Chinese President Xi Jinping announced last week that he will take command of all of China’s armed forces, including the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). He is already chairman of the Central Military Commission that oversees the army. He is now assuming a more direct role as head of the new Joint Operations Command Center, ostensibly putting him in operational command of the PLA in time of war. In all likelihood, the new title means little in terms of actual command, but it has tremendous political significance. The roots of this change lie in China’s economic crisis, but the official reasons given are not trivial, and we need to start with those to understand what is happening.
The Chinese are reforming their military along American lines. The PLA had been a World War II-type force, heavy on manpower but not evolving technologically. This was particularly true of the ground forces. In addition, hampered by interservice rivalry, the army, navy, and air force did not operate well together. So the Chinese are emulating the United States’ Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986, which radically changed US military operational principles. It created geographical commands—such as Central Command and Pacific Command—with forces operating under a single regional commander, regardless of service. The services (Army, Navy, and Air Force) lost control of their forces once they were deployed. At that point, their functions were confined to training, procurement, and tactical doctrine. In other words, in the US, the services are in charge of managing resourc es while the regional commanders fight wars. In World War II, on the other hand, each service fought its own war, with limited coordination and occasionally painful consequences. Goldwater-Nichols was intended to solve that problem, and the Chinese have decided to try to solve it, too.
The air, sea, and ground components of the People’s Liberation Army will now have the job of creating and managing the forces. Five new geographic commands have been created, and each will have a single commander in control of the forces at war. These regional commands will report to the Joint Operations Command Center, which will oversee and control regional warfighting and coordinate regions. While the Central Military Commission oversees the military from a political standpoint, the Joint Operations Command will oversee it operationally. And Xi will control both.
The reforms are logical and in line with the best practices of contemporary warfare. However, the Chinese president’s taking direct operational control of the military is not. A good analogy would be Barack Obama’s declaring himself chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The US president’s taking operational control of the military, in addition to the political power he has over it, would be odd because it would be inefficient. The president controls the government, but he does not personally run its departments. The president authorizes war, but he does not control its operation. A political leader who decides to micromanage a military while managing the national government usually creates a disaster. (See “The Political Nature of Strong Armies.”)
It is therefore odd that Xi would take on this role. One reason given is that the importance of military reform and the inevitable resistance of the PLA to restructuring make it necessary for Xi to don a camouflage uniform and take direct control of operations. But is the resistance of the military really so great that the president must step into uniform to get it under control? Every military hates reforms imposed by civilians, yet most submit to the civilians without the civilian leader’s having to become the military commander. This is an extreme step to take to reform the military. There is something else going on.
The something else is a regime trying to ensure its own survival. China was founded by Mao Zedong as a moral project: to create a country ruled by communism. After Mao’s death, his project was replaced by another: to modernize the Chinese economy and create prosperity. The Maoist regime was replaced by the current regime in which the leadership rotated in an orderly fashion and government after government oversaw the generation of increasing wealth. Mao justified the regime as a dream (or nightmare, depending on how you viewed Maoism). His successors justified their regime by promising prosperity, and they delivered.
They delivered until they stopped delivering. There is occasional talk that China will somehow return to a period of rapid growth and increasing wealth. But the vast outflow of money (some in the hands of private individuals, some taken from government coffers and informally privatized) is the short explanation for why China has reached a new normal. If the rule is “follow the insiders,” the insiders are saying that getting money out of China is a priority. The story is more complex, of course. If a regime justifies itself by delivering prosperity, and it stops delivering, the regime is in trouble.