Fragmented command of the PLA

January 26, 2009

This can’t be classified as new, but from another part of the White Paper we learn that the Army has no unified command, but is split into four headquarters and seven regional commands. Of course the CMC serves a type of unified-command function, but there doesn’t seem to be a general staff-type organization.

The political benefits are clear (general staffs do not exactly have a reputation for trust-worthiness), but this could be a weakness in the event of conflict.

Nukes with “Chinese characteristics”

January 25, 2009

The nuclear weapons division (“the Second Artillery Force”) has the goal of “a lean and effective strategic missile force with Chinese characteristics.” WTF? I’m going to write more later on the sloganeering all over the White Paper. But this one is so good it needs its own entry.

What on earth could it mean? A Chinese soldier strapped to the warhead? Which would make Dr Strangelove’s final shot “nuclear war with Texan characteristics …”

The possibilities for humour are endless

Kim’s alive!

January 25, 2009

After the countless photos that no-one could say were real, and the hilarious ‘portraits’, we now have an at-least-probably-true report that Kim Jong-Il is not incapacitated. He met with a Chinese envoy recently. This at least tilts the balance in favour of “he’s recovering and reasserting control” camp of NK watchers.

This doesn’t change the fact though that the man is obviously fragile. The furious rumour-mongering on successors will continue. This latter though is beside the point. Kim himself ruthlessly built a power base long before his father died. Any nominated successor will not have that. Look for it to be a Hua Guofeng moment.

I’m still placing money (but not too much) on Kim’s death generating one of the defining foreign policy moments in Obama’s first term. I don’t know the nature of US planning for that contingency, but the low priority of Asia right now is discouraging.

Give me your young …

January 24, 2009

Another little nugget from the White Paper. The PLA is taking education quite seriously and they are starting early. “At present, there are 117 colleges and universities with defense students. The PLA has selected nearly 1,000 key middle schools in the various provinces and municipalities as the main sources of defense students.”

I don’t know at what stage the US military starts recruiting. I’ve always heard about campus recruiting centres, and there’s a cadet-type programme I believe. Maybe there’s an interesting contrast here that parallels the two countries’ approaches to sports training – China’s top-down forced selection, vs a freer, bottom-up US system. These are important long-run determinants of military styles and capabilities.

China’s democratic military

January 24, 2009

I’m going to pull out little nuggets from the White Paper over the next couple of days, before returning to a broad view. The first one: in April last year “instituionalized” – I don’t know if they existed before – servicemen’s committees in every unit of the PLA. These have no decision making power, but get to make recommendations on things like NCO selection. Most surprisingly – they are chosen by soldiers by secret ballot.

Now, we shouldn’t be naive about this. These committees are composed of soldiers, so I doubt they’d raise too much fuss, or they’d get disciplined. In fact, they work “under the leadership of the unit Party branch (or grass-roots Party committee) and the guidance of the unit commanders”. And I wonder how “secret” those ballots are.

Still. This is very interesting – one wonders why they felt the need to do it. Ground-level pressure? A general principle of creating co-opted structures before they can come into being on their own? My guess is a combination of both.

Obama and Asia: to be forgotten?

January 23, 2009

The FEER publishes a bold, clever OpEd from Michael Auslin at the AEI. The agenda he proposes for Obama in Asia is a good one, and would at a stroke restore momentum and strategic thrust to the US here. However that would require Asia being a strategic priority, which would in turn require strategic clarity on the region. I just don’t think this is widely present in Washington. So we’ll probably just have to accept that this administration will be fire-fighting everywhere else, and hope that the region doesn’t slip away completely in the interim.

I remember an interview with Obama in Time in the ‘Man of the Year’ issue. He listed his priorities, and Asia was right at the end, like “Oh shit, I forgot about Asia, better talk about that”. Then complete absence from the Inaugural. Let’s see what the travel schedules for him and Hillary look like, but I’m not optimistic.

China’s Military White Paper

January 22, 2009

It took some doing but I’ve managed to track the thing down. I’ve been able to read the first section, so more will come. For now, what I find most interesting how it describes the world, i.e., what China’s military sees. That worldview has little time for “international law”, or its institutions, but has interests, power, and military force as its dominant terms.

What they see instead is bleak and cut-throat. Sure they talk about interdependence etc., but they end that by saying “the risk of worldwide, all-out and large-scale wars [ will be low ] for a relatively long period of time.” Well, I for one am quite happy the world isn’t about to end. Much of the time they talk in phrases like “a profound readjustment is brewing in the international system” and “struggles for strategic resources, strategic locations and strategic dominance have intensified”.   Then the money quote: “All countries are attaching more importance to supporting diplomatic struggles with military means.”

I’ll be digesting this in chunks. For now, it should dispel doubts whether China’s military sees itself and the world as some kind of law-bound community, or governed by the harsher logic of power.

China’s Military White Paper

January 21, 2009

Haven’t got hold of it yet, hope to do so soon. One thing’s for sure : the timing was no accident (there were no ‘coincidences’ of political timing on Jan 20 this year). What I don’t know, is whether the intent was to release the report to counter the transparency critics, but bury it below the inaugaration coverage, or whether to get the attention of the new President ‘on day one’. My money’s on the latter, but with China’s military there may even be a third option : they’re just playing games.

Favourite inauguration factoid

January 20, 2009

Enough ink will be spilled, so I’ll keep this short: I never realized until this morning that the VPs share a car. Obama and Bush will be polite to each other. God but what I’d give for a mike in Biden and Cheney’s though …

The scary and not-as-scary in China’s economy

January 20, 2009

First, a disclaimer : no one has a clue what’s going to happen (not even Lex or Jim Rogers). Everybody has been wrong one way or another. The argument is becoming polarized and emotional. Personal view is a pretty nasty first half, with a shaky recovery in the second half. Whether that holds is another story (I think the story). What are the risks? Read the rest of this entry »