This decade is about the rise of China as an aggressive regional and global actor and a modernized People’s Liberation Army which term also includes the PLA Navy [PLAN] and the PLA Air Force [PLAAF]. Rapid induction rate of the PLA’s naval and air force platforms is a revelation given that this has been unmatched even during wartime by contemporary armed forces the world over.
China’s political leadership’s objectives to field a global military force by 2035 and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) modernization and expansion has created multiple concerns amongst adversaries.
President and Chairman Xi Jinping have stated publicly is that China wants a “modern military” by 2027 at the regional level is just about three years ahead?
The PLA may well achieve this objective in number of platforms fielded, though the technology will remain questionable.
What is even more doubtful is the quality of the PLA leadership given recent exposes and the, “unknown knowns,” so to say.
Yet China’s aggressive posturing and perceived emerging infallibility of the PLA has become the subject of much debate and discussion particularly in the Indian military.
India’s Chief of Defence Staff General Anil Chauhan for instance has mentioned China’s assertiveness in at least three forums that he has spoken recently – the Air Chief Marshal L M Katre Memorial Lecture, the Defence Conclave and General K V Krishna Rao Memorial Lecture. While this reference may be to impress upon the need for modernization of the Indian Armed Forces which are moving at the usual elephantine pace of, “evolution,” which also appears to be an accepted norm for the Indian military leadership.
What is missing in the debate is the major chinks in the PLA corruption in the highest echelons, politicization and opacity with lack of adequate incentives.
While underestimating an adversary is not advisable, knowing its weaknesses and exploiting these also is an art that needs to be developed in the information age.
Corruption in PLA Higher Ranks
Firstly, coming to corruption. The permeation in the highest echelons should be seen as seriously degrading the strategic as well as the operational capabilities of the PLA.
Recent removal of top generals in the PLA and the Defence Minister Li Shangfu has highlighted how the top echelons have been impacted by corruption for monetary gains possibly even involving the leakage of some of the top secrets of the Rocket Force to the United States.
After the 20th Party Congress in October 2022, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection has arrested nearly 40 officials, including members of the armed forces, in a new anti‐corruption campaign.
On July 31, Chinese leader Xi Jinping announced that two generals from other branches of China’s military would be taking over the two top leadership positions in the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF), thus implying that former commander and deputy commander of the PLARF are under investigation for corruption as indicated by South China Morning Post.
Rocket Force Commander Li Yuchao was removed along with his deputy Liu Guangbin and a former deputy Zhang Zhenzhong and reportedly put under investigation by the Central Military Commission’s anti-corruption unit, according to an August podcast episode from the German Marshall Fund.
Xi appointed Wang Houbin, the former deputy commander of the navy, as the new head of the PLA Rocket Force, replacing Li Yuchao, who had been commander since January last year.
Xu Xisheng, from China’s air force, was made political commissar, an equally senior position in charge of enforcing party directives.
Li’s son studies in the United States, raising concerns about the potential betrayal of CCP’s military intelligence.
Wu Guoua, the deputy commander of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Rocket Force reportedly died by suicide on June 6, 2023 — the same day when Xi was conducting an inspection of the Eastern Theatre Command.
PLA has stated that the cause of Wu’s sudden death was cerebral haemorrhage.
On June 28, Xi Jinping presented the ‘certificates of order’ to promote two military officers to the rank of general, clearly implying that the vacuum created had to be filled in.
Another shocking investigation has been that of former defence minister Wei Fenghe during his tenure the Galwan episode on the Line of Actual Control with India happened.
There is a link between Defence Minister Li Shangfu and Wei, since Wei had been instrumental in getting Li on board the services.
As per a Reuters report General Li Shangfu, a veteran of China's military modernisation drive, was under investigation in a broad probe over procurement of military equipment. Li an aerospace engineer was first deputy of PLA's Strategic Support Force, tasked with accelerating the development of China's space and cyber warfare capabilities. He was appointed head of the Equipment Development Department of the Central Military Commission.
The United States sanctioned Li over the purchase of 10 Russian Su-35 combat aircraft in 2017 and equipment related to the S-400 surface-to-air missile system.
Meanwhile in July this year the Department issued a notice that it was looking to "clean up" its bidding process and invited the public to report irregularities dating back to October 2017, when Li was at its helm. He ran the unit until October 2022 as per the Reuters.
Corruption in equipment procurement that reaches to the top implies a need to seriously review the capabilities of the Chinese military platforms especially after their rapid inductions. The PLA routinely takes military officials from other countries to visit ships and air bases which are spruced up for visits. Visitors return from these visits clearly impressed by what they see. However, there should be a serious review of the state of the PLA and realistically examine the capabilities.
More over corruption in the Rocket Force is far more serious indicating possible deficits in China's strategic capabilities.
Corruption in Promotions
A related issue in corruption is permeation of the same in promotions. Roderick Lee, director of research at the Air University’s China Aerospace Studies Institute (CASI), has been quoted by Vox in an interview states that corruption occurs in two main areas: contract procurements and promotions. [Vox Disclaimer: though Lee is an employee of the US Department of Defense, he shared his own opinions and analysis with Vox and does not speak on behalf of the DOD.]
“Essentially the only way you could rise through the ranks in the PLA is you’d have to pay into the system,” Lee said as per the Vox.
Senior officers, like those at Li’s level are said to have had to pay into that promotions pipeline early on in their careers. “None of them are clean — in fact I’d argue that probably no one who’s a general or a flag officer in the PLA is clean, even today,” as per the Vox Report quoting Lee.
Corruption in the PLA is a long-term problem, and the cleanup campaign is the third since Xi took office.
“Many of these officers were involved in procuring weapons systems for the rocket force, they worked in the bureaucracy, they may have tried to influence bidding or taken bribes,” Li Nan, a senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s East Asian Institute was quoted by the Washington Post.
A report in the Print has highlighted how corruption has continued, or expanded under Xi—the ‘buying and selling of office’ maiguan maiguan (买官卖官). Four forms of corrupt activities: petty theft, grand theft, speed money, and access money have been identified in the Print Report.
In fact the PLA Daily has acknowledged the impact of corruption in the military. “Corruption cannot exist within the party, especially in our army. When the army is corrupt, the army will have no fighting capacity,” said an article published by the PLA Daily. In October 2022, an article published by the PLA Daily claimed that after 10 years of the anti-corruption campaign, the army had “risen from the ashes”.
However, events in July show that there is still a long way to go.
Two major issues that lead to questioning of the PLA combat effectiveness have been flagged here which are seen as the most serious. For a, “Pay to Play,” military and one where procurement managers at the highest level are rooted in corrupt practices may not prove effective on the battlefield.
Thus, the strategic rise of China and the PLA while well acknowledged there are many chinks in the armour so to say which cannot be measured quantitatively yet have a major influence on the effectiveness and efficiency of China’s fighting forces.