Do China’s rulers have full control of their country’s military? Asian governments are now regularly asking themselves that question as China hardens its stance on its claims to islands in the South and East China Seas.
Perhaps the gravest incident so far came in January, when Chinese naval forces twice locked their weapons’ radar systems — the final step before firing — on a Japanese destroyer and a patrol helicopter. In the diplomatic ruckus that ensued, a Chinese ministry of foreign affairs spokesperson was, at first, utterly ignorant of the incident and asked that the journalists posing the questions put them directly to the Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) leadership.
No major reshuffle at China’s naval command has been reported since then. Instead, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) spoke emphatically of the need to strengthen the country’s military power for territorial defense. Xi, it now appears, approved the military’s decision to target the Japanese vessels after the fact. However, control after the fact is no control at all.
China’s one-party dictatorship places the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) above the state. The CCP predates the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, at which point the CCP’s revolutionary guerrilla troops became the country’s military. Consequently, unlike in liberal democracies, the military remains under direct CCP control, which is exercised through the party’s Central Military Commission. The commission’s members are elected by the CCP Central Committee, and, after automatic election a few months later by the National People’s Congress, serve concurrently on the state’s counterpart organ, thereby giving the state pro forma control of the military.
However, in reality, the twin Central Military Commissions currently comprise only one civilian leader — the chairman, Xi, who has no real military experience or expertise — alongside 10 military leaders, including two vice chairmen who are also CCP politburo members. There is no civilian vice chairman, which had become customary over the past decade.
It is frequently said that Xi’s family background, with his father’s close military ties, provides all the legitimacy that he needs to keep the PLA in line. However, as the incidents with Japan suggest, Xi certainly did not appear to be in full control at the time.
The CCP increasingly relies on the military to legitimize its rule and to serve as the final arbiter of social control in the face of exponential growth in civil unrest stemming from China’s deepening economic inequality. Moreover, now that its communist ideology of egalitarianism is defunct, the regime’s legitimacy is based on an appeal to nationalism, of which the PLA is the ultimate symbol.
Indeed, the regime’s irredentist claims in the East and South China Seas appear to be intended to divert popular discontent, with Japan singled out for public rage, while the regime’s embrace of nationalism has given the military greater political clout. In such an atmosphere, can China’s top civilian leaders curb the PLA if it is determined to act?
Among post-revolutionary Asian developing countries, the example of imperial Japan is perhaps the most resonant. Japan entered modernity after the Meiji Restoration in 1868, and its constitutional monarchy gradually evolved into a functioning parliamentary democracy around the early 1920s. However, the polity lacked a constitutional mechanism for civilian control of the military, while the emperor was the designated supreme commander.