The lunar new year of the horse shall witness many deep reforms, ushered in by the Third Plenum of the Eighteenth Party’s Congress, which convened last November. Along with its emphasis on the reform of national defense and armed forces, the Third Plenum’s agenda has a particular focus on advancing the civil-military partnership in China.
For many years before its economic opening, China’s economy was heavily planned. Its civil and military sectors were clearly separated, so that they were unable to collaborate and combine resources. This has hindered development in both sectors, preventing them access to each other while attaining their respective full potential.
Chinese civil entities were not able to access defense research and development, which hindered their contribution of competence to the military framework. .In comparison, the US armed forces have not established a state-owned, defense-only R&D and manufacturing capacity. The US government has shared defense opportunity and risk with defense complexes that produce both civilian and military products.
Similar divide has existed within the Chinese military. In the seven main military regions of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), each regional service was allowed to set up its own logistic department. This generated the hassle of inter-service coordination of resources use. This kind of divide-and-appropriate strategy has become obsolete in an age where joint operations are becoming the trend of contemporary warfare.
China has already embarked on an incremental process to reform the phenomenon of the planned defense economy. Since the 1980s, China’s arms manufacturers have launched defense conversions to adapt to the emerging market and allow their expertise to spill into the civilian sectors. Since the beginning of the 21st century, the government has embraced the idea of welcoming civil sectors to bid for defense contracts, as private business has grown stronger. The increasingly competent civil business circle can now utilize its research and manufacturing expertise to serve the nation’s defense needs, enhancing China’s overall competence. In light of such reforms, the PLA has reportedly started to allow inter-service joint logistics centers within each of its main military regions.
At a crucial time in China’s search for further progress, the Party’s Third Plenum has called for a deeper and wider reform of civil-military integration and development, as part of its overall blueprint of this comprehensive reform and opening.
This broad reform requires three components: centralized leadership and coordination, strengthening defense manufacturing through introducing competent private expertise, and maintaining the armed forces with socialized support.
First, at the top level, China’s further civil-military partnership warrants a centralized leadership system. This coordination allows for a smooth demand-supply match and resource sharing. Neither the existing State Council nor Central Military Commission has been designated to perform for this task. Similar to the newly established National Security Committee, an inter-departmental institution must be set up under the top level while reporting to the state. The new system shall aim to coordinate the civilian and military sectors so as to harmonize their two-way demand-and-supply. Not only do the services within the armed forces need to combine their resources, the civil and defense sectors need to share respective resources under the reformed centralized system.
Second, it is necessary to institutionalize this reform so that more competent civilian enterprises may enter defense R&D, as well as production and maintenance. After three decades of economic openness, China is quickly catching up with its research and development. China spent approximately 1 trillion Chinese yuan (about 2% of GDP) in 2012, ranking 2nd in the world for R&D investment. Subsequently, China has performed well in a number of areas such as solar energy, high-speed trains, supercomputers, and space exploration. Per its 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015), China has enlisted seven prioritized areas for strategic development: energy-saving and environmental protection, info-tech generation, biotechnology, advanced equipment manufacturing, new energy, new materials, and clean-energy cars. Significant breakthrough in these areas by civilian sectors is sure to attract Chinese military to leverage their expertise. The institutionalization of the reform would assure that its introduction and conversion is timely and persistent.
Last but not least, it is time to build a more “lean-but-mean” military force by reforming social support. Chinese armed forces can optimize their potential by not only integrating their forces and logistics, but also by delegating some burdensome services to social support. An armed force has to be professional, primarily in its defense excellence. Due to history and tradition however, the Chinese army has built itself as a self-sustaining society, often including the making and cooking its own food. Now that China has been much developed, such non-combatant services could be well outsourced from social service. This strategy could be expanded to other areas such as property, environment, non-sensitive equipment maintenance and medical treatment. In this regard, there is much room for reform within the Chinese armed forces.
Shen Dingli is a professor and associate dean at the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University.