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Party is state

As Beijing revisits an old debate on who should control the gun — the Chinese Communist Party or the state — no one is betting on new answers.

Written by C. Raja Mohan |
April 15, 2009 1:42:02 am

As Beijing revisits an old debate on who should control the gun — the Chinese Communist Party or the state — no one is betting on new answers. The greatest significance of this debate is that it is taking place at all.

In most modern states the armed forces owe their loyalty to the government and not to a particular party or leader. India is blessed with two special neighbours who are exceptions to this rule. In Pakistan,the army owns the state. In China,the People’s Liberation Army takes orders only from the CCP. Hu Jintao controls the PLA not because he is China’s president but because he is the boss of the CCP.

That the PLA was founded by the CCP a little over eighty years ago does not fully explain its adamant insistence that the party must continue to hold the gun. If the political turmoil after the revolution offered some justification for this arrangement,it seems to make little sense today when China is so strong and well integrated with the world.

That at least is the argument of many Chinese reformers who want to see a fundamental change in the nature of China’s civil-military relations. Although the reformers have steadily lost ground in recent years,the argument for state control of the PLA resurfaced at the end of 2008.

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A new political campaign called Charter 08, an online petition for democratic reforms,has demanded that the CCP cede control of the military. There have been no takers for ‘nationalising’ the armed forces in either the CCP or the PLA.

“Maintaining the party’s absolute leadership is our military’s political priority,” wrote General Li Jinai,director of the PLA General Political Department,in the April issue of the CCP journal ‘Seeking Truth’. “Resolutely resist ‘de-politicising the military’ or ‘nationalising the military’ and other mistaken thoughts and influences,” declared

Gen Li,a member of the Central Military Commission,the top decision-making body of the Chinese military.

Fleet review

The PLA Navy is all set for its 60th birthday bash next week. The celebrations at the Qingdao port will culminate in a fleet review,in which ships from 15 other navies,including those of the United States,India,and Pakistan,are participating.

The PLA navy is expected to put up an impressive display of rapidly expanding capabilities and has every reason to be proud of its recent achievements. Sixty years ago,the PLAN was formed on April 23,1949 when nine warships and 17 boats defected from the nationalist forces to the communists.

As in India,so in China,the navy was treated as a stepchild by the political leadership. Given the unremitting focus of the CCP on consolidating China’s territorial integrity in the wake of the revolution,CCP had little interest in maritime affairs.

All that has changed as the CCP today recognises the centrality of naval power projection for a nation that is emerging as the world’s second most important power. That China’s economy has grown so rapidly for so long has meant there has been no shortage of resources needed for building a modern navy that by nature is capital intensive.

Along with more money comes a new doctrine. From the 1950s to the end of the 1970s the main task of the navy was to conduct inshore defensive operations. Since the 1980s,the Chinese navy has moved

towards offshore defensive operations.

In the 21st century,Xinhua tells us,PLAN “has been striving to improve its capabilities for integrated offshore operations,strategic deterrence and strategic counterattacks,and to gradually develop its capabilities of conducting cooperation in distant waters and countering non-traditional security threats”.

India’s interest

Beijing’s plans to build a navy that can operate far from its own shores and the PLAN’s rising profile in the Indian Ocean have already begun to animate the Indian navy. As heads to Qingdao to participate in the fleet review next week,India’s Chief of Naval Staff,Adm Sureesh Mehta knows that the Chinese Navy too is concerned about

India’s maritime forays into the South China Sea.

As the footprints of the two expanding Asian navies begin to overlap,there is a strong need for continuous bilateral engagement. It is an appropriate moment then for Adm Mehta to lay the foundation for a sustained long term high level interaction with the Chinese navy.

The writer is professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies,Nanyang Technological University,Singapore

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