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PLA The New Gamechanger?

September 28, 2010

Naveeta Kapoor
September 26, 2010.


The previous post on the New Cold War enunciated
the dynamics of recent developments in the region
with regional and global ramifications. This post
elaborates upon the reasons for this shift in
Chinese foreign policy towards belligerence and
how PLA is playing a major role in shaping this foreign policy of China.

China’s recent belligerence in its relations with
USA and South Korea in the South China Sea, with
India on the Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh issue
and the recent tussle with Japan over the trawler
incident are indicative of growing Chinese
assertiveness in its foreign policy to safeguard
or protect its national interests. Earlier in the
year, PLA had apparently influenced a CMC
proposal to warn US of arms sales to Taiwan. Add
to this the growing Chinese military presence in
Gulf of Aden, Tibet and POK and one gets a take
that the influence of PLA or PLAN in shaping
China’s foreign policy has increased many fold.
As per recent reports in Reuters, the civil
military relations in China may be under strain.

In a path breaking study SIPRI has explored the
role of PLA in shaping Chinese foreign policy. As
per the research, the PLA has historically been
and continues to be a major player in Chinese
foreign policy making as are the armed forces of
most nations. However, its role had been
substantially narrowed by decades of
institutional reform, focused on the
professionalization of the armed forces and the
distancing of military leaders from civilian
decision making processes. The post draws heavily
from the SIPRI Research Paper Number 26 and in
some instances has echoed the spirit of the research.

The PLA still holds sway in these and other
defence related foreign policy issues,
particularly with respect to policies related to
strategic arms, territorial disputes and national
security towards countries such as India, Japan,
North Korea, Pakistan, Russia and the USA. In
particular, the PLA is a staunch advocate of a
hard line towards Taiwan and perceived US
interference in cross-Strait relations.

Understanding Chinese Higher Defence Organisation

As the highest Communist Party of China (CPC)
body overseeing defence policy and military
strategy, the Central Military Commission(CMC) is
responsible for the unified command of the Chinese armed forces.

It remains an important channel for PLA influence
on foreign policy. Meetings of the entire CMC,
held on average six times per year and lasting
for several days, are the most significant
institutionalized interaction the PLA has with
China’s supreme leader (who in recent history has
also usually been the CMC chairman). Hu Jintao is
presently the only civilian on the 11-member commission.

While the CMC, like the PLA as a whole, has
historically been dominated by the ground forces,
in 2002 the air force, navy and Second Artillery
Corps (China’s strategic missile forces) were
each given CMC representation. This reflected
their elevated status and their role in foreign
policy formulation as the PLA branches
responsible for new or enhanced military
capabilities and strategic programmes, including
anti-satellite and ballistic missile defence
tests and overseas naval deployments.

Substantial portions of PLA views are transmitted
to civilian leaders via internal, non-public
channels. The National Defence University and the
Academy of Military Science, which are
represented on the CMC, submit reports directly to the military leadership.

Involvement of PLA Officers in Public Debates -- an Interesting Trend

Professionalization of the PLA has neither led to
reluctance on the part of military officers to
become involved in public foreign policy debates
nor resulted in the emergence of a monolithic PLA
pressure group on Chinese foreign policy issues.
On the contrary, in recent years the PLA has
increasingly tried to influence the public debate
about national security issues by publicly
disseminating analysis by PLA research
institutions as well as allowing officers to
write divergent commentaries in prominent
newspapers and serve as television commentators.

The PLA has also actively cultivated
relationships with civilian researchers by
allowing officers to participate in debates at
civilian research institutions and inviting
civilian researchers to lecture at and take part in PLA workshops.

The combined effect of professionalism and
international contact has somewhat de-emphasized
the ideological outlook of the PLA. As a result,
it is envisioned that the PLA is adopting new
perceptions of Chinese national interests and
viewing itself as the final guarantor of those
national interests. Experts expect the mindset of
the military to develop along a dual-track
trajectory with regard to national interests: one
track that becomes more nationalistic and another
that becomes more willing to engage in
international cooperation and dialogue. The PLA’s
interactions with foreign militaries have enabled
China to emphasize the peaceful nature of its
development and also at times to express China’s
displeasure with the policies of other countries,
notably by cancelling military-to-military contacts with the USA.

Crisis Management in Foreign Policy

Whether there are any signs of discord between
the PLA and the civil leadership is not certain.
However, on several occasions over the past
decade the PLA has initiated, escalated or
delayed tense international situations (whether
intentionally or not)—for example, in 2001, after
a US reconnaissance plane made an emergency
landing on Hainan Island, and in 2007, after the
PLA shot down a Chinese weather satellite.

Within the PLA the PLAN bears special weight-age
because of the maritime dimensions of Chinese
security strategy and its impact on the political process.

The PLAN has in recent years been party to
repeated disputes with Japan, South East Asian
countries and the USA over maritime sovereignty
in the East China Sea and the South China Sea.
PLAN submarines have also been active outside
Chinese waters, illegally entering Japanese
territorial waters while submerged in 2004 and
repeatedly shadowing US naval ships. It is
unclear whether these cases represent isolated
incidents or a deliberate campaign to force the
political leadership to take a stand on what the
PLA perceives as China’s core interests, given
how little is known about the Chinese chain of
command in military events related to foreign policy.


The analysis points towards a growing
assertiveness of Chinese military in directing
its foreign policy. The PLA and PLAN, despite
focusing on issues of modernization under
conditions of informationalisation are violating
SunTzu’s principles and Mao’s advice of a
peaceful rise. Apparently, as is the wont in most
nations, the CPC intends keeping CMC tied to the
pole but as the events indicate, it is largely
getting marginalized by the PLA and PLAN. Whether
there is a rift and would it impact Chinese
foreign policy in the long term is not tough to
surmise but the opacity of the Chinese system
makes it difficult to fathom contradictions, if any.

Due to a lack of information, changes in the
roles of the Ministry of State Security and the
PLA are the most difficult to assess. The
combination of expanding interaction between
China and the global community, intensifying
international scrutiny of China’s behaviour, and
worsening tensions in minority areas within China
have resulted in more funds and prestige for the
Ministry of State Security, thereby elevating its
status among foreign policy shapers. As for the
PLA, the extent to which it has been distanced
from foreign policy making is debated inside and
outside of China; there are both Chinese and
foreign experts who consider the PLA a re-emerging player.
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