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The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is a key political actor in the Chinese state. Together with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Chinese state institutions, it makes up the political foundation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In the early years after the founding of the PRC in 1949, the military played an important role in state consolidation and the management of domestic state affairs, as is expected in a state founded on Leninist principles of organization. Since the reform process, which was initiated in the late 1970s, the political role of the PLA has changed considerably. It has become less involved in domestic politics and increased attention has been directed toward military modernization. Consequently, in the early 21st century, the Chinese military shares many characteristics with the armed forces in noncommunist states. At the same time, the organizational structures, such as the party committee system, the system of political leaders, and political organs, have remained in place. In other words, the politicized structures that were put in place to facilitate the role of the military as a domestic political tool of the CCP, across many sectors of society, are expected to also accommodate modernization, professionalization, and cooperation with foreign militaries on the international arena in postreform China. This points to an interesting discrepancy between form and purpose of the PLA. The role of the military in Chinese politics has thus shifted over the years, and its relationship with the CCP has generally been interpreted as having developed from one marked by symbiosis to one of greater institutional autonomy and independence. Yet these developments should not necessarily be seen as linear or irreversible. Indeed, China of the Xi Jinping era has shown an increased focus on ideology, centralization, and personalized leadership, which already has had consequences for the political control of the Chinese armed forces. Chances are that these trends will affect the role of the PLA in politics even further in the early decades of the 21st century.

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In any nascent democracy, the military as an organized force is a dominant factor in politics. The nature of the relationship between different institutions, especially in fledgling democracies, decides the position of the military in the state. Compared to the political parties, the military is a cohesive force with a command structure that ensures orders are dutifully implemented. Often the military becomes part of contested politics and remains a dominant factor in countries that were previously under military rule. This could be for two reasons. First, their regime remains a reference point and is often compared to democratic regimes thereby creating a legitimacy factor. Second, the military is seen as savior and often portrayed as a fall-back option if a civilian system of governance is not able to deliver. Though many argue that military regimes are a thing of the past and their role is in fact in decline, this may not be true. Military institutions have adapted to change and the nature of their interactions with civilian groups has undergone a shift. However, use of coercion by military authority does not explain military dominance. Much is determined by the structural factors within which both the civil and military agents operate. In some cases, the military’s preserve is not only ensuring state “sovereignty” and its territorial integrity but also preventing a political catastrophe from happening during political transition. They are often referred to as guardians of the state. Study of civil–military relations in South Asia tends to follow a narrative that synthesizes and combines the structural and agency-related issues. Agency, however, is a dominant factor that waits for structurally enabling factors to contemplate a military takeover. In South Asia, and particularly in Bangladesh, any study of civil–military relations within the theoretical framework of a structure-agency divide is inadequate. Challenges in studying the structure-agency divide can be attributed to the larger-than-life image of the military agency. Military agents as actors, their political motives appear to be more important than the societal structure that influences decision. Social class, macroeconomic situations, the society-governing class interface, and lopsided institutional developments also shape the role of agencies (civil and military) and determine the balance of power. Absence of coup does not imply “civilian control,” but rather the civilian government’s ability to decide on posting, promoting, and shaping the vision of the military regarding threat perception determines the extent of civilian control over the military. Political culture, agreement within the society on political structure, institutional checks and balances, and political socialization are important aspects of state structure that acts a constraint on Agency’s action.