The 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC), that concluded on October 24, was about electing a new Central Committee (CC), Politburo (PB), and Politburo Standing Committee(PBSC). But an important ancillary function was to select new military members of the Central Military Commission, which is chaired by General Secretary Xi Jinping, who is the Commander-in-chief of China’s armed forces. The other body selected at the same time is the Central Commission for Discipline and Inspection (CCDI), the party’s top-most anticorruption outfit which has a significant role in Xi Jinping’s strategy in keeping the PLA close to himself.

The CPC has complete control over the military and therefore the CMC functions both as a state institution and a party organ, and its members have a rank in the military and a position in the CPC. In 2016, Xi reformed the CMC, which used to have four general departments to supervise the PLA. Xi took personal charge of the outfit by abolishing the four departments and replacing them with 15 administrative departments which do not have the kind of authority their predecessors had because a great deal operational authority was devolved to five new theatre commands which replaced the older military regions. In addition, the old strategic Second Artillery was upgraded to a full-fledged Rocket Force and a new Strategic Support Force was created. The new departments had a closer organic link to the Chairman and the centralisation effected by Xi and has been called the “CMC Chairman Responsibility System.”

The message that came out of the Congress was that China would make its military world class. In other words, equip it with much better hardware, have it led by generals who were both militarily proficient and loyal to the CPC, and operate on doctrines that emphasised high-technology and innovation.

A military force is built to fight,” Xi said in his Work Report to the 19th CPC Congress on October 18.  “Our military must regard combat readiness as the goal for all its work and focus on how to win when it is called upon”. In his remarks, he declared China’s intention of  transforming the PLA into a “world class military by the mid-21st century.”

The CPC goal, Xi said, was to build a powerful and modernised army, navy, air force and strategic support force and develop strong and efficient joint operations commanding institutions for theatre commands. Technology would be the core of combat prowess with an emphasis on innovation. The PLA would have to raise its joint warfare capabilities, as well as develop the ability to operate anywhere.

The milestones were also laid out: By 2020, mechanisation would be “basically achieved”  because “information technology application has come a long way and strategic capabilities have seen big improvement.”[i] Modernisation would be substantially completed by 2035.

New Central Military Commission and Constitution

Xi has reduced the new CMC to just seven members from the 11 that were there earlier.[ii] He appointed two Vice-Chairmen — Air Force General Xu Qiliang who was in the same position in the previous CMC as well and General Zhang Youxia who was also in the 2012 CMC and looked after equipment development and space projects.  Both are the closest among military leaders to Xi.  General Zhang’s father General Zhang Zongxun was the PLA’s head of logistics in the 1970s, but in 1947, he commanded the PLA’s Northeast Army Corps when Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, was its political commissar. The two families have since had close ties.[iii]

In addition, General Li Zuocheng, who has become the top-most PLA officer, was the head of the Joint Staff department of the CMC. Just last year, Li was promoted to take over the new headquarter of the PLA Army. The other members are Wei Fenghe, commander of PLA’s strategic rocket force who has been renominated, Admiral Miao Hua, formerly PLA Navy’s commissar, General Zhang Shengmin, chief of the military discipline commission, who will pursue the anti-corruption campaign. General Zhang was therefore also made a Deputy Secretary of the CCDI whose Secretary is the new PBSC member Zhao Leji.

The key ideas were also incorporated into the Party Constitution during the Congress. Among these was the affirmation that the CPC would “uphold the absolute leadership over the PLA and other people’s armed forces”, implement Xi’s thinking on strengthening the military, strengthen the construction of the PLA, strengthen through politics ruling the army, through reform and technology and in accordance with the law as well as “build people’s forces that obey the party’s command, can fight and win and maintain excellent conduct.”[iv]

Post Congress activity

The importance of the PLA to Xi’s authority was evidenced by the fact that a day after the new leadership line up was revealed on October 25, Xi made it a point to address a CMC meeting in the afternoon of October 26. In the meeting, he repeated the themes he had taken in his  work report at the inaugural of  the Congress the previous week,  on the need for the PLA to strive to become one of the world’s greatest armies  by 2050. He said by 2020, mechanisation would be basically achieved and  by 2035, modernisation will be completed. Among the more urgent goals was the need to sharply upgrade capabilities, especially information technology. The meeting was attended by members of the outgoing and incoming CMC,  Defence Minister Chang Wanquan, the  theatre commanders, heads of various military institutions and academies, as well as R&D specialists and members of the People’s Armed Police(PAP) leadership.[v]

