Xi Revamping China's Military to Win Wars, Finkelstein Says: Q&A

  • ‘Most profound changes to the Chinese military since 1950s’
  • Former Pentagon official David Finkelstein speaks in interview

Chinese navy formation, including the aircraft carrier Liaoning, during military drills in the South China Sea. The aircraft carrier is one of the latest steps in the years-long build-up of China's military, as Beijing seeks greater global power to match its economic might and asserts itself more aggressively in its own backyard. / AFP / STR / China OUT (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Photographer: AFP via Getty Images

It might seem like a given that militaries are built to fight wars. But that’s often not the case. 

The lure of money and political power can make commanders more concerned about domestic intrigue than external threats. That leads to forces that are bloated, poorly trained and ill-equipped to defeat enemy forces.

In China, President Xi Jinping wants to ensure his nation can fight -- and win -- modern wars. To do that, he has been overseeing a sweeping overhaul of the People’s Liberation Army since 2015.

“These are the most profound changes to the Chinese military since the 1950s, when Soviet advisers created the Chinese military in their own image,” said David Finkelstein, a retired U.S. Army officer who directs the China Studies program at CNA, a research group based in Arlington, Virginia. He called Xi “the most engaged commander-in-chief of the PLA since Deng Xiaoping,” who presided over a brief, bloody war with Vietnam in 1979.

To realize what Xi has called China’s “strong military dream,” he is looking to ensure that different military branches can work together in maritime and aerospace operations and in high-tech battle spaces, according to Finkelstein, who served in the Pentagon and has written extensively about China’s military.

Xi is reducing troop levels by 300,000, mostly from the army. He is expanding China’s navy and added new rocket, cyber and outer-space capabilities. Old departments have been eliminated and China’s Central Military Commission, the Communist Party body that runs the military, has been strengthened. The number of military regions has been reduced to five from seven “joint theater commands” responsible for planning and operations.

Here are some excerpts from the conversation:

Question

Why is Xi pursuing these changes? What’s broken about the PLA?

Answer

After working assiduously since the early 1990s to develop the capability to conduct joint operations -- especially in the maritime-aerospace domains -- PLA planners came to the inescapable conclusion that its legacy organizational structure and inefficient command-and-control relationships were not up to the task.

Moreover, the force was way out of balance. Specifically, at a time when military strategists assessed that the greatest threats to Chinese security were coming from the sea off China’s littorals, the PLA was still dominated institutionally and doctrinally by the ground forces. Radical change was needed.

Question

What’s the political context?

Answer

The current military reform enterprise has very clear political and ideological drivers. Three are paramount: First and foremost, is a need to tighten the party-PLA linkage in an era of perceived internal and external challenges to the Chinese party-state. In other words, making sure there is no daylight between the CCP and the PLA, which is the “armed wing of the CCP.”

Second, is pulling the PLA into the ambitious national reform agenda -- political, economic, social, etc. -- that Xi and the CCP outlined at the third plenum of the 18th Central Committee in 2013.

Third, is the need to preemptively roll over any potential resistance within the PLA to the military reform enterprise, as this period of reform is creating “winners and losers” within the officer corps and the rank and file. The anti-corruption campaign in the PLA is also playing out against this context.

Question

What kind of PLA is likely to emerge from this process?

Answer

It is too early to say what will actually emerge at the end of this process, for the PLA has been through many previous periods of reform that produced mixed results. Nevertheless, the aspiration is crystal-clear. 

The PLA intends to rise phoenix-like from this historic period of institutional change as a force capable of fighting and winning modern, high-tech, information-intensive joint conflicts in the maritime and aerospace battle-space domains.

The PLA has set the year 2020 as the time by which the organizational changes must be completed. In fact, however, they have initiated a generational endeavor. How this will unfold for the PLA will depend on many factors, not the least of which is the quality, training and capabilities of the personnel in the force, especially its commanders.

Question

Why does it matter to the world?

Answer

There are two potential results of this effort that will be noteworthy, should aspirations become reality. The first will be Beijing’s ability to better project military force and conduct joint operations off its shores. This will have obvious security implications for the countries in China’s neighborhood, and will be a source of uncertainty.

The second will be the ability to project military presence far beyond China’s borders. The rising primacy of the PLA Navy and them establishment of China’s first-ever foreign military outpost in Djibouti suggests that we can expect the Chinese armed forces to become more expeditionary in order to secure China’s expanding national interests in key regions of the world.

— With assistance by Peter Martin

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