China’s Other Transition

What we still don't know about the Chinese military.

LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images
LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images

Less than 10 days before the Chinese Communist Party convened the week-long 18th Party Congress on Nov. 8, where it will officially appoint its new generation of leaders, one of the Chinese military’s top generals warned that the U.S. pivot to Asia was "interference" in China’s affairs. That general, Ren Haiquan, who represented China at the region-wide Shangri-La forum in June, advises Chinese leaders on both political and foreign policy developments. The fact that he made such an aggressive comment in such a sensitive time highlights the importance of the PLA, whose own leadership transition follows that of the larger Chinese political turnover.

Unlike most other armies, the PLA is not a national military, but a party army — the armed wing of the Chinese Communist Party. As a result, its top officials transition roughly in tune with the rest of the party; and now, seven members of the Central Military Commission, China’s top military body, are retiring. The commission manages the PLA, breaking it into four general departments that cover war planning, personnel, logistics, and armaments. All PLA officers above the U.S. rank-equivalent of second lieutenant are required to be party members. While U.S. soldiers, airmen, and marines vow to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States," the PLA oath opens with a pledge to "obey the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party."

The new PLA leadership will oversee the largest standing army in the world, and one that has been steadily improving its capabilities: Over the last year, it tested two new stealth fighters, introduced China’s first aircraft carrier, and expanded its ability to operate far from home. Many questions remain on how the military will evolve under incoming chairman Xi Jinping.

Here are four of the biggest:

1. Will Hu Jintao retain his position?

When President Hu replaced Jiang Zemin as party chairman in 2002, Jiang remained as the commission chairman for two years. Now, as Hu prepares to begin officially yielding power, it’s unknown whether he will relinquish his military title in November, when he yields his chairmanship of the Communist Party, in March when he steps down as president and head of state, or even later. In 2002 and 2003 a similar situation caused controversy within the PLA, which had to respond to two masters: Jiang as chairman of the commission and Hu as general secretary of the party. Xi, widely seen as having a better relationship with the military, might be able to assume control earlier, but nobody can say for sure.

2. Will the position of defense minister be elevated?

The role of defense minister is oriented more toward protocol and military diplomacy than management of the PLA — which is part of the reason why the position’s current holder, Liang Guanglie, is not a vice chairman of the commission. His predecessor, Cao Gangchuan, was, though there is no explanation as to why — the fact that nothing has been announced yet suggests the position won’t be elevated. This would have implications for future meetings between the Chinese defense minister and his foreign counterparts, who should be aware that they are not talking to the highest-level uniformed officers in the Chinese military.

3. Will the role of foreign minister be elevated to the Politburo, or even the Politburo Standing Committee?

Not since 2002, when Qian Qichen served as Jiang’s foreign minister, has someone from the foreign-policy establishment served in the Politburo, China’s 25-member elite decision-making body. By contrast, Chinese military leaders have good access to the top Chinese leadership, since the head of state is typically also the chairman of the commission. None of the men expected to rise to the Standing Committee, the seven (or nine) member decision-making body that sits above the Politburo, has substantial foreign-policy experience, a situation that could lead to increased tensions with China’s neighbors.

4. How will the new military leadership affect China’s relations with the United States?

Civilian leaders appear to have firm control over the PLA. The military does have outsized influence, however, over national security issues writ large. Top generals are not only military commanders but also foreign and security policy advisors, with a near monopoly on military-related information in China.

Fifty years ago, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, John F. Kennedy’s administration often overrode the advice of senior military leaders — but only because it had developed its own options. To what extent are China’s civilian leaders able to access security-related information on their own? Who informs them on security and military matters, aside from the PLA?

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