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China’s PLA now has more say in weapon development, procurement. India stuck for 8 years

Like India, China’s Defence Industrial Base is State-owned and has a monopoly over defence production. Xi's new regulations will make it stronger.

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As part of the military reform continuum, Chinese President Xi Jinping, the chairman of the Central Military Commission, CMC, recently promulgated new regulations for the evaluation and testing of military equipment. The new regulations will give the People’s Liberation Army, PLA, a greater say in decision making with respect to weapon development and procurement.

Like India, China’s Defence Industrial Base (DIB) is State-owned and has a monopoly over defence production. The new regulations are aimed at streamlining the relationship between the PLA and the DIB and making the latter more efficient.


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Reasons for the new regulation

In the past, due to a complex system of defence management, the corporations of the DIB were the main drivers for the development of defence technology and weapon systems that were offloaded on their captive client, the PLA. After feedback, the equipment was improved and modified. Zhou Chenming, a researcher at Yuan Wang military science and technology think tank said, “In the past, arms companies would persuade the PLA to buy their products, whether they needed to or not because the military was told to keep the orders to help defence industry workers keep their jobs.”

This system worked fairly satisfactorily as most of the weapon systems were based on reverse engineering of medium technology Russian equipment. As the PLA began its transformation for “winning informationised (sic) local wars” that required weapon and support systems based on high-end military technology, the corporations could not measure up to the qualitative requirements.

Last year, the “rules of military equipment” were issued  “to research and develop more advanced weapons and other military equipment, and to better manage and maintain the military equipment that is already produced and used by the Chinese military.” The new regulations primarily focus on the testing and evaluation of military equipment under combat conditions in diverse terrain and battlefield environments. The PLA in the last two decades has upgraded itself to third/fourth generation weapon and support systems. The reforms are now focused on future fifth/sixth generation systems.


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State of the DIB

China has a very large DIB. Seven of the 15 largest defence related firms are Chinese state-owned enterprises, namely, North Industries Corporation, Aviation Industry Corporation of China, China State Shipbuilding Corporation, China Aerospace Technology Corporation, China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation, China State Industry Group Corporation and China Electronic Technology Corporation. In 2017, it exported arms worth $4 billion, including ships, aircraft, armoured vehicles, missiles, artillery, drones and sensors.

China’s DIB has the support of a huge manufacturing base, which accounts for 25 per cent world’s manufacturing output, 50 per cent of which is dual-use. Apart from catering for  the PLA, there is tremendous scope for export. It has the benefit of a whole-of-government approach as it deals with the CMC, headed by the president. With its ever-increasing GDP, China can easily forecast its defence budget. The Military Civil Fusion policy allows linkages with science and technology research institutions/universities. China has 18 of the 37 minerals related to defence applications and has taken pains to secure the supply chain using diplomacy and trade agreements, for the balance 19 through imports.

The main drawback in the past has been the rigid control of the Chinese Communist Party and a lack of incentives in the Communist system. This has been partially redressed in the 2015 reforms with greater authority for the reformed CMC. Unlike democracies, there is no legislative, judicial and media oversight and a wrong decision by the CMC can have serious consequences.

Interestingly, China is largely dependent on the United States and its allies, and Russia, for components required by the DIB. As per RAND, “In 2019, researchers at the Centre for Advanced Defence Studies (C4ADS) found that the United States — not Russia — was the largest supplier to China’s DIB, at almost 20 per cent of all of China’s DIB imports.” It also imports whole military equipment, including aircraft and naval engines. It relies on the West for technological education and training. However, so dependent are the advanced economies on China that this leverage has never been, and is unlikely to be used, in the near future.


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Military reform continuum

China’s national security strategy has traditionally been given out as ‘Military Strategic Guidelines’ by the CMC that are classified. However, some details are invariably given out in Defence White Papers, which are in the public domain. Chinese military reforms began in 1993 after Gulf War 1 when it adopted the strategy of preparing for “local wars under modern conditions”. This strategy was modified in 2004 to “winning local wars under conditions of informationisation (sic)” and further modified in 2015 to “winning informationised (sic) local wars”. China recognised that information warfare is the basic prerequisite for high technology warfare.

While China’s military reforms have been an ongoing process, President Xi Jinping has given them greater impetus and clearly defined the objectives. He recognised that military reforms were critical to fulfilling his China Dream — a “powerful and prosperous” nation that would acquire “great power status by 2049”. His strategic directions were given in the 2015 Defence White Paper and further reinforced in the 2019 Defence White Paper.

In 2015, he announced comprehensive reforms to shape the transformation of the PLA. The CMC was given greater autonomy and its four general departments were replaced by the Joint Staff Department comprising 15 sub-departments. The PLA was fully integrated and its seven military regions were reduced to five tri-Service theatre commands. Three new Services were created — PLA Ground Forces, PLA Rocket Forces and PLA Strategic Support Forces. Strategic Support Forces encompass sub-domains of Electronic Warfare, Cyber Warfare, Psychological Warfare, strategic deception and communication/electronics aspects of Space Warfare.

Timelines were clearly spelt out for the transformation. Mechanisation was to be completed by 2020 with significant “informationisation”; accelerate the integrated development of mechanisation, “informatisation”, and “intelligentisation” by 2027; comprehensively advance modernisation of national defence by 2035; and fully transform the PLA into a world-class force by 2049.

In the last 10 years, President Xi Jinping has pursued military reforms with missionary zeal and the PLA is well on its way to achieving the defined objectives. And therein lies the lesson for India. Leave aside the hibernation from 2000 to 2014, we have made little or no progress with respect to the transformation of the military in the last eight years. It’s time for the political and military leadership to rise to the challenge.

Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post-retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.

(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)

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