TAIPEI - China's military still lags far behind the U.S., but a change in leadership in 2012 could herald a new era for the People's Liberation Army (PLA). That was the conclusion of senior analysts attending a conference on the PLA here this week.
The conference, "PLA in the Next Decade," sponsored by the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies and the Institute of Chinese Communist Studies (ICCS), from Oct. 31 to Nov. 1, focused in part on the upcoming 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 2012 and how the generational change of the top leadership will reshape the PLA.
Vice President Xi Jinping is expected to replace Hu Jintao as the CCP secretary general and chairman of the all-powerful Central Military Commission (CMC).
"This transition period will also be highlighted by a significant turnover in the composition of the CMC leadership with the majority of the 10-member panel to retire," said Zhang Xiao-ming, a China specialist at the U.S. Air War College.
Xi, who is also the vice chairman of the CMC, is seen as a pragmatist who will "accelerate the cultivation of elite personnel, emphasize basic military training, put forth new direction of cadre's ethics construction, and advance military transformation based on science and technology development," said Fu Li-Wen, a researcher at the ICCS.
Xi is known for his hardline and outspoken style, Fu said. Xi once told an expatriate group of Chinese "compatriots" in Mexico "there are a few foreigners, with full bellies, who have nothing better to do than try to point fingers at our country."
The CMC reshuffle will also mean a turnover of the directorship of the four general departments: General Staff, General Political, General Logistic and General Armament. This will include changes in the deputy directors and other subordinate leaders, Zhang said. The new crop of leaders will also be more tech-savvy with more hands-on experience in the military modernization process, he said.
The next leaders of the CMC will be "younger, better educated and mission capable," said Ji You, a specialist on the Chinese military at the University of New South Wales.
"The overwhelming majority of them have served in combat units and climbed through 'steps,'" he said.
This is also a leadership that rode the wave of a fivefold increase in the defense budget over the past 15 years.
China's booming economy and massive investment in infrastructure is in stark contrast to the U.S. financial crisis and anticipated slashing of the U.S. defense budget, said Jae-ho Hwang, Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, Seoul, South Korea.
China is the second largest defense spender in the world, said Richard Bitzinger, a defense industry specialist at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang University, Singapore.
China's military expenditures in 2011 totaled nearly $92 billion, "outstripping the United Kingdom, France, Russia and Japan," he said. It most likely has the world's second highest defense research and development budget, believed to be around $6 billion.
"In other words, China simply has more money to throw at its defense development, and this has begun to reap tangible benefits over the past decade," Bitzinger said.
However, predicting the future rise of China's military remains speculative.
"Our record is mixed, largely due to the speed of Chinese development since the early '90s," said Wallace "Chip" Gregson, the former U.S. assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs, who gave the keynote address at the conference.
Factors to consider are "legacy thinking," he said, which is often expressed in doctrine "that necessary evil that allows the orderly functioning of large bureaucracies."
Another factor is the mix of personalities, individuals and leadership, which contribute to a "bewildering array of conditions, events and personalities" that "collide in a profoundly random, human and subjective way to confound mankind's efforts to build a logical, peaceful and ordered world."