On October 31, after a “group study session” of the CMC, a statement was issued noting that the PLA must follow the commands of the CPC and its Chairman “at any time and in any circumstances.” The session was led by the two new Vice-Chairmen Xu and Zhang. It said that the PLA “must arm itself with Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era and assure its absolute loyalty, purity and reliability.”[vi]

On November 3, dressed in combat fatigues, and accompanied by other CMC members, Xi reprised his role as the Commander-in-chief of the Joint Command by visiting its headquarters and issuing instructions to the PLA to concentrate all of its attention in honing combat capabilities and making sure they can win wars.

Xi ordered the forces to “prepare itself for emergencies from any direction.” He said that the PLA must carry out more research on fighting operations and possible adversaries and must boost joint command skills and make exercises more realistic. From the HQ, Xi had a teleconference with the Djibouti base and urged them to promote regional peace.[vii]


Xi took charge of the CPC and the CMC in 2012 at a time when morale was low and widespread corruption had weakened the PLA. He immediately issued a string of instructions to rectify matters. “Ten Regulations” were passed in December which called for a changed work style which included restrictions on banquets, serving of liquor.

Xi Jinping has been quite blunt in declaring, as he did at the memorial conference in Gutian in November 2014, that “The Party commands the gun.” In the original meeting of November 1, 1929, Mao had criticised what he termed “a purely military viewpoint” and the view that the job of the PLA was merely to fight, instead of functioning “as an armed body for carrying out the political tasks of the revolution.” In that sense, all the reform and change that has taken place has been driven from the top.

He also came up with a combination of providing an overarching vision for the country, the China Dream, that incorporated military modernisation, emphasis on purity and a crackdown on corruption. He insisted the PLA must aim to “fight and win wars” through developing  its combat capability through more realistic training, development of better weapons and equipment.  He then pushed the most thorough reform in the PLA’s history by which transformed the organizational and command structure. In April 2016, he also took the title of Commander-in-Chief of the Joint Operations Command Centre, appearing in battle fatigues in an inspection there.

In the past two years, the PLA shed 300,000 personnel. According to a CCTV documentary, 200 division-level units and more than 1000 regimental level organisations were closed down. More than 30 per cent of military officers were laid off and hundreds of generals ordered to report for new duties.

To this end, Xi effectively used the  anti-corruption platform. On the eve of the Party Congress, General Fang Fenghui,  who headed the Joint Staff department, joined the ranks of those dismissed for corruption.

Among them have been two former Vice Chairmen of the CMC, Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong.  The military media has disclosed that PLA anti-corruption authorities have taken up 4,000 cases of investigation in the past five years and disciplined 14,000 officers for corruption and other misdemeanours.[viii]

Focus on technology

Technology is central to Xi’s plan for the country’s future growth.  Given the emphasis on closer integration of civilian and military technology — with focus on cyber, aviation, transportation and emphasising disruptive innovation — will have implications for its military capacity as well. In his Work Report, Xi spoke of “deep integration of the Internet, big data, and artificial intelligence with the real economy,” as well as the building of a “science and technology superpower, quality superpower, aerospace superpower, cyber superpower.” Technology innovation clearly underpins Xi’s hopes for the future of the Chinese economy, but equally it will have implications for the military.

Xi has taken personal charge of the Leading Small Groups dealing with military reform, cyber security and informationisation. These Leading Small Groups are essentially task forces which bring together various stake-holders of an issue  in a mission mode. As it is, through the Cyberspace Administration of China, Xi has centralised decision-making in the Chinese’s internet domain.

The Chinese have focused their reform in their ability to deal with the United States. Over the past decade or so, the PLA has undergone a deep transformation based on the Information Technology-driven revolution in military affairs.

China Military Strategy 2015 White Paper had  two key themes in the White Paper. The first was the salience of high-tech, especially in the field of information,  and trends towards long-range precision strikes by manned and unmanned platforms.  The new guidelines shifted the goals of the strategy “from winning local wars under conditions of informationization” to “winning informationized local wars,” reflecting evolutionary, rather than revolutionary change.[ix]

Chinese capabilities, as well as the militarisation of the South China Sea islands,  has reached a point where the US can no longer afford to operate its power projection capabilities too close to the Chinese mainland. In other words, the kind of response the US had to the 1996 Taiwan Straits Crisis is no longer feasible. By 2035, the date chosen by Xi Jinping, assuming both the US and China are modernizing along existing trajectories, what you will see is that the US ability to exercise power will further recede.

