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Generational Dynamics Web Log for 24-Nov-2014
24-Nov-14 World View -- China's military strength and poor civilian control alarm neighbors

Web Log - November, 2014

24-Nov-14 World View -- China's military strength and poor civilian control alarm neighbors

The disappearance of the 'Long March' generation

This morning's key headlines from

China's military strength increasingly alarms neighbors

China's military
China's military

China's Defense Minister General Chang Wanquan was forced to respond to concerns from China's Asian neighbors who are expressing alarms at China's rapid military expansion and aggressiveness in the South China Sea and elsewhere. According to Chang:

"The remarkable growth of China's comprehensive national power, and the continued progress in national defense modernization, have become a focus of international attention in recent years. China has learned a bitter lesson from its wretched history [as a victim of aggression and the] practical need to secure its own territory."

As we've reported many times, the "practical need to secure its own territory" means using military power to confiscate and annex regions in the South China Sea that have historically belonged to Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan and the Philippines. Channel News Asia/AFP and Reuters

Fears increase over poor civilian control of China's military

Along with a simmering concern about China's intentions in building a huge military machine, alarm bells have also been rung over whether China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) does what it wants with little civilian control by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). There have been a number of incidents where the CCP has been caught by surprise by PLA actions. One that got worldwide publicity occurred when the PLA ran a surprise stealth fighter test during a visit by then U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in 2011. Apparently the PLA wanted to send a message to both the United States and the CCP. A similar event occurred in September 2012, during a visit by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.

An analysis by Andrew Scobell finds a "civil-military gap" with two meanings:

Members of the military are "tougher than ... civilian officials" and more "hawkish" toward the United States and the international system. Much of this is related to the preoccupation with achieving unification with Taiwan, and the US military is the PLA's likely adversary.

I would modify Scobell's analysis to say that the gap between the CCP and the PLA is a generational gap, not a "civil-military gap." The policy-makers in the CCP are survivors of Mao's Communist Revolution (1934-49), while the military is filled with younger generations. We all know how, in the United States, many Millennials and Gen-Xers think that all Boomers are completely full of crap. The same thing is true in China, with the younger officers in the military thinking of the geezers in the CCP as hilarious and irrelevant.

The disappearance of the 'Long March' generation

In fact, Scobell himself gives a generational explanation. According to Scobell, the loss of CCP control over the military occurred with a generational change in the 1990s, when the generations of survivors of Mao's Communist Revolution all disappeared. Scobell refers to these survivors as the "Long March generation," referring to Mao's Long March that started China's civil war in 1934:

"The disposition and background of the post-Long March generations of political and military leaders have altered the format of civil-military relations and structure of the mechanisms of control.

A core distinguishing characteristic of the Long March generation was the substantial overlap of political and military elites. Former top leaders Mao Zedong, who dominated the Chinese Communist Party from the mid-1930s until his death in 1976, and Deng Xiaoping, who was the paramount figure from the late 1970s until his death in 1997, were the most prominent members of this famous generation of leaders who had participated in the legendary 1930s trek that ensured the survival of the Communist movement. In fact, most leaders of this generation were both political and military elites.

By the mid-1990s, with the passing of the Long March generation, China's civil-military relations had evolved. In subsequent generations, civilian and military leaders became more differentiated and distinct. At the highest echelon, elites such as retired top leader Jiang Zemin and current [2009] paramount leader Hu Jintao, while holding the position of head of the PLA in addition to their formal government and party posts, did not exert the same kind of influence in, or engender the same kind of deference from, China's military. In the twenty-first century, China's Communist Party leaders are civilian technocrats with little or no military experience or expertise. Twenty-two of the 25 members elected to the Politburo at the 17th Party Congress in October 2007 have no military experience, and two of the three remaining are PLA generals."

As I've written many times, it's a core principle of Generational Dynamics that even in a dictatorship, major policies and events are determined by masses of people, entire generations of people, and not by politicians. Thus, Hitler was not the cause of WW II. What politicians say or do is irrelevant, except insofar as their actions reflect the attitudes of the people that they represent, and so politicians can neither cause nor prevent the great events of history.

With this generation gap between the PLA and the CCP, we can see how a war with China could start. We've already seen a number of aggressive moves by younger, more impetuous PLA members. These include, for example, provoking confrontations with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, and provoking dangerous confrontation with U.S. surveillance planes flying over international waters in the South China Sea. One of these impetuous acts could quickly lead to miscalculations that spiral into a wider war. However it happens, the loss of CPP control over the PLA is a very dangerous situation. Diplomat and Andrew Scobell (2009)(PDF) and Foreign Policy (2013)

(Comments: For reader comments, questions and discussion, see the 24-Nov-14 World View -- China's military strength and poor civilian control alarm neighbors thread of the Generational Dynamics forum. Comments may be posted anonymously.) (24-Nov-2014) Permanent Link
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