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China announces military overhaul

Gabriel DomínguezNovember 27, 2015

President Xi Jinping has announced a key reorganization of China's military to create a nimbler army by 2020. DW talks to defense experts about the changes and the challenges faced by the world's largest armed forces.

China Militärparade in Peking 70. Jahrestag Ende 2. Weltkrieg Bildergalerie
Image: Reuters/D. Sagolj

In a bid to streamline the nation's armed forces and transform them from a Soviet-era force into a Western-style power, President Xi has vowed to reorganize the current military administration structure and command areas.

"A new structure will be established, in which the Central Military Commission (CMC) takes charge of the overall administration of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), the Chinese People's Armed Police and the militia and reserve forces," Xi was quoted by state-run news agency Xinhua as saying on November 26 at the end of a three-day meeting attended by about 200 top military officials.

The Chinese leader is keen to modernize the military as the country becomes increasingly assertive in international issues and territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas. Since the beginning of the 21st century, Beijing has raised its military spending substantially.

From 2005 to 2014, Chinese military spending is estimated to have increased in real terms from $71 billion in 2005 to $191 billion in 2014, making the East Asian nation now the second-largest spender after the US, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

China Militärparade in Peking 70. Jahrestag Ende 2. Weltkrieg Bildergalerie
China wants to transform it's military from a Soviet-era force into a Western-style powerImage: picture-alliance/dpa/J.Lee

And as SIPRI expert Siemon Wezeman points out, China has also been conducting more missions far from home. For example, it has been operating as part of an international effort against piracy off Somalia and participating in UN peacekeeping in South Sudan.

And this week, Beijing announced an agreement with Djibouti that gives China its first "base" in Africa. So, with the last major military overhaul taking place some 30 years ago, China is now looking to further simplify and professionalize its armed forces.

Americanizing the PLA?

Nabil Alsabah, an expert on China's military and a research associate at the Germany-based Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS), explains that transforming the PLA into a modern military constitutes an essential part of Xi's often evoked "China Dream."

Unlike his predecessors, the expert says, the Chinese president understands very well that this transformation requires more than just increasing military spending and acquiring cutting-edge weaponry. "The PLA needs a fundamental restructuring."

The Soviet model which has long been abandoned in the economic arena has yet to be dispelled within the military, Alsabah argues, adding that this is one of the main reasons why Xi aspires to "Americanize" PLA structures in key areas.

For instance, he says, Beijing needs to put more emphasis not only on cyber-warfare and innovative information technologies but also on overcoming the "balkanization" of the Chinese armed forces by centralizing decision-making power.

Erstes Flugzeug auf chinesischem Flugzeugträger gelandet
A key goal is to put China's navy and air force on a more equal footing with the traditionally dominant ground forceImage: Reuters

In this context, Xinhua says that the reform will establish a three-tier "CMC - battle zone commands - troops" command system and an administration that runs from CMC through various services to the troops.

Another goal is to put China's navy and air force on a more equal footing with the traditionally dominant ground force.

Jeffrey Engstrom and Michael Chase, both China experts at the US-based RAND Corporation, explain that "it is politically important for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that the PLA is an effective military able to competently carry out an increasing number of tasks and missions both close to home and increasingly more globally."

New strategic zones

But there are more potential changes in store. Citing unnamed sources, the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post (SCMP) recently reported that the long-anticipated reform plan would include a geographical reorganization, with the current seven military commands re-divided into four strategic zones.

Currently, a majority of Chinese troops consist of 850,000 land forces, which are deployed in seven military area commands headquartered in Shenyang, Beijing, Jinan, Nanjing, Guangzhou, Chengdu and Lanzhou. Analysts say that streamlining the seven military regions, however it occurs, would help the PLA better focus on external threats, regional power projection, and likely enhance integrated joint operations between the services.

Engstrom and Chase explain that joint war-fighting commands or geographic zones could be seen as representing a shift in focus from homeland defense to a more external orientation based on various strategic directions of potential threats.

Jean-Pierre Cabestan, director for government and international studies at Hong Kong Baptist University, has a similar view. "Today, with seven military regions, the PLA is still very much a force in a defensive posture as if it was waiting and getting prepared for a Soviet or American invasion," Cabestan told DW.

