Praetorian China?

OSAKA – Do China’s rulers have full civilian control of their country’s military? Asian governments are now regularly asking themselves that question as China hardens its stance on its claims to islands in the South and East China Seas.

Perhaps the gravest incident so far came this January, when Chinese naval forces twice locked their weapons’ radar systems – the final step before firing – on a Japanese destroyer and a patrol helicopter. In the diplomatic ruckus that ensued, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson was, at first, utterly ignorant of the incident and asked that the journalists posing the questions put them directly to the Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) leadership.

No major reshuffle at China’s naval command has been reported since then. Instead, China’s new president, Xi Jinping, spoke emphatically of the need to strengthen the country’s military power for territorial defense. Xi, it now appears, approved the military’s decision to target the Japanese vessels after the fact. But control after the fact is no control at all.

China’s one-party dictatorship places the Chinese Communist Party above the state. The CCP predates the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949, at which point the CCP’s revolutionary guerrilla troops became the country’s military. Consequently, unlike in liberal democracies, the military remains under direct CCP control, which is exercised through the party’s Central Military Commission. The commission’s members are elected by the CCP Central Committee, and, after automatic election a few months later by the National People’s Congress, serve concurrently on the state’s counterpart organ, thereby giving the state pro forma control of the military.