Two recent developments relating to the reform of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) could have far-reaching implications, not just for Taiwan, but the entire world.
First, on Friday last week, revisions to China’s National Defense Law came into effect that increase the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) hold over the military.
The amendments, ratified by the National People’s Congress on Dec. 26 last year, effectively neuter the role of China’s State Council — the country’s chief administrative authority — in formulating military policy, and places decisionmaking powers under the sole purview of the Central Military Commission (CMC), which is chaired by “paramount leader” Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平).
The move is the latest in a long list of power-grabs by Xi since he became CCP general secretary and commission chairman in 2012, and president the following year.
China’s unique political structure is characterized by multiple layers of competing and overlapping governance. Powerful provincial-level administrations are subordinate to a vast bureaucracy of the central government, which is itself subordinate to the CCP.
Positioned at the apex of China’s political pyramid, the party operates a plethora of “leading groups,” “steering groups” and commissions that exert influence over central government departments. To avoid a repeat of the Cultural Revolution, the CCP leadership after the death of Mao Zedong (毛澤東) handed over responsibilities to the central government in a bid to create a separation of powers.
However, this trend has now been comprehensively reversed by Xi. The State Council sits within the central government and is overseen by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (李克強), who should act as a counterbalance to Xi, but by divesting the State Council of its executive powers over defense, Xi has carried out another coup: He now possesses absolute authority over the PLA and China’s national defense policy, and has demolished the remaining checks and balances.
Speaking to Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, Zeng Zhiping, a military law expert at Soochow University in Suzhou, China, and a retired PLA lieutenant colonel, said that the State Council is now simply a rubber-stamp agency with regards to the formulation of defense policy.
This is a worrisome development. With so much power now centered on one individual, this significantly increases the potential for miscalculation and poor decisionmaking by the leader of the world’s largest military force.
The second concerning amendment to the law is the addition of “threats” or “disruption” to China’s “development interests” as a justification for a national partial mobilization and deployment of PLA troops and reserve forces.
Deng Yuwen (鄧聿文), a former deputy editor of the CCP in-house publication Study Times said: “It’s not surprising for Beijing to enhance the leadership of the CMC when the PLA is going out to defend China’s national interests across the world.”
By inserting the phrase “development interests,” Xi has established a legal basis for each branch of the PLA — land, sea, air, space and cyberwarfare — to project power around the globe to secure China’s extensive “One Belt, One Road” strategic investments that stretch across continents.
The move reveals his ambition to create an updated version of the UK’s Royal Navy-backed East India Company for the 21 century — “imperialism with Chinese characteristics.”
In his first order to the PLA as China’s supreme commander, Xi on Monday emphasized the need for “full-time combat readiness” and said that China’s military must be ready to “act at any second.”
Governments around the world should take note.
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