Military Parade in China Gives Xi Jinping a Platform to Show Grip on Power

05-Sep-2015 Intellasia | NY Times | 6:00 AM Print This Post

Thousands of troops stood arrayed at perfect, hushed attention around Tiananmen Square. Hundreds of Communist Party elders, foreign dignitaries and diplomats looked on. It was then, on live television, that President Xi Jinping stepped forward to announce that the Chinese military, on proud display to mark 70 years since the end of World War II, would lose more than a 10th of its personnel.

“War is the sword of Damocles that still hangs over mankind,” Xi said in a speech at the start of a vast military parade on Thursday in central Beijing. Xi indicated that he wanted to show other countries – many of them wary of China’s growing military strength – that they had nothing to fear from the procession of tanks and missiles that rumbled down Chang’an Avenue while fighter jets roared overhead.

But the highly public manner of Xi’s announcement that 300,000 military personnel would be demobilised, China’s largest troop reduction in nearly two decades, carried another implicit message. He was demonstrating his grip on the military and on the party, amid economic squalls and a grinding anticorruption campaign that have left some wondering whether he and his agenda of change – including in the People’s Liberation Army – were faltering, several experts said.

“It’s Xi in command,” Andrew Scobell, a political scientist at the RAND Corporation who studies the Chinese military, and who was in Beijing during the parade, said of the announcement.

But he added that Xi faced challenges in forcing through his broader programme to overhaul the military, which would reshape its command structure and knock away the longstanding power of regional military commands across China.

“If it does happen, then this is confirmation that Xi Jinping is the most powerful commander in chief China has seen since Deng Xiaoping,” Scobell said. “This is about showing Xi as the strongman.”

Xi did not give any details of the troop reductions. But a spokesman for China’s Ministry of National Defense later said the cuts would be completed by the end of 2017 and were intended to clear the way for deeper changes, and a leaner, more agile military.

“The focus of these military personnel reductions is on shrinking forces with outdated equipment and slimming down bureaucracy and noncombat personnel,” said the spokesman, Col. Yang Yujun, according to the Defense Ministry’s website. “In the next step, we will roll out new reform measures one after another, actively and steadily advancing reform of national defense and the military.”

The cut announced by Xi would shrink China’s military personnel to two million, the biggest reduction since 500,000 were demobilised in 1997, said the China News Service, a state-run agency. The Chinese military would remain the world’s largest, compared with the United States’ active-duty force of 1.4 million.

The reduction would come mostly from ground forces, with more resources going to the navy, the air force and the Second Artillery Corps, which holds China’s land-based ballistic missiles, including nuclear warheads, said David Finkelstein, the vice president of CNA, an organisation in Arlington, Va., that specialises in military analysis.

“This decision was to be expected,” a retired Chinese major general, Xu Guangyu, said of Xi’s announcement in a telephone interview. “The modernisation of weapons and equipment is encouraging a reduction in personnel numbers.”

Whether Xi can build on the new troop cuts to change how the Chinese military operates will test his political mettle. His plan to reorganise and reinvigorate the military is part of an ambitious programme announced in 2013 that also includes an overhaul of the economy. Since then, the government has instituted some changes, but many observers say the moves have often been hesitant and opaque, failing to match Xi’s bold promises.

Turmoil in the Chinese stock market and worries about an economic slowdown in recent months have also dented Xi’s reputation, while a sweeping anticorruption campaign that allowed him to purge high-level enemies has left many in the party elite grumbling, nervous or both.

But Xi conveyed confidence on Thursday. Wearing a traditional suit of the kind favoured by Mao, he addressed the troops and greeted the crowd while standing in a Red Flag limousine. Later, he watched the procession from a viewing stand overlooking the square with his two predecessors as president, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin.

The weapons displayed included China’s growing collection of advanced missiles, among them the “Dongfeng-5B, an intercontinental strategic missile designed to carry nuclear warheads, and the Dongfeng-21D antiship ballistic missile,” according to the official Xinhua news agency.

Since he became head of the Communist Party and chair of the Central Military Commission in November 2012, Xi has closely associated himself with the People’s Liberation Army, while also pursuing corruption investigations that have reached into its topmost ranks and allowed him to appoint new commanders. Gen. Guo Boxiong, who for a decade until his retirement in 2012 was the military’s most senior serving officer, was officially placed under investigation in late July.

The new troop cuts are likely to be part of a broad restructuring of the military that may include new joint command arrangements to better coordinate land, sea, air and other forces, M. Taylor Fravel, an associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies the Chinese military, said in an email.

“Xi would not announce the size of the reduction publicly if a plan for how to achieve the reduction had not already been formulated, so the announcement indicates that reforms are definitely underway,” Professor Fravel said.

After the Communist Revolution in 1949, the People’s Liberation Army emerged as both a bulwark against external threats and a domestic guardian of the party’s power. Its numbers have always been heavily weighted toward the land armies stationed across China to maintain domestic control.

But in recent decades, China’s leaders have tried to invest more in air and naval forces to project influence abroad and assert the country’s claims to disputed islands and waters. And Xi has indicated that he wants to accelerate that shift.

The Chinese government does not issue regular statistics on its military forces. But experts estimate that the army has about 1.6 million personnel, the navy 240,000 and the air force 400,000. Many of its recruits are youths from the countryside, or just out of high school, lacking the skills that are needed to work well in a modern military equipped with computers.

“The Chinese have come farther than any other military in the last decade,” said Bonnie S. Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “But nobody recognises the deficiencies of the P.L.A. more than China.”

In March, the Chinese government announced that the defense budget for 2015 would be 10 percent higher than the previous year’s outlay, consolidating China’s position as the world’s second-largest military spender, though still far behind the United States.

But with economic growth slowing, dismissing hundreds of thousands of soldiers could add pressure on the government. Decommissioned officers and former soldiers unhappy with their job prospects and welfare have been a persistent source of protests outside government offices.

Instead of sending decommissioned officers and soldiers into the civilian work force, Xi could draw them into domestic security forces, especially the People’s Armed Police, which was founded in the early 1980s from former units of the People’s Liberation Army.

“What might happen is just a reshuffle,” said Scobell, the expert at RAND. “The bulk of that may be transferred to another paramilitary force, whether as border guards or elements of the People’s Armed Police.”

Unlike his recent predecessors, Xi had some experience in the military before his elevation to the leadership. He started his rise through the party as an aide to the minister of defense for several years starting in 1979, when China was smarting from a brief but disastrous war with Vietnam.

He has often visited military units to rub shoulders with soldiers and to push the military to embrace change while praising it as a stronghold of party power. In disputes with Japan, Vietnam and other neighbours over rival maritime claims, Xi has also signaled that his government will back its demands with force.

“They know that if they have to win any war, it must be a high-tech war,” said Che-Po Chan, an assistant professor at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. “It must be an advanced strategy now; it can’t be a so-called people’s war.”

The government’s efforts to attract more university graduates to the military through higher pay and better conditions have helped lift the educational levels of recruits in recent years, he said. But Xi faces the challenge of paying for further improvements as the economy is expanding at its slowest pace in a quarter-century.

“To support their high-tech strategy, they need to have continuous economic development,” Professor Chan said. “The recent economic challenges might be a problem. But we need more time to judge.”


Category: China

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