China's military gains power, money, weaponry

October 17, 1992|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau

BEIJING -- While Chinese Communist Party leaders meet here this week to endorse a rapid acceleration of China's economic reforms, a high-level delegation from the People's Liberation Army is in Hong Kong seeking foreign investment in Chinese military industries.

The overlapping efforts reflect the long symbiotic relationship between the party and China's military. This relationship is growing even closer these days, likely leading to more power and money for the PLA and to greater fears in Asia about China's growing ability to project itself as a regional military power.

About 13 percent of the delegates to the party congress come from military units, the single largest block of delegates.

Following the end of the congress this weekend, the head of the PLA delegation, Gen. Liu Huaqing, is widely expected to take a seat on the party's highest body, the standing committee of its Politburo.

This would be the first time since the late 1970s that a PLA officer has risen that high within the party.

The PLA, under the banner of "protect the emperor and escort his voyage," signed on early to Chinese patriarch Deng Xiaoping's drive to step up economic restructuring. And the Chinese press this week has spared no effort in portraying the military as the guardian of Mr. Deng's reforms.

"The faster China develops its economy, carries out reform and opens its door to the rest of the world, the more necessary it is to strengthen national defense," China's official news agency quoted Gen. Chi Haotian, the PLA chief of staff, as saying.

The PLA always has been the party's servant, but it also frequently has been the kingmaker -- with its support tilting the balance of power among party factions. Both Mr. Deng and Chinese President Yang Shangkun trace their power to strong military ties.

In return for the PLA's strong backing of Mr. Deng's reforms, the party has given an equally strong blessing to the military's own modernization aspirations.

As party boss Jiang Zemin put it in his report to the congress Monday: "We must create the best armed forces that our conditions permit, turning the PLA into a strong, modernized, revolutionary regular army and constantly increasing our defense capabilities."

The PLA's modernization drive dates back to the early 1980s when it began to shift from Mao Tse-tung's theory of warfare, which rested on China's endless manpower, to a more high-tech view. This shift was hastened by the U.S. display of advanced weaponry in the Persian Gulf war last year.

Since the mid-1980s, the PLA has cut about a million soldiers from its ranks to bring its force down to about 3.2 million, and further cuts are planned. It also has modernized with funds from sizable annual budget increases, from shifting military industries to civilian production and from arms sales.

China sold at least $10 billion worth of arms in the 1980s, much of it to both Iran and Iraq during their war. With that war's end in 1988 and growing foreign pressure to limit its arms sales, the PLA increasingly has had to rely for revenue on its factories turning out consumer goods, everything from toys to motorcycles. Hence this week's PLA mission to Hong Kong.

In seeking foreign investment, the delegation touted the PLA's low labor, interest and transportation costs. But profits from its joint ventures likely would be poured into acquiring high-tech arms technology to extend the PLA's reach in Asia.

China already is buying advanced fighter jets from Russia. It may have acquired the technology to refuel its planes in mid-air. And it may be seeking its first aircraft carrier.

These acquisitions could strengthen China's ability to project its power in the South China Sea, where it is involved in a simmering dispute over the potentially oil-rich Spratly Islands.

In the long term, the build-up also is consistent with China's notion that it should become a major force in world politics and trade and the predominant influence within Asia.

And it is in line with China's fears that Japan again might become a military power and China's goal of standing up to what it perceives as U.S. domination of the post-Cold War world.

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