is, rather, simply another mechanism for the military to gain power. Unlike the US where, even if the military didn’t exist, the government would still retain domestic authority as the mechanism of control is that of representational leadership, the PRC government does not enjoy such a luxury; the PLA not only controls/has influence over many of the key services within the PRC, but they serve as guarantors of the government’s power. Without the military, do you think East Turkestan or Tibet would remain part of the PRC for long? Without the threat of force as seen in Tiananmen, how many of the 100,000+ “mass incidents” in the PRC would be stopped as they were? Without the legitimacy conferred by representative government, the CPC must rely on economic incentives adjoined with military enforcement  to survive and, as these mass incidents show (even before the recent slowdown), economic incentives are a poor means of guaranteeing power, only serving to mollify those who do not suffer hardship under the CPC.
 As such, we can see why engaging in military activities would be anathema to party power; you are taking an institution which forms a major part of the foundation of the party’s authority, then unleashing it (i.e. granting it greater power) so as to solve problems beyond one’s own borders. What happens when the military, granted this power by the folly-ridden assertiveness of the CPC, seeks to use it to better its own position within the PRC, to gain power it has so long been denied despite their importance to maintaining the government? The civilian leaders can hardly do anything to stymie their newfound power or deny their demands, as they cannot threaten the military with consequences the same way the US can, they cannot threaten to destroy their own base. Instead, they will be forced to either capitulate or try and galvanize public opinion against them and affect a new purge of the military, hoping that, when the smoke clears, the party will still be powerful enough to reassert control over the people and that their anger does not turn to the CPC before then.  Either choice will utterly ravage the PRC, either causing it to fall under the shadow of an increasingly powerful military or one torn asunder in the wake of a party-initiated purge.

John Hildebrand
August 29, 2012 at 01:47

I wrote my senior thesis on much the same topic: the militarization of Chinese foreign policy and how the PLA is used as a component of such FP.
It's very important for us to understand how the CHinese use the military and see it as they see it. We use our military in unique ways and they use their in similar and different capacities. Understanding why and how they implement their military force in FP is critical to being able to work with China as well as be able to defend against any Chinese aggression (be it commercial, political or military).

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