This deep flaw went unrecognized during the first generation of Meiji revolutionaries, whose strong sense of unity, owing to their very similar military-political backgrounds and experiences, enabled them to practice a form of division of labor between the civilian leadership and the military. However, with the passing of the founding revolutionary generation, this discipline and control melted away.
The result was episodes like the Manchurian Incident of 1931, in which Japanese forces in China took military action in defiance of the civilian government’s policy. The government approved the action after the fact, consequently becoming increasingly unable to control the military effectively.
Today’s China bears some striking similarities to imperial Japan. Aside from the widening income disparity and snowballing socioeconomic problems at home, China’s rise has confronted it with an increasingly challenging security environment in the form of the US’ “pivot to Asia” and an increasingly nervous Japan. Meanwhile, the Chinese state apparatus is largely detached from the military, while the party’s top civilian leaders, despite their nominal prerogatives, have only a loose grip on the generals.
Worse still, the current fifth generation of civilian leaders is made up of veritable dwarfs in military affairs. By contrast, the PLA’s leaders have become increasingly professionalized, but without the tempering influence of effective civilian control, which might well collapse entirely if China’s leaders continue to accept unauthorized military actions, particularly in the East or South China Sea, as faits accomplis. Line commanders could take advantage of the equivocality of civilian policy, particularly given the military’s growing political clout and the CCP’s dependence on popular nationalist sentiment.
For Japan and its strategic partner, the US, the need to strengthen the alliance’s capacity to deter acts of Chinese aggression is all too clear. However, they should also raise the issue of China’s worrisome civilian-military relations directly with its top leaders.
Masahiro Matsumura is a professor of international politics at St Andrew’s University in Osaka, Japan.
Copyright: Project Syndicate