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Fake combat capability charge points to deeper malady in the Chinese army

A brief but meaningful remark by a top General of the People’s Liberation Army of China, calling for a crackdown on “fake combat capabilities” in the military, made on March 9, 2024, has busted the myth of the invincibility of the armed forces of China and has also taken the lid off the hidden struggle for power among the top leadership of China.

The remark was from no less a person than General He Weidong, the third in hierarchy of the powerful Central Military Commission of China, headed by President Xi Jinping himself; adding weight to the comment. The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post has commented, quoting military analysts, that the remark by a top army official in the backdrop of the recent purges in the Chinese army questions the authenticity of the real-time combat exercises as insisted by President Xi since his assumption of power in 2012-13;and also the quality of the equipment at the disposal of the Chinese army.

Since Xi Jinping’s taking over as President of China, the Chinese military at all levels is carrying out real-time drills; splitting forces into two groups to test their combat skills. Analysts say the message from Gen He, China’s number three military official, can be related to the procurement of flawed equipment; and also deception among the ranks during training.

President Xi, it has been reported, places a premium on the combat readiness of the military as its battle readiness has not been tested in recent decades. He has called for hi-tech integration of the armed forces, which is vital to joint operations, and tasked the PLA to prepare for “maritime military struggles” and protect maritime rights.

Former equipment expert with the PLA of China Fu Qianshao has been quoted by South China Morning Post that General He appears partly to be referring to the procurement of flawed weapons, which may affect the combat capabilities of the military. “The weapons and equipment should reach the technical standards. Counterfeiting will surely have an impact on how they function,” he has said. “Fake combat capabilities” may also refer to “fake” drills that do not reach the standards required, such as “night exercises” being conducted around sunset about which military mouthpiece PLA Daily has been eloquent about in recent years.

Whatever be the reason behind the comment by General He, it should come as a reassuring message to the littoral states in the South China Sea where China is trying to assert its hegemony; particularly Taiwan which China has threatened to annexe by force, and also India where the Chinese army is flexing its muscle at the border. In hindsight, none of these countries need to be overawed by the so-called might of the Chinese army.

If President Xi, as reported by South China Morning Post, has doubts about the battle readiness of the Chinese army in recent decades, his concern is entirely justified. Other than in 1962, when the Chinese army back-stabbed India, under the cover of the Panchsheel Agreement between the two countries, the PLA does not have any military success to show. Whenever the Chinese army has faced a well-prepared Indian army, it has been humbled. In 1967, the Chinese army suffered a defeat in the battles of Nathu La and Cho La. In Galwan in 2020 the Chinese army suffered heavy losses; though they managed to gain some disputed territory by blatant violation of a series of bilateral protocols between the two countries and taking advantage of the unsettling conditions during the Covid-19 pandemic. In Yangtse in the Tawang sector of Arunachal Pradesh, Chinese troops were pushed back by Indian troops armed with prior intelligence. In the brief Sino – Vietnamese war of 1979, the Chinese army got a bloody nose. Even in the Korean War of the 1950s, the Chinese army could not have achieved much without the help of the Soviet army.

Coming in the wake of the sacking of Defence Minister of China General Li Shangfu in 2023and the removal of another nine senior generals, many of them from the Rocket Force which operates the missile force of the country, the remark by General He on fake combat capabilities assumes added significance and points to deeper maladies in the Chinese army.

Earlier, in the decade of the 2010s, the anti-corruption drive launched by President Xi had targeted the military with dozens of top generals either sacked or investigated. InDecember 2023 the Chinese government also removed three senior executives of the state-owned aerospace and defence sector from the top political advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.

Analysts say the drive against corruption in China has been used to silence the critics of President Xi who has concentrated all the powers in his own hand; being the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, the President of the country and the Chairman of the Central Military Commission. Notably, during the discussions on the People’s Liberation Army at the week-long annual meeting of the National People’s Congress in March 2024, there was more emphasis on loyalty to President Xi than in previous years.

Among the nine army Generals dismissed, five top commanders of the Rocket Force had been members of the National People’s Congress and were part of a significant number of members of the Chinese military who formed part of the ruling Communist Party of China. According to a South China Morning Post report, almost all the senior generals in the Rocket Force had a good reputation earlier. Apparently they turned immoral after their promotion, when they moved to Beijing.

This, to any observer, will look questionable: an honest officer turning corrupt after promotion. An alternative explanation is that a powerful section in the Chinese army was resenting the concentration of all the powers in the hands of President Xi. In the unprofessional structure of the Chinese army, where army officers are also members of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, it is most likely for the army to become involved in politics.

Analysts have pointed to a power struggle between the camp of President Xi and the camp of Communist Party of China leaders and PLA officers. The dominance of President Xi in all spheres of public life is whetting the appetite for power for many in the CPC and the Chinese military. Under the pretext of eradicating corruption or infusing discipline in the Communist Party and the Chinese armed forces, President Xi is crushing pro-democracy and right seeking entities through large-scale prosecution and conviction of Communist leaders, military officials and businessmen.