New breed of generals at PLA bring professionalism

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 November, 2012, 10:02am

Were it not for a compelling struggle for power and influence in China ahead of a change in top leadership, another transition would have received more attention from analysts and commentators - a changing of the guard at the top of the People's Liberation Army. A reshuffle of top brass has seen a virtual clean sweep of all major positions.

Speculation continues whether the next party leader and president Xi Jinping will be the political and economic reformer that, by general consensus, the country needs. But there is no doubt that a new breed of generals that is representative of a modern, confident nation is taking the reins of defence on the mainland. They are "professional soldiers" - younger, better trained and more aware of the mainland's place in the world than their predecessors in the PLA.

What sets them apart is the responsibility that comes with China's rise to world superpower status: the projection of military and soft power, beyond defence of mainland shores. Examples abound of how far afield China's interests have moved. They include the military airlift of 36,000 Chinese citizens from riot-torn Libya - the biggest such evacuation since the founding of the People's Republic; the evacuation of citizens from Japan after the tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster; China's growing role in multinational anti-piracy naval operations in the Indian Ocean; and a stronger presence in the South China Sea amid tensions over conflicting territorial claims.

This all reflects a professionalism and a regional and global perspective that is far removed from internal security, and Chairman Mao Zedong's observation that "political power comes from the barrel of a gun". Those words may resonate with the 18th party congress only days away. Indeed, there has been a campaign to demonstrate the armed forces' allegiance to the party. But the increasing professionalism of the PLA's 2.3 million soldiers has also led to debate about party control. Some younger generals in particular believe that China should have a national army, answerable to the state, rather than a party army. That would require major legal and procedural reforms, and leaders have made it plain that turning the PLA into a national army is out of the question. However, if the new leadership initiates long-stalled political and economic reforms, that could redefine the terms of the debate.