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Party first: How the CCP weighs down the Chinese navy

The PLA Navy’s rapid buildup masks hidden weaknesses

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FILE - In this April 12, 2018, file photo released by Xinhua News Agency, Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks after reviewing the Chinese People's Lib...

FILE - In this April 12, 2018, file photo released by Xinhua News Agency, Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks after reviewing the Chinese People's Lib...

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — Chinese state television aired footage of day-and-night exercises by China's navy along its coast in an apparent show of strength after recent drills by the U.S. and Japan in nearby waters.

As the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) 73rd-anniversary approaches on April 23, 2022, it is worth recalling how its legacy as a political tool of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) continues to dog its progress toward becoming a blue-water navy and a professional fighting force that can “fight and win wars” at sea.

While the force’s hardware build-up has grabbed headlines (it now outnumbers the U.S. navy by boat count) the PLAN’s “software” (its military training and combat readiness) leaves a lot to be desired.

It is well known that China has not fought a war in decades — the last time was against Vietnam in 1979, and it lost. PLA leaders call this its “peace disease,” and the top brass remains worried untested Chinese troops will become complacent and underperform in the field of battle, per a report prepared for the U.S. Congress last year.

What is less understood is how the political indoctrination of the rank and file and party interference in the chain of command hampers the performance of the PLA and its navy in particular.

For king and party

Since its inception, the PLA’s raison d'etre has not been to defend China but to keep the CCP in power. Even today, PLA soldiers swear allegiance not to China, its people, or its constitution but to the Party. The symbiotic relationship between the Party and its military has tightened over the decades and, under Xi Jinping (習近平), has become personalized in a way not seen since Mao’s era.

Ever mindful of Mao’s famous dictum “power flows from the barrel of a gun,” Xi has described the PLA’s loyalty to the party as “his greatest concern.”

This is why, amid Xi’s big push to modernize the military, indoctrination remains core. The party devotes a whole department, the “Political Work Department” (“政治工作部”) which is responsible for political education and strengthening the party’s “absolute leadership” over the military. Officers have been reported wasting up to 15 hours per week (30 to 40% of their work hours) learning patriotic songs, party propaganda, and Marxist-Leninist theory.

By micro-managing operations and placing political loyalty above all else, the CCP has stunted the Chinese military’s development. It may be modernizing its weapons platforms, but by placing its regime survival above all else, the management of the PLA remains thoroughly regressive. When it comes to the navy, the most obvious example is the dual command system onboard Chinese ships. In this setup, a party commissar and a navy commander share authority over the vessel.

This is radically different from the structure of the U.S. navy (and most other professional services), where a single skipper exerts full control. Even the Soviet navy (from whom the Chinese adopted their current model) realized the flaws of dual control early on and abandoned it in the 1940s, placing the commander above the commissar. The CCP, on the other hand, has gone the other way. The commissar has gained the upper hand over the commander since Xi came to power, according to an analysis by Nanyang Technological University’s Zi Yang, an authority on the subject.

Party cadres having ultimate control at the helm could explain the rising number of instances of irrational and erratic maneuvers among Chinese vessels. The fact that both commissar and commander must convene for time-consuming talks at the very least hampers decision-making during rapidly evolving situations, according to a study by Yang and co-author Jeff Benson.

The PLA Navy’s increasingly aggressive posture is destabilizing its neighborhood. In 2020, a Chinese maritime surveillance vessel rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing vessel in the South China Sea. In February of this year, a PLAN ship pointed a laser at an Australian surveillance aircraft in what Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison described as a “dangerous, unprofessional, and reckless” move.

This was followed by reports just last month that a Chinese coastguard boat deliberately steered within meters of a Filipino patrol vessel, risking collision.

Such brinksmanship looks to be the new norm for the PLAN, especially if its latest ship designs are anything to go by. Analysts report the upcoming Type 055 cruiser has a slab-like hull made for ‘shouldering’ (meaning muscling against another ship to push it off course).

The PLAN is rapidly expanding operations and increasing confrontation with neighboring navies in the South China Sea. With party cadres having the final word on board, there is a higher risk of accidents, miscalculations, and incidents that could trigger broader conflict.

Not so ready

Joint operations have long been identified as another perennial weakness for the PLA.

Efforts are being made to redress the issue via reform, yet large-scale reorganization brings with it significant disruption. Thus, the PLA could be even more unprepared for conflict now amid the multi-year transition period, according to analyst and retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Dennis J. Blasko.

There is no end in sight for the reform period though. Despite over five years of concerted efforts to reorganize and better integrate its forces, Chinese leaders still doubt the military’s operational effectiveness and are particularly concerned about how this could undermine an invasion force, presumably one that could potentially attack Taiwan. PLAN captains have noted the difficulty of standardizing communications between the army and navy during amphibious landing drills, for instance.

"Two Inabilities"

While the CCP hypes China’s military achievements through propaganda outlets, it is well aware of the PLA’s inherent weaknesses and regularly discusses its flaws in internal documents and Chinese-language PLA media.

One is the “Two Inabilities” (“两个能力不够”), according to a 2019 testimony by Blasko. These refer to the PLA’s inability to fight a modern war and the inability of cadres (officers) at all levels to command a modern war, per Chinese state media. It is observed many commanders are either “unwilling” or “ not daring” to utilize “new-type combat forces” (“新型作战力量”) they have been assigned.

Xi himself acknowledges the severity of the issue and has said the “Two Inabilities” persist due to the PLA’s unscientific leadership management, poorly-structured joint operations command system, and lagging reform efforts.

These admissions of unprofessionalism certainly take the shine off the PLA Navy’s hi-tech new fleet. It may have the most ships in the world, but the combat readiness and leadership ability of those who crew its vessels remain in doubt. As long as the Party refuses to get out of the way, the navy will underperform as a fighting force. The result will be not so much a professional “blue-water navy” of a global maritime superpower but rather something more reminiscent of China’s old Red Army at sea. Pumping out more steel hulls is unlikely to change that.