The Third Plenum of the 18th Central Committee (CC) of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which concluded in Beijing on November 12, was a very important conference with potentially far reaching significance. It approved 300 reform proposals to be implemented under Chinese president Xi Jinping’s leadership over 10 years. The reforms aim to lift China to the level of the world’s most advanced countries by 2020 and, in Xi Jinping’s words, enable the country to “realise the Chinese Dream”. The plenum appreciably enhanced Xi Jinping’s powers and authority.
While economic reforms were the primary focus of the plenum and attracted maximum international and domestic attention, crucial reforms relating to national security and the military, which added substantially to Xi Jinping’s authority, were also approved. The 18th Congress of the CCP held last November effected a reorganisation in the top hierarchy of China’s security apparatus with the position of the secretary of the Political and Legal Affairs Commission being downgraded to the level of a politburo member. This plenum reinforced Xi Jinping’s direct control over the country’s security apparatus.
Growing discontent and unceasing restiveness among Tibetan and Uyghur minorities in the Tibet Autonomous Region and Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region ensured that domestic security issues dominate Xi Jinping’s agenda. Stark reminders of discontent surfaced in the days leading up to the plenum. China’s leaders allocated vast sums for the domestic security budget which this year officially exceeds US$ 110 billion. The domestic security budget has now surpassed the national defence budget for the past three consecutive years. This will increase with the creation at the recent plenum of the National Security Committee (NSC). The head of China’s official foreign policy think tank said the new NSC would focus on the “Three Evils” (terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism) in addition to co-ordinating international strategy, particularly on maritime issues.
The paragraph in the “domestic” affairs section of the plenum communique, which mentioned creation of the NSC, justified it as to “perfect the structure of state security and national-security strategies, so as to (better) safeguard national security”. The emphasis on domestic security was highlighted in the statement that it was meant to “improve the ways of social governance, stimulate the energy of social organisations and bring about innovation of systems to effectively prevent and end social contradictions and improve public security”. Reports suggest the new NSC will be on par with the Central Military Commission, “Leading Group on National Security” and “Leading Group on Foreign Affairs”.
While it is virtually certain that the new NSC will be headed by Xi Jinping, its composition is not yet known. The usually reliable Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao claims Xi Jinping’s two deputies would be the former minister of public security and politburo member and head of the Political and Legal Affairs Committee, Meng Jianzhu, along with Beijing Public Security chief and Xi Jinping confidant, Fu Zhenghua. Other reports claim that politburo member and Xi Jinping confidant Wang Huning would be the deputy in lieu of Fu Zhenghua.
Other plausible reports suggest that Xi Jinping will be assisted by three vice-chairman—National People’s Congress chairman Zhang Dejiang, Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference chairman Yu Zhengsheng, and politburo standing committee member and head of the secretariat Liu Yunshan. The NSC will include representatives from People’s Liberation Army (PLA), People’s Armed Police (PAP), ministry of public security, ministry of state security, ministry of foreign affairs, ministry of commerce, CCP CC’s propaganda department and its international liaison department.
Equally important and of greater relevance to China’s neighbours are the military reforms approved by the 18th CC’s third plenum. These were dealt with at paragraphs 55-57 of the plenum’s decision that discussed military reforms and modernisation. Some reforms are far-reaching and have been under debate. The new military reforms include streamlining of personnel and reorganisation of military leadership structures including at the level of the Military Commission, General Headquarters and all services. The reorganisation could presage strengthening of the PLA’s general staff department (GSD) by making the other principal departments definitively subordinate to the director of the GSD.
The focus on integrated joint operations was maintained with the clear suggestion that joint operations outfits and joint theatre operations command systems would be set up under the Military Commission in addition to “new types of combat forces”. A major implication of this is that military regions are likely to be replaced by theatre commands on the US pattern. This could mean revision of the status of the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and PLA Navy (PLAN) in the military regions. There have been hints in China’s military newspapers and magazines for some years now that this is under consideration.
The continuance of joint operations training in the armed forces would mean larger numbers of PLAAF and PLAN officers being posted in the GSD, general logistics department and general armaments department to facilitate greater inter-service co-ordination. There was stress on integrated logistics, national defence science and technology research and setting up of integrated “informatisation” commands.
A further downsizing of personnel strength, particularly non-combatants, was approved together with reallocation of personnel among the different services. Reports have been circulating in military circles in Beijing for the past two years that there are plans for reducing PLA’s strength by 800,000 personnel. The reorganisation envisages rationalising the ratio of officers to troops and personnel to formations. The role and strengths of the PLAAF, PLAN and China’s strategic strike force, the Second Artillery, will be augmented. This was confirmed by Central Military Commission vice-chairman Xu Qiliang in the People’s Daily on November 22.
The swathe of reform measures approved by the third plenum is aimed to boost China’s status and military might. The latter is of particular concern to China’s neighbours with who it has pending sovereignty and territorial disputes.
The writer is a member of the National Security Advisory Board and former additional secretary in the cabinet secretariat, Indian government.