/ Published March 15, 2017
China's Military Transformation by You Ji. Polity Press, 2016, 284 pp.
The United States has a growing and stronger rival in the area of military affairs. It is the People's Liberation Army of China (PLA), and it is changing in many ways, becoming more powerful and influential--and also more autonomous as a leading institution in China. Its connection to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) also is evolving. In the past, the relationship between the PLA and the CCP was harmonious, but today changes in the military seem to have driven a wedge between these two entities. This seems to be the view of You Ji, a prolific writer and author of a number of works concerning the Chinese military.
The author cites a number of changes in the Chinese military that should be of interest to us. For example, there is no reluctance to spend billions of dollars on improving the capability of the military. The military itself seems to have also changed its posture from one of defense of the homeland to one of preparation for offensive actions. The navy, for example, is now concerned not only with protecting the coastline but also extending its influence into regional waters, which may be of more concern to the United States. In addition, the types of weapons the Chinese are interested in developing are more sophisticated and lethal than in the past, especially those which can reach faraway places. There is also a major US concern with the Chinese military and space warfare development. One effect of this development will be more American monitoring of Chinese military activities so as to prevent a security vulnerability in this country.
It is interesting to discover the motives for such a transformation in the Chinese military. Obviously, perceived threats from other countries in terms of invading Chinese areas of influence seem to be paramount. The United States and Japan may be viewed as the cause of these perceptions in one way or another. For example, American military ships patrolling close to China could result in that country reacting in a more protective manner by building up its military capacity. There may be other factors, such as China's desire to expand its sphere of influence and to create an impression of more power in the world based on military capability. There is no doubt that China is growing in prominence in the world today, and it certainly helps to have a military that can be influential in foreign affairs. Yet the Chinese military has another function noted in the book: quelling dissent. Even though this function could be interpreted as antidemocratic, it could be useful to a government more concerned about unity, progress, international influence, and some type of stability. Hence the role of the Chinese military will still be of great importance in China in the future considering that it has a strong effect on foreign and domestic affairs in many ways.
This book has focused on three major transformations of the PLA. One transformation is the relationship of the military to the Communist Party. It seems as if the military is becoming more of a separate entity with its connection to the party. For example, the author notes, "Today there is no politician in uniform and the minimized PLA representation at the apex of power has become largely functional" (p. 27). This change suggests a difference with previous civil-military personnel situations.
Another transformation is the role of the PLA in domestic politics. Basically, the author suggests that the PLA has less of an effect on who will be the future Chinese political leaders. He notes that the generals are no longer the "kingmakers" who could determine leadership succession (p. 27-28). It seems that the military is moving from unconditional support of the party to nominal loyalty. Nevertheless, it is evident that cooperation between the two entities is still present and probably will continue for some time.
A third transformation is the modernization of military force. With the huge sums of money being invested in the military, there is an obvious attempt to rival the United States in developing certain types of sophisticated weapons. For example, the Chinese military's attitude toward aerospace power seems to be of paramount concern. The Chinese military does differentiate between airpower and space power but believes that there should be a combination of both to become successful in air warfare. Hence, financial investments in both of these types of powers are recognized as very important to the security of China considering the fact that the United States has developed effective and sophisticated weapon systems in both areas.
It is obvious upon reading this book that there is a growing separation between the CCP and the PLA even though the fact is that the party is the key entity in Chinese foreign policy. Yet the separateness could have important repercussions recognized by many--especially the Chinese. For example, the separateness between these two entities is important to note because it could have serious consequences, such as a decline of influence of China in world affairs, and other countries could take advantage of this change. However, the Chinese will work hard to keep these differences from restricting their rapid growth in power and influence in the world wide environment.
It is projected by many that China will be a fast rising power in the twenty-first century. Although many factors, including economic growth, will foster this power, certainly the role of its military will be another important reason. One must remember that for China to feel more secure domestically and internationally and to expand its influence further in the world, it needs to have a strong military. Hence, this book becomes a valuable tool in helping us understand this new position of China and the role of its military.
William E. Kelly, PhD
Auburn University Political Science Department
"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."