New Delhi: China’s armed forces could be hampered in future campaigns by limited cross-functional experience and limited joint preparedness, a new study by US National Defence University has assessed.
Making comparisons with Russia’s campaign in Ukraine, the report explains that “rigidity in People’s Liberation Army (PLA) assignments could reduce China’s effectiveness in future conflicts – especially those requiring a high level of jointness and adaptability, like the war that Russia launched against Ukraine in 2022 – if Chinese military leaders lack perspectives beyond their own service, speciality, and department”.
Essentially, the lack of cross-functional training, which is when members of the armed forces work across domains, and not only in the branch they began their service in, seems to be a common mitigating factor for both Russia and China, according to the study.
This basically means that those serving in China’s army will stay in the army, those in the navy in the navy, and so on.
Elaborating on this “lack” of cross-functionality, the report states: “Senior PLA officers tend to stay not only within their own services but also in their assigned functional areas. Operational commanders, for instance, rarely have career-broadening experience in logistics and vice-versa.”
The report studied biographies of over 300 serving officers of the Chinese military, including the army, navy, air force, rocket force and strategic support force, between 2015 and 2021.
PLA a ‘conservative institution, no women in top positions’
Describing the PLA as a “conservative institution”, the author of the report, Joel Wuthnow, explains that officers rise up the ranks patiently and according to seniority. Wuthnow adds that there are limited opportunities for “fast-burners”.
Further, the study explains that the leadership of the PLA is male-dominated. There were no women holding top positions between 2015 and 2021. The military is also predominantly made up of one ethnic group – the Han Chinese – and lacks ethnic diversity, the study says.
While China recognises 56 ethnic groups in the country, the top leadership is only dominated by Han Chinese nationals.
“To increase non-Han representation, the PLA has offered preferential policies for ethnic minorities and has sometimes appointed Uyghur and Tibetan officers at senior levels in the Xinjiang and Tibet military districts. These officers have reached corps leader positions (senior colonels or major generals) but not higher grades,” the study adds.
Control of Xi Jinping
Assessing the impact of military reforms undertaken by Chinese President Xi Jinping, the study adds: “PLA reforms left the army in a dominant position but increased opportunities for navy, air force, and rocket force officers to become senior leaders.”
Alluding to President Xi’s control over the armed forces, the study explains: “All PLA officers are members of the Chinese Communist Party and must have enough political acumen to demonstrate loyalty to Xi and his agenda.”
Further, Xi has increased control over the armed forces through direct authority over military appointments via his position as Central Military Commission chairman. A raft of anti-corruption investigations targeting the military under his watch has also been viewed as a political tool, according to the report.
The study also explains that Xi regularly rotates officers within China, to prevent the creation of “patronage networks” within the armed forces.
However, to balance the scales, Xi has rewarded loyalty and patience within the armed forces.
(Edited by Nida Fatima Siddiqui)