World View: China’s Military Strength and Poor Civilian Control Alarm Neighbors

World View: China’s Military Strength and Poor Civilian Control Alarm Neighbors

This morning’s key headlines from

  • China’s military strength increasingly alarms neighbors
  • Fears increase over poor civilian control of China’s military
  • The disappearance of the ‘Long March’ generation

China’s military strength increasingly alarms neighbors

China's military
China’s military

China’s Defense Minister General Chang Wanquan was forced to respondto concerns from China’s Asian neighbors who are expressing alarms atChina’s rapid military expansion and aggressiveness in the South ChinaSea and elsewhere. According to Chang:

The remarkable growth of China’s comprehensivenational power, and the continued progress in national defensemodernization, have become a focus of international attention inrecent years. China has learned a bitter lesson from its wretchedhistory [as a victim of aggression and the] practical need tosecure its own territory.

As we’ve reported many times, the “practical need to secure its ownterritory” means using military power to confiscate and annex regionsin the South China Sea that have historically belonged to Vietnam,Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan and the Philippines. Channel News Asia/AFP and Reuters

Fears increase over poor civilian control of China’s military

Along with a simmering concern about China’s intentions in building ahuge military machine, alarm bells have also been rung over whetherChina’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) does what it wants with littlecivilian control by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). There havebeen a number of incidents where the CCP has been caught by surpriseby PLA actions. One that got worldwide publicity occurred when thePLA ran a surprise stealth fighter test during a visit by thenU.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in 2011. Apparently the PLAwanted to send a message to both the United States and the CCP. Asimilar event occurred in September 2012, during a visit by Secretaryof Defense Leon Panetta.

An analysis by Andrew Scobell finds a “civil-military gap” with twomeanings:

  • “There appear to be significant differences … between the culture, values, and attitudes of Chinese soldiers and civilians. … A gap seems to manifest itself in the policy orientations of Chinese elites in uniform and those in mufti: Chinese soldiers tend to be more intensely nationalistic as well as more hard-line toward the United States and Taiwan.”
  • “In recent years Beijing’s civilian CCP leaders seem to have adopted a hands-off approach to the day-to-day affairs of the PLA.”

Members of the military are “tougher than … civilian officials” andmore “hawkish” toward the United States and the international system.Much of this is related to the preoccupation with achievingunification with Taiwan, and the US military is the PLA’s likelyadversary.

I would modify Scobell’s analysis to say that the gap between the CCPand the PLA is a generational gap, not a “civil-military gap.” Thepolicy-makers in the CCP are survivors of Mao’s Communist Revolution(1934-49), while the military is filled with younger generations. Weall know how, in the United States, many Millennials and Gen-Xersthink that all Boomers are completely full of crap. The same thing istrue in China, with the younger officers in the military thinking ofthe geezers in the CCP as hilarious and irrelevant.

The disappearance of the ‘Long March’ generation

In fact, Scobell himself gives a generational explanation. Accordingto Scobell, the loss of CCP control over the military occurred with agenerational change in the 1990s, when the generations of survivors ofMao’s Communist Revolution all disappeared. Scobell refers to thesesurvivors as the “Long March generation,” referring to Mao’s LongMarch that started China’s civil war in 1934:

The disposition and background of the post-Long Marchgenerations of political and military leaders have altered theformat of civil-military relations and structure of the mechanismsof control.

A core distinguishing characteristic of the Long March generationwas the substantial overlap of political and militaryelites. Former top leaders Mao Zedong, who dominated the ChineseCommunist Party from the mid-1930s until his death in 1976, andDeng Xiaoping, who was the paramount figure from the late 1970suntil his death in 1997, were the most prominent members of thisfamous generation of leaders who had participated in the legendary1930s trek that ensured the survival of the Communist movement. Infact, most leaders of this generation were both political andmilitary elites.

By the mid-1990s, with the passing of the Long March generation,China’s civil-military relations had evolved. In subsequentgenerations, civilian and military leaders became moredifferentiated and distinct. At the highest echelon, elites suchas retired top leader Jiang Zemin and current [2009] paramountleader Hu Jintao, while holding the position of head of the PLA inaddition to their formal government and party posts, did not exertthe same kind of influence in, or engender the same kind ofdeference from, China’s military. In the twenty-first century,China’s Communist Party leaders are civilian technocrats withlittle or no military experience or expertise. Twenty-two of the25 members elected to the Politburo at the 17th Party Congress inOctober 2007 have no military experience, and two of the threeremaining are PLA generals.

As I’ve written many times, it’s a core principle of GenerationalDynamics that even in a dictatorship, major policies and events aredetermined by masses of people, entire generations of people, and notby politicians. Thus, Hitler was not the cause of WWII. Whatpoliticians say or do is irrelevant, except insofar as their actionsreflect the attitudes of the people that they represent, and sopoliticians can neither cause nor prevent the great events of history.

With this generation gap between the PLA and the CCP, we can see how awar with China could start. We’ve already seen a number of aggressivemoves by younger, more impetuous PLA members. These include, forexample, provoking confrontations with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyuislands, and provoking dangerous confrontation with U.S. surveillanceplanes flying over international waters in the South China Sea. Oneof these impetuous acts could quickly lead to miscalculations thatspiral into a wider war. However it happens, the loss of CPP controlover the PLA is a very dangerous situation. Diplomat and Andrew Scobell (2009)(PDF) and Foreign Policy (2013)

KEYS: Generational Dynamics, China, General Chang Wanquan,South China Sea, People’s Liberation Army, PLA,Chinese Communist Party, CCP, Robert Gates, Leon Panetta,Andrew Scobell, civil-military gap, Long March generation,Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao,Japan, Senkaku, Diaoyu
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