Hu Jintao: Still “Commander-in-Chief”

As Xi Jinping ascends to the top of China’s leadership, Hu Jintao will still retain a critically important role.

The sun may be setting on Hu Jintao’s reign as the leader of Communist Party, but his career as commander-in-chief still has legs.

Duowei News reported this week (hat-tip to Sinocism) that Hu will hold onto his job as Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) for another two years, following the precedent set a decade earlier by Jiang Zemin (Deng Xiaoping also held onto his military brief after relinquishing his other formal roles). This is contrary to recent speculation that Hu may have been too weak politically to retain his military command.

In all likelihood, Jiang endorsed this practice in 2002 in order to preserve his own authority, and not just because he had identified managerial advantages in a phased handover. But this quirky system may indeed have its benefits. Xi Jinping has a million other things to do as he assumes the leadership of the Party. By remaining CMC Vice-Chairman until 2014 he can leave it to Hu to bed down the new military leadership, before assuming control of a more settled Commission when he has a moment to spare.

However, this anomalous two-year bridging period that China is about to enter into – Xi as supreme leader, but Hu as commander-in-chief – comes at a critical juncture for Chinese security. China is arguably facing its most serious security challenge in a decade, as its stand-off with Japan in the East China Sea drags ominously onwards to potentially violent conclusion. If either side actually starts shooting, it will be the biggest international crisis that China has faced since its invasion of Vietnam in the late Seventies.

In that scenario, it is not clear how China’s chain of command would function, since the normal decision-making process – in which the same man holds both political and military authority – will have been suspended. When Hu steps down from the Politburo Standing Committee during the upcoming leadership handover, the Committee’s sole representative on the CMC will be Xi Jinping, number one on the Standing Committee but only joint number two on the military body.

Make-or-break questions such as whether to go to war with Japan would surely, in more usual times, be deliberated by the Standing Committee, whose decision would then be transferred to the CMC by that body’s two civilian members. But Hu will soon be removed from that process. What if Xi, his subordinate on the CMC, comes to Hu with a Standing Committee decision on a critical national security matter with which Hu disagrees?

China may have an esoteric mechanism for working through this kind of impasse, should it ever occur (Hu may out of necessity be included in Standing Committee discussions on national security matters, for example). There is also the school of thought, described here by Peter Mattis that, perhaps, “Chinese leaders believe the international situation is sufficiently dangerous that the ostensible uncertainty caused by a CMC leadership transition would be undesirable”, for which reason Hu is being retained.

Such a view, if correct, implies that China’s leaders want to avoid any crossed lines when it comes to these critical war-and-peace decisions, and that they are determined to preserve the existing chain of command.

In that case, if China and Japan come to the brink of war in 2013, the buck will stop not with the Party’s newly risen star, Xi Jinping. It will stop with Hu Jintao, yesterday’s news.