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China's Other Army: The People's Armed Police in an Era of Reform

By Joel Wuthnow China Strategic Perspectives 14

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Executive Summary

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Chinese Paramilitary policemen take part in military training
China Strategic Perspectives 14 Cover Art and Photo: Chinese Paramilitary policemen take part in military training, Nanning, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, December 22, 2017. (Li Shijin/Imagechina via Associated Press)
Photo By: Li Shijin/Imagechina via Associated Press
VIRIN: 190416-D-BD104-001

China’s premier paramilitary force—the People’s Armed Police (PAP)—is undergoing its most profound restructuring since its establishment in 1982.

  • Previously under dual civilian and military command, the PAP has been placed firmly under China’s military. As chairman of the Central Military Commission, Xi Jinping now has direct control over all of China’s primary instruments of coercive power. This represents the highest degree of centralized control over China’s paramilitary forces since the Cultural Revolution.
  • Local and provincial officials have lost the ability to unilaterally deploy PAP units in the event of civil unrest or natural disasters, but can still request support through a new coordination system.
  • The China Coast Guard, which previously reported to civilian agencies, has been placed within the PAP and is thus now part of the military command structure.
  • New PAP operational commands, known as “mobile contingents,” have been established with a diverse mix of capabilities. They will play a key role in protecting the capital and could be deployed in a Taiwan contingency, among other missions.
  • Geographic distribution of mobile PAP units remains skewed to western China, providing rapid reaction capabilities that could be used to repress dissent in Xinjiang and Tibet.

Politically, the reforms reaffirm Chinese Communist Party (and Xi Jinping’s) control over the PAP and may reduce the scope for local abuse of power.

  • Despite earlier reforms, the PAP’s chain of command was convoluted, confusing, and decentralized. These reforms sought to ensure central party control over an organization deemed vital for ensuring the party’s security and survival.
  • Centralizing command also attempts to bolster the party’s legitimacy by reducing the ability of local officials to misapply PAP assets through corruption or overuse of force to handle local grievances.
  • A consequence of tighter control, however, could be slower responses to incidents as local officials have to submit requests through PAP channels. In some cases, officials may be reluctant to request PAP support in order to avoid negative attention from senior leaders.
  • The reforms place Xi firmly in charge of the PAP, though he will have to exercise authority through trusted agents. The success of continued PAP reforms will depend on elite consensus that centralized management of PAP deployments is desirable.

Operationally, the reforms narrow the PAP’s responsibilities to three key areas: domestic stability, wartime support, and maritime rights protection.

  • Several law enforcement and economic functions previously under the PAP, such as border guards and gold mining, have been divested and placed within appropriate civilian ministries and localities.
  • PAP internal security forces remain focused on domestic security missions, including maintaining stability in western China, guarding government compounds, and disaster relief. PAP units would also be on the frontlines in responding to a major threat to the regime.
  • The PAP has also been encouraged to play a stronger role in supporting People’s Liberation Army (PLA) combat operations. Key roles could include guarding critical infrastructure and supply lines during wartime. Nevertheless, current PAP-PLA cooperation appears superficial and will remain so if the PAP is not better integrated into the PLA’s joint command system.
  • Incorporating the coast guard into the PAP could presage stronger integration with the navy in terms of operations, training, and equipment development, but this will require closer institutional cooperation than currently exists.
  • The PAP will continue to face capabilities gaps, especially in niche areas such as special operations forces and helicopters. Its ability to close those gaps will depend on its political effectiveness in future budget negotiations.

PAP activities beyond China’s borders are likely to increase and could have implications for the United States and other Indo-Pacific states.

  • The PAP has emerged as a partner of choice for foreign governments in areas such as counterterrorism and peacekeeping training, in addition to its longstanding role as contributors to United Nations peacekeeping missions.
  • PAP units are also likely to deploy overseas to support counterterrorism operations. In some cases, Beijing may also rely on PAP capabilities to protect Chinese citizens and assets abroad, such as projects under the Belt and Road Initiative.
  • Closer coast guard–navy cooperation, if it emerges, would increase risks to U.S. and allied maritime operations in the South and East China seas. U.S. officials will need to determine if new agreements are needed, and feasible, to cover coast guard encounters.
  • Over the long run, PAP forces may one day deploy to support Chinese combat operations; one example is a potential role in providing stability during a pacification campaign on Taiwan.

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