PLA main beneficiary of Taiwan deadlock
Apart from arms merchants in the United States and Russia, the PLA is a prime beneficiary of the Taiwan Strait crisis. Since outgoing President Lee Teng-hui enunciated his 'two states' theory last July, the generals have clawed back much of the territory they lost since the mid-1990s.
The defence forces went through a bad patch from early 1996 to mid-1999. The war games they staged to coincide with the Taiwan presidential elections in March 1996 not only contributed to Mr Lee's victory but set off alarm bells throughout Asia about a new 'China threat'. At the 15th Chinese Communist Party Congress in September 1997, the PLA lost its representation at the elite Politburo Standing Committee.
Then in July 1998, President Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji announced the army must sever relations with its lucrative business empire. A series of PLA-related smuggling and corruption scandals, including a multibillion-yuan case in Xiamen, Fujian province, came to light. Adding insult to injury, these corrupt businesses were discovered and investigated by civilian units such as the Central Commission for Disciplinary Inspection and the State Security Ministry. To underscore its 'state within a state' status, the PLA had insisted that only the army's own disciplinary units could handle the misdemeanours of officers.
However, the perceived rise of pro-independence forces in Taiwan - in particular, the unexpected victory of the Democratic Progressive Party's Chen Shui-bian in the March presidential election - has given the generals a new lease of life.
In the past two months, the PLA's influence in areas including security and foreign and Taiwan affairs has soared. The generals take part in Politburo deliberations on matters including how to tackle Mr Chen and how to beat back the so-called anti-China containment policy allegedly perpetrated by Washington. While Politburo moderates including Mr Jiang and Mr Zhu have qualms about war, the generals have been unreserved in recommending speedy military action before Taipei could secure new weapons from the US. Hardly a day passes by without the generals showing the Politburo Standing Committee petitions - often written in blood - by soldiers who are ready to 'sacrifice their lives for the cause of liberating Taiwan'. Production has picked up in many munitions and ordnance factories, which went through a slump through much of the 1990s. Plants manufacturing weapons and supplies such as missiles, aircraft, radar and intelligence-gathering equipment are doing particularly good business.
Yet the PLA's new-found clout is most markedly felt in its ability to affect the economy and people's livelihood. Using as pretext the need to expedite the 'great enterprise of reunification', the generals have not only got a bigger budget but managed to realise to some extent the Maoist ideal of the 'fusion of [the needs of] peace and war'.
During recent visits to regions, generals such as the two Central Military Commission vice-chairmen, Zhang Wannian and Chi Haotian, have emphasised that civilian facilities including airports, vehicles, factories and warehouses must also serve wartime needs. General Chi, who is also Defence Minister, said that when planning airports and highways - as well as industrial production - civilian authorities must bear in mind PLA requirements.
Independent of central funding, different provinces and municipalities are forking out extra cash to provide welfare benefits to soldiers and their relatives - and to help find jobs for the demobilised. Indeed, the army's ascendancy is such that the party leadership seems to have given up on the idea of nabbing PLA elements involved in the smuggling and corruption scandals. For example, despite the heavy involvement of senior officers in the Xiamen case, it seems likely none will be brought to justice.