The ‘crown jewel’ of the Chinese military appears to have a serious corruption problem

The ‘crown jewel’ of the Chinese military appears to have a serious corruption problem

14 Jan 2023 ( Business Insider )

China’s military has undergone several significant leadership shakeups, and new intelligence reports indicate that corruption is running rampant in parts of the People’s Liberation Army, specifically the prized rocket force, to the point that some of its missiles were supposedly filled with water rather than fuel.

“The rocket force is the center of gravity for the Chinese military,” Tom Shugart, a former US Navy officer who is now an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security think tank, told Business Insider. It’s their “crown jewel,” especially for conflict over Taiwan or hitting US naval forces and bases in the Pacific.

Serious potential problems in the force could indicate a lack of readiness in the short term — and that could be a major issue impacting the Chinese military’s ability to deter and compel enemy forces any time soon.

But the US and its allies can’t afford to assume that its missiles are all defective, in part because it’s difficult to know the extent of the rot but also because China’s leadership is hellbent on building a modern army that can fight and win wars, and that can’t be overlooked.

US intelligence first reported last weekend by Bloomberg indicated that the PLA is struggling with widespread corruption from its Rocket Force branch to the industrial base, prompting Chinese leader Xi Jinping to launch a sweeping anti-graft campaign that’s consequently caught over a dozen senior defense officials in the past six months.

Some impacts of the graft noted by US intelligence include missiles filled with water, as well as intercontinental ballistic missile silos sporting improperly functioning lids that could derail a missile launch. In the aftermath of the report, an ex-PLA official told Radio Free Asia problems like this have long been rampant in the Chinese military. He said that he and other Chinese troops used to steal solid fuel from rockets to cook hotpot.

How fixable these problems are for the military depends on how extensive they are, which is unclear, but the US assessment seemed to paint a dire picture: That the corruption within the PLA was so bad that it led to a lack of confidence in China’s military capabilities and readiness, particularly in its rocket force.

For the past six months, much of Xi’s apparent crackdown on corruption hadn’t been made public. The only indications appeared to be the sacking of many senior officials across the various PLA branches. Dismissing bigwig defense leaders, sometimes multiple in the same month, without an explanation is notable, but then Xi went a step further and replaced some of them with officers from different branches.

The People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force dismissals last year were shocking, Shugart told Business Insider, in part because they involved replacing force leadership with leaders from other branches of the PLA.

The rocket force shakeups suggest that there are questions over who can be trusted. As other officers within the force weren’t tapped to take over, “then that certainly is an indication that there may be some very significant problems,” Shugart added.

“That would be like if the President of the United States fired the Chief and Vice Chief of Naval Operations for corruption and replaced them with an Army officer and an Air Force officer,” he compared. 

“If that’s the case,” he said, “you have to think, ‘Wow, the corruption must be really bad.'”

The motivations for the shakeups are debatable though. It’s unclear if Chinese military leadership being sacked, including Defense Minister Li Shangfu back in July 2023, are signs that Xi is rooting out corruption or purging disloyalty, or a mix of both or neither at all. China is, in some regards, a black box.

Shugart said that if Xi really is cleaning house, then that could be good for the PLA in the long run, making China a more effective force. 

The purging would give Xi a tighter grip on the military. The Chinese leader’s approach to the PLA has been characterized as an obsession with political loyalty, where the military serves the Chinese Communist Party. His focus on the military has led to certain overhauls of how the PLA functions.

At a 2014 conference on the army’s political work in Gutian, Xi identified problems in the PLA that needed to be fixed immediately in order to increase efficiency and capability. Since then, he has repeatedly emphasized these points.

Reorganizations and revamps, particularly of commands, conduct, and priorities have resulted from these efforts consistent with Xi’s messaging on making China’s military a formidable, combat-ready force.

Purges of top PLA military and defense industry officials may reflect, as The Institute for the Study of War think tank wrote this week, the Chinese leadership’s “fears of disloyalty in the military and show the anti-corruption campaign has not yet succeeded in rooting out endemic corruption in the military.”

It seems the corruption in the PLA prior to Xi’s reform efforts was not just at the leadership level but had trickled down to lower-ranking officers and lower-level forces, ISW wrote, suggesting it was a bigger and more widespread problem than previously thought.

Concerns about corruption and readiness stand in contrast with the modernization and strengthening of the Chinese military. Last year, the Pentagon noted in its annual report significant increases across the board of PLARF missile stockpiles. Some were estimated to have doubled since 2021.

China, the Pentagon said, has accelerated “its development of capabilities and concepts to strengthen the PRC’s ability to ‘fight and win wars’ against a ‘strong enemy,'” a reference to Xi’s expectations for the PLA and rhetoric on China’s primary rival: the US. The Pentagon report also acknowledged Xi’s efforts to accelerate anti-corruption investigations.

The significant focus on corruption, especially with regard to the PLARF, suggests there’s presently some holes in China’s readiness.

And that leaves questions. Is the PLA, particularly the rocket force, the increasingly formidable force the Pentagon described in a military power report last October? Or are there cracks in its facade? Or is this just disinformation, spread by elements in Beijing to throw off the West, particularly the US which sees China as its “pacing challenge,” as the Pentagon likes to say?

It’s difficult to know, but the US can’t afford to make assumptions regardless.

“If we want to maintain vigilance and exercise caution in ensuring continued deterrence of the Chinese military, then I’d say we shouldn’t dismiss its offensive capabilities just on the basis of these reports,” Shugart said.

“It isn’t clear how long these issues may have been known about within the PLA, and thus whether they may already have been corrected. We also don’t know if issues like these have affected other branches of the PLA to anything like this degree — they may have been able to maintain a higher level of combat readiness,” he added.

The PLA is an evolving force, already very different in many ways from what it was even a decade ago.

If Xi is targeting actual corruption with these shakeups, then the PLA could see improvements as a result. If the goal is targeting officials who aren’t loyal in an effort to consolidate power, then it could result in a more centralized fighting force, for better or worse.

As the US Army secretary said last year, “one should never underestimate the PLA,” and the US military isn’t. Officials said in February 2023 the priority was to up recruitment and shipbuilding to match the PLA’s growth in capacity and capability. But while officials assured that the PLA was still not ready to compete when it came to quality of equipment and personnel, it spoke to a larger trend in the evolution of the force.

Increasing stockpiles of Chinese missiles capable of threatening US warships and bases, for instance, have led the US military to rethink its warfighting approach to the Western Pacific and look more closely at how to prepare its forces for action involving the PLA, especially its rocket forces.