On 90th anniversary, PLA reforms on show
The Chinese military has come a long way yet to be a truly effective force, further reforms are needed
China’s military should reflect the nation’s growing international stature. Today, on the 90th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army, reform to put such a force in place is progressing well. President Xi Jinping (習近平), who is also the commander-in-chief, is the mastermind and the results were on display at the Zhurihe training base in Inner Mongolia on Sunday with the nation’s first-ever combat-style parade a show of readiness to defeat any enemy. But no matter what the skills and capabilities on show, the transformation to an army able to project strength and contribute to global peace requires much work yet.
The PLA under Xi is far removed from the fighters organised by founding father Mao Zedong (毛澤東) to stage a communist uprising in Nanchang in Jiangxi province on August 1, 1927. Renamed the PLA and six million strong, it swept him to power in 1949. It took part in the Korean war alongside North Korea from 1950-53, fought and won a brief border war with India in 1962, clashed with the Soviet Union in 1969 over another boundary dispute and last did battle a decade later against Vietnam in a third frontier row in which both sides claim to have been the victor. Then came the acquisition during the 1980s of vast business interests that were subsequently replaced by double-digit budget increases sparked by worries about combat capabilities and a period in which corruption flourished among the ranks.
Bold reforms to thinking and structure were on show on Sunday before Xi, who was dressed in PLA fatigues. He told the troops to be loyal to the party and be “capable of fighting and winning any battle”. China’s growth requires a peaceful environment and the means to protect commercial interests and energy supplies. The objective is the model pioneered by the United States, which has a joint command combining all forces. Corrupt officers have been weeded out and replaced, internal structures overhauled and the standing strength cut by 300,000 to just more than two million with an eye on creating a nimble and modern force.
China’s expanding reach and interests mean that the navy, technology and training have to be given the most attention. With two aircraft carriers and destroyers, jet fighters, tanks and weapons systems comparable to those of the United States, great progress has been made. But the PLA still has structural, operational, cultural and logistics shortcomings. As its strength grows, Beijing also has to be mindful of rising nationalism and the concerns of neighbouring countries. More needs to be done about military transparency and improving communication to allay worries.
The anniversary is an opportunity to take stock and determine what more is needed for the PLA to be truly effective.