Other affected areas

Moreover, the PLA is still very much compartmentalized, he points out. "The Army, Air Force and Navy do not communicate much and have been trained even less to conduct joint operations."

In light of such shortcomings, the SCMP report pointed to other key reform plans which would include reorganizing the military headquarters, setting up joint operational command structures, pushing for more innovation and integration between the building of national defense and economic development, as well as imposing strict discipline on the army.

"It's a long-anticipated overhaul for grass-roots soldiers because it's a practical push to turn the PLA into a real modern army of international standard," the source told SCMP. "However, it's also a setback for some senior officials who lost out in the reform. That's why Xi has ordered them to obey discipline."

Infografik Rüstungswachstum in Asien Englisch

Downsizing the military

Ever since coming to power in late 2012, Xi has overseen an anti-corruption campaign both within the CCP and the military, which has led to the removal or reshuffling of senior officials such as Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong. Corruption and an outdated command and control structures have long been seen by experts as "potentially serious weaknesses" affecting the PLA.

Moreover, in September, the Chinese leader announced plans to downsize the military by 300,000 within the next two years, from an estimated 2.3 million troops, triggering concerns among those likely to be affected. According to Xinhua, this will be the 11th time the military has been reduced in size since the founding of the People's Republic in 1949 - when it boasted 5.5 million troops - and the fourth time since the 1980s.

"Restructuring the PLA is an ongoing process. The Chinese president has demonstrated already that he does not shy away from unpopular measures. Neither Jiang Zemin nor Hu Jintao (both former CCP leaders) dared to go that far," said MERICS analyst Alsabah.

US China Internet Industrie Forum Seattle Xi Jinping Redmond Microsoft Campus
President Xi has overseen an anti-corruption campaign both within the CCP and the militaryImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Ted S. Warren

From a military perspective, however, Chase and Engstrom point out that reducing troop numbers, especially in the army, is likely to help the PLA focus more of its resources on acquiring high-tech military hardware and increasing human capital proficiency.

"The 300,000 personnel might be transferred to organizations such as the People's Armed Police, as they have been in the past, or could be more slowly phased out through natural workplace attrition," they told DW. Moreover, analysts such as Cabestan believe that in order to conduct modern wars, the PLA - by far the world's largest military - doesn't need so many troops.

A 'mission-oriented' PLA

But why is such a major overhaul needed? "The idea is to simplify the PLA's structure and make it more mobile and mission-oriented. This includes operations outside the Chinese territory where future wars are more likely to take place," said Cabestan.

Chase and Engstrom have a similar view. The defense experts say Beijing wants to improve the PLA's ability to conduct information-intensive military operations involving multiple services, as these are the wars it thinks it may need to fight in the future.

"The PLA itself judges it still has a long way to go to become an integrated force that takes substantial advantage of the information revolution and is able to defeat enemies at China's border or even beyond."

China's military is still unable to conduct joint operations at as high a level as it believes is required, which could undermine its ability to proficiently conduct a variety of operations including anti-terrorism, the experts added.

Another potential shortcoming, as Professor Cabestan indicates, lies in the fact that the PLA has not waged war for over 30 years. "It has never been tested in a genuine war environment and so it remains to be seen how well it has adapted."

China erster Flugzeugträger
China's military is still unable to conduct joint operations at as high a level as it believes is required, say expertsImage: Reuters

Opposition to reforms?

If reform goes forward as planned, implementation is likely to start soon. However, the proposed reforms - which also enable the CCP to keep a tight grip on the PLA - are complex enough that analysts reckon they will likely play out over a fairly long period of time, perhaps over the next couple of years.

So perhaps the most important issue at the moment revolves around the extent to which the military will go along with Xi's radical shake-up. As Alsabah points out, last week, the PLA Daily warned that military reforms might "destabilize" society. Although the online article was removed shortly after, the question remains as to whether the world's largest army has the means to stand up to China's most powerful leader in a generation, said the expert.

But in this regard, Chase and Engstrom are of the view that while there will probably be some opposition to reforms, Xi's anti-corruption campaign may very well give him the leverage he needs to push ahead with the changes.