BEIJING — CHINA'S new military command is expected to focus on professionalism and upgrading of the country's military capacity rather than politics.
A reshuffle at the recent Communist Party Congress promoted soldiers who will support Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms, yet at the same time raised new uncertainties about a political successor for Mr. Deng.
The changes are in step with transforming an infantry-based people's Army into a streamlined high-tech defense force. A modernization effort had been undermined by a campaign to ensure loyalty within the People's Liberation Army (PLA) following the 1989 crackdown on the Tiananmen Square democracy movement.
Beijing's renewed push to acquire new weapons technology has become more obvious with visits to China of the leaders of former Soviet states.
Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk began a six-day trip to China on Oct. 29. Beijing in the past has negotiated to acquire an aircraft carrier from Ukraine although interest reportedly has cooled. Russian President Boris Yeltsin will visit China in December.
Although China's ruling Communists were stunned by the Soviet demise, the collapse has opened up new opportunities to buy arms from economically struggling Russia, Ukraine, and other states. Modern technology from the former Soviet Union also will help China upgrade the nuclear technology and weapons it is exporting to other developing countries, analysts say. Military upgrade
"China wants trade in high tech. But Chinese have to change their concept that Russia and the other states are behind technologically.... There are areas where they have expertise," a Chinese expert on the former Soviet states says, citing aviation, power generation, space technology, and metallurgical engineering. "There is a lot of room for cooperation, civilian and military."
"It is important to upgrade military technology and hardware because China should not exclude the possibility of minor confrontations with the United States," says a Chinese military affairs expert, who maintains the Ukraine's aircraft carrier sale is still on.
The man whose career has benefited from the new bent on technology and professionalism is reformer Gen. Liu Huaqing, a veteran of World War II who has overseen the development of missile and nuclear submarine technology. The success of US high technology in the Gulf war impressed Chinese military leaders and may have buttressed General Liu's push for high tech in China.
Liu's rise to the all-powerful Standing Committee of the party Politburo as well as the No. 2 spot on the Central Military Commission sidelined members of the powerful Yang family clique, including President Yang Shangkun and his stepbrother, Army Commissar Yang Baibing.
Also noteworthy in the military command is Gen. Zhang Zhen, who comes out of retirement to join the Central Military Commission, and Gen. Chi Haotian, formerly chief of the general staff who becomes defense minister.
The promotion of elderly officers points to a leadership vacuum among younger officers, analysts say, mirroring uncertainty over who will succeed Deng.
"Putting these officers into leadership positions at their age says that the younger officers can't credibly lead the military in the way Deng wants them to," says a Western diplomat in Beijing. "They don't have the stature within the military and society generally."
Perhaps the biggest unknown is the future role of Yang Shangkun, an ideologue and close Deng confidant who many thought would play a caretaker and kingmaker role following the leader's death. Although Mr. Yang remains president and his stepbrother gained a Politburo seat, the Yangs lost their military positions in a surprise reshuffle. Key to Deng's successor
Chinese and Western analysts say the Army, which has been a power base for every communist leader for more than four decades, will be key in the scramble to succeed Deng.
The military remains firmly behind the party dictatorship despite deep political rents rooted in the widespread reluctance to crush the 1989 protests.
And even though they are on the sidelines, the Yangs cannot be entirely counted out, diplomats say, particularly as their hard-line political patrons retain powerful clout within the party. Some Chinese worry that without an overriding authority figure, the power struggle could deteriorate into warlordism among various military commanders.
"After Deng, the Army could be like a group of dragons without a leader. It's unclear if the reformers in the government and the reformers in the Army can join hands," says a Chinese political scientist. "The civil conflict could become very complicated and cruel."
Checking that possible threat is the military's vested interest in continued economic growth and reform. As budgets steadily increase, the Army is given the funds to acquire new weapons.
In the Maoist system each military unit is self-supporting, so the military has created a massive network of civilian and defense enterprises and is trying to streamline them for market competition and attract foreign investment.
"The Army itself has been commercialized and can't afford to be alienated from the market economy because it has benefited," a Chinese observer says. "The younger generation in the Army is in favor of economic reform because they are better educated."