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Don't look now but China's military is changing!

March 17, 2017 11:55 IST

In a few years from now, India will be looking at an entirely different type of military adversary across the borders, in our waters, in the air, in space and in our communication networks, says Nitin Pai.

What caught public attention recently was the announcement that China’s defence outlays have crossed a trillion yuan ($151 billion) for the first time, albeit growing at a slower 7 per cent in line with slower economic growth expectations.

As usual, foreign analysts complained that the figures were opaque, and if you were to count pensions and military research and development allocations, the real defence expenditure would be around 50 per cent higher.

But let’s face it: To the extent that revealing how much you spend on defence is part of defence -- in that you deter adversaries by showing how strong you are -- how transparent you want to be is a matter of strategy.

The United States might deter its adversaries by showing off how much it is spending on acquiring awesome technological might. China, on the other hand, has calculated that being inscrutable works to its advantage.

While we do not know how much China is spending on defence, we know a couple of things: First, that Beijing is emphasising expansion of maritime power and second, that it is signalling that it will not -- as of now -- get into a spending race with the United States.

We should expect the Chinese naval forces to resist the supremacy of the US navy in the Western Pacific and increasingly assert their power in the Indian Ocean.

The People’s Liberation Army’s Navy has already acquired a submarine fleet and anti-ship missiles to challenge the US Navy’s surface fleet, and is now investing in a surface fleet that can project power further away from its shores.

While Indian defence circles have been aware of China’s maritime push for some time now, what has gone largely unnoticed is that President Xi Jinping has rolled out deep structural reforms to the Chinese armed forces.

While India has been hemming and hawing about appointing a chief of defence staff (CDS) or improving the teeth-to-tail ratio of the armed forces, President Xi has ordered changes that can dramatically alter the PLA’s war-fighting capabilities.

The changes are big enough to call for a wholesale review of India’s defence structure beyond what the Kargil Review Commission advised.

Here’s how the PLA has changed: First, the army, navy, air force and missile force have been reconstituted into five joint theatre commands.

Like the United States, the theatre commanders will report directly to the civilian-political leadership, as will the service chiefs. This is a structure optimised for fighting modern wars.

Second, the Central Military Commission, the military high command, has been restructured by breaking up the four general staff departments and giving the top leadership direct control over its 15 constituent organisations.

Third, the Chinese government commenced the demobilisation of 300,000 PLA personnel, most of them from the army and half of them officers. The reductions will mostly come from non-combat units, but it is possible that some infantry units will face cuts too.

Beijing is doing this amid open protests by PLA veterans across the country over the past few years, complaining about inadequate and unpaid pensions and failure to provide them the promised civilian jobs.

PLA pensions depend not on rank but domicile: Two soldiers with the same rank and same length of service can get extremely different pensions depending on whether they are domiciled in rural or urban areas.

President Xi has not let the slowing economy and fewer jobs to come in the way of getting the PLA into fighting shape.

Fourth, President Xi has taken the anti-corruption campaign to go after top brass: Two former vice-chairmen of the Central Military Commission have been arrested for selling positions and 42 high-ranking officers have been purged.

That this has coincided with President Xi’s political power grab should not detract from the fact that corrupt generals have been brought to book.

Finally, the PLA is now amid the deepest drive yet to divest itself of commercial activities.

It was not unusual for PLA units to run factories, own companies and preside over real-estate empires. The revenues from these activities would not go back to the treasury, but instead support formal PLA activities and line the pockets of its officers and commissars.

It will take some of these changes to take effect and success is likely to be uneven. Even if the journey is of a thousand miles, China has taken the first step.

Unfortunately, the common Indian response to profound military changes across the Himalayas has been to say “Oh, they can do it because they have an authoritarian government”.

Yet, the reality is, facing similar political and fiscal challenges as India, the Chinese government has taken a purposeful approach to military reform. They are acting in the supreme national interest.

The sense of urgency that the Kargil Review Committee sought to impart 15 years ago does not seem to manifest itself in our defence planning circles even today.

It’s now been reduced to whether or not New Delhi will appoint a permanent Chief of Defence Staff, as if appointing one officer who wears one more star is a substitute for structural reforms that were deemed necessary a decade and a half ago.

It’s worse when it is suggested that raising a new mountain corps is an adequate response to the next generation PLA.

In a few years from now, India will be looking at an entirely different type of military adversary across the borders, in our waters, in the air, in space and in our communication networks.

We can seek refuge in our political and bureaucratic excuses, but let us be clear that our current path and pace of modernisation will tilt the balance of military power to China’s advantage in less than a decade.

Our nuclear arsenal will deter a direct major conventional attack, but it is unlikely to prevent coercion, indirect conflict or a steady erosion of our geopolitical footprint.

So no, we will not have a repeat of 1962. We will have an entirely different fight on our hands. And we are not going to be ready for it.

Image: People's Liberation Army officers arrive at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, March 4, 2016, ahead of the opening ceremony of the National People's Congress. Photograph: Damir Sagolj/Reuters.

The writer is the co-founder and director of Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy.

Nitin Pai
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