Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2014.09.01

Corruption in the PLA and the Iraqi Armed Forces

JBpress on August 29, 2014

Since January 2014, in China questions have been reportedly raised about whether the People's Liberation Army (PLA) is "too corrupt to fight and win a war." The silent majority of Japanese, however, having taken the discipline of their Self Defense Forces for granted for so long, may have no clue as to how corruption in the PLA could undermine its war-fighting capability.

Reuters dispatched an intriguing article from Beijing on August 18. It reported that articles in China's official media in recent months "have drawn parallels with the rampant graft in the People's Liberation Army and how a corrupt military contributed to China's defeat in the Sino-Japan War 120 years ago."

The year 2014 is the 120th anniversary of the First Sino-Japanese War. In China the war is known as the "War of Jiawu," while the Japanese call it "Nisshin Senso (the Japan-Qing War)." No matter what you call it, as Chinese official papers note, military corruption seems to have been a key reason for China's defeat by Meiji Japan in the last years of the Qing dynasty.

According to the Reuters article, an article from the official organ of the Central Party School reported that "In the late Qing dynasty .... the military (was) unbearably degenerate with lax discipline, superficial training, gambling, frequenting brothels, smoking opium and other wantonness running rampant."

The article also described ongoing corruption inside the PLA as follows: "For officers who pay bribes to be promoted, corruption is a way to make a return on their investment," and, "Examples of graft include leasing military land to private business, selling military license plates, illegally occupying PLA apartments or taking kickbacks when buying food or equipment."

"What worries some generals and other Chinese experts is," the article continues, "that the buying and selling of senior jobs - long an open secret in China - has led to those with talent being cast aside." "Do we want this historic tragedy to be repeated by our people's army?" a famous Major General commentator wrote in a popular paper in China.

Another famous retired Major General even stated that "If corruption is not excised we will be defeated before we even go into battle." What a coincidence! That is exactly what happened to the Iraqi Armed Forces in Mosul on June 20, 2014, when the Iraqi soldiers slipped away and went home before they could confront the ISIS fighters, and consequently lost Iraq's second biggest city.

The Iraqi army, when U.S. combat troops left Iraq in 2011, was a fairly well-trained and disciplined all-Iraqi armed force of commanders and soldiers. The Americans had trained them for 8 years and equipped them with the latest U.S.-made weapons, munitions, tanks and transport vehicles. They were supposed to have easily defeated enemies like ISIS by 2014.

A primary cause for why Iraqi troops were so weak in Northern Iraq came from the actions of Nuri Al-Maliki, the former Prime Minister of Iraq. In concurrently holding the posts of Defense and Interior Minister in his second term after December 2010, he personally dominated Iraq's armed and security forces and eventually replaced dozens of talented non-Shia commanders with his favored friends and associates.

The end result was chronic corruption. What happened to the Iraqi military after 2011 is exactly the same as what happened in the Qing army, and is probably happening now in the PLA. If professional military posts are for sale and only the incapable are promoted to commanding positions, rank-and-file soldiers will hesitate to obey and die for the corrupt commanders on the battlefield.

What lessons can be learned from the above?

First of all, these examples show how vulnerable rapidly expanded but highly corrupt armed forces can be. Alienated soldiers under corrupt commanders will be undisciplined and in many cases have their own agenda and conduct independent activities. This was the case in the much less corrupt Japanese Imperial Army in Manchuria in the 1930s and 40s, and probably is the case inside the PLA.

Secondly, contrary to the first point, it should be also noted that China's recent nationwide anti-corruption campaign, a great experiment, may make a difference. If the clean up is successful, China may finally have a real professional military, multiplying its war-fighting capability. China may not be there yet but we should prepare ourselves for that eventuality.

Finally, underestimation is our greatest risk. The result of this experiment in the PLA will ultimately define the future of Japan's national security policy, the Japan-U.S. security arrangements and of Japan-China relations. Modern China is neither the Qing dynasty nor post-Saddam Iraq. Who knows? She may have the ability to change herself politically as well as militarily.