Revolutionary army must embrace evolution

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 August, 2007, 12:00am

The People's Liberation Army and modern China are intrinsically linked. Today, the 80th anniversary of the forming of the guerilla group that evolved into an army that played an integral role in founding the nation, is a time for both celebration and reflection.

As we watch the military displays, the legacy of those first revolutionary fighters led by Mao Zedong must be foremost in our minds. The economic powerhouse that is pulling hundreds of millions of people from abject poverty to affluence at a pace never before experienced in world history is the result of their vision. Such a seismic shift is also being experienced by the PLA. The revolutionary zeal that marked its creation has been replaced by the reality of its new position: protecting and representing the nation.

There are still significant vestiges of its past in the central government's political structure, however. This has to change; there is no place for a military in governing the day-to-day lives of the people. This has already partly happened. President Hu Jintao , although constitutionally commander of the PLA, has, like his predecessor, Jiang Zemin , a civilian rather than military background. But the PLA remains an integral part of the Communist Party and its delegates constitute almost 9 per cent of the National People's Congress. More importantly, the PLA is still under the control of the party, not the state. This is out of line with international practice. As China continues to play a bigger role in world affairs, steps should be taken to place the PLA under state control.

Politics aside, the PLA is undergoing transformation through a vigorous modernisation programme made possible by China's economic rise. Quality, not quantity, is now the key: China's long borders made it necessary to build the world's biggest army, but technology has now made such thinking obsolete. Ushering in such changes from a low base is nonetheless expensive. Governments such as those of the US and Japan should consider this when expressing concern about military spending. To allay their worries, Beijing and the PLA must do their utmost to be honest and transparent about military developments. They are to a degree doing this through releasing white papers detailing force strength and expenditure, participation in war games and visits by military officials. On Monday the PLA allowed a tour of a military base by foreign journalists. Much more needs to be done, though. Secrecy still shrouds the PLA and its operations - as evidenced by a ballistic missile launch on January 11 that shattered an ageing satellite without warning or, for two weeks, acknowledgement. There is talk of an aircraft carrier being built and advanced submarines and aircraft are being deployed without announcement.

If defence is Beijing's reason, as it says, it has to make such developments known to the world. China's rise affects balances of power and being open is essential to avoid misunderstandings. With so much military hardware deployed on either side of the Taiwan Strait, openness on military matters by all sides is essential.

There have been highs and lows for the PLA over its eight decades. Its crowning achievement came with the establishment of the nation in 1949. The low was its deployment at Tiananmen Square in 1989 to crush a peaceful demonstration. National security remains the PLA's priority, but with China's growing international importance, it will also have a new role: in ensuring that the world remains peaceful. Through peacekeeping forces and helping after natural disasters, the PLA can show that the mainland is to be welcomed, not feared.