In the coming years the Chinese will seek to put a layer of technological capabilities  on the organizational reforms they have carried out to conduct joint operations. In other words, linking a joint operations doctrine based on joint training and joint command, with an integrated  C4ISR (Command-Control-Communications-Computers-Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) systems. Such networked forces would add considerable heft to the PLA.[x]

But despite all the capabilities of the PLA,  a significant focus of Chinese security concerns will be inwards — the need for the CPC to retain its power. For this, the political role of the PLA is paramount, just as it was at the time of Tienanmen. That is why the one consistent, and even insistent theme that runs through all of Xi’s remarks is on the need for utter loyalty of the PLA to the CPC, alongside its ability to enhance its combat capabilities.

Implications for India

India for one, needs to be listening hard. On August 28, the PLA and the Indian Army ended their 71-day  standoff over a Chinese road-building project in a part of the border that China disputes with Bhutan and which is proximate to Sikkim. Though the issue has been resolved, at least for now, it is difficult not to forget the threats emanating from Beijing that if India did not pull back, China would have to resolve the matter by force, or as the official spokesmen put it, “China would take all measures to uphold its territorial integrity.”  One reason for the termination of the Doklam stand off in the way that did could be the fact that the PLA simply lacked the military ability to push the Indians out.

Interestingly, on October 29, one of the first news items put out by Xinhua was the one which declared that Xi had encouraged Tibetan herders to safeguard territory. His remarks were in response to a letter by two Tibetan girls detailing their experiences in the border areas during the Party Congress. So, Xi thanked them for their loyalty and the contribution they were making in safeguarding China’s territory.[xi] This is a signal, as clear as any, that the Sino-Indian and the Sino-Bhutan borders will remain an important focus of the Chinese military in the coming period.

India has major issues with China. The two countries dispute their border, they have fought a war over it and have periodic standoffs because  they are not agreed where the Line of Actual Control lies. China has skilfully used Pakistan to offset India going to the extent of helping it make nuclear weapons and missiles. Further, Beijing’s expansion has led to the arrival of the PLA Navy in the Indian Ocean, something that is deeply disturbing to India. For all these reasons, New Delhi is keenly looking at the messages coming out of the Party Congress, and the first take is that they are not particularly comforting.

Overall, Xi’s ambitious modernisation plans have major implications for us. Besides the enhancement of forces along the Sino-Indian border which we may see more assertiveness, we can also expect a major increase of the PLAN presence in the Indian Ocean Region. Besides more ships, better technology and newer bases, there could be a greater effort to rope in allies and partners to ease the task of the PLAN in the region. Beyond all these issues is the fact that we would have to confront forces whose capabilities could be significantly higher than ours because of the tardy pace of our own reform process.

[i] “Strong PLA to better protect global peace,” China Military Online

[ii] Liu Zhen, “ Xi Jinping shakes up China’s military leadership”  South China Morning PostOctober 26, 2017

[iii] Minnie Chan, “General Yang Youxia: Xi Jinping’s ‘sworn brother’ now his deputy on China’s top military body,” South China Morning Post October 25, 2017

[iv] General Program and Constitution of the Communist Party of China—2017 revisions unofficial translation

[v] Top military official pledge loyalty to CPC, Xi” October 31, 3017

[vi] “Top military officials pledge loyalty to CPC, Xi,” October 31, 2017

[vii] Zhao Lei “Focus on combat readiness, Xi tells PLA,” China Daily November 4, 2017

[viii] Willy Wo-Lap Lam, “The Irresistible Rise of the ‘Xi Family Army’” Jamestown Foundation China Brief October 20, 2017

[ix] M Taylor Favel, “China’s New Military Strategy: “Winning Informationized Local Wars” China Brief vol 15 issue 13 June 23, 2015

[x] Kevin McCauley, PLA System of System Operations: Enabling Joint Operations, (Washingtion DC, Jamestown Foundation, January 2017)

[xi] Xi encourages Tibetan herders to safeguard territory, Xinhuanet November 1, 2017; The Sunday October 29 CCTV evening news took up the issue as well

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).



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