Military modernisation in China: its implications
Jayadeva Ranade

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s public announcement downsizing the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) at the grand military parade on September 3, 2015, was a major event. It signalled that the final stages of reform and reorganization of the PLA would begin now that internal consensus had been reached. Despite the transparently thin attempt to package the 300,000-personnel troop reduction as a move towards promoting peace, the troop reduction is actually part of a long-planned effort to streamline and strengthen the PLA and fashion it into a hi-tech, lethal, ‘informationised’ force capable of defending China’s national interests at home and abroad while expanding China’s strategic space.

These reforms have direct implications for India and countries in the region, with whom China has territorial disputes or who have borders with it. They will undoubtedly monitor the reforms closely.

Plans for military reforms and restructuring were finalised earlier and downsizing the PLA is part of the final phase. After the release for internal circulation of the ‘PLA’s Development Outline for Cultivating Armed Forces Talent before the Year 2020’, (referred to only as the ‘Outline’), which spelt out plans for restructuring the PLA, official documents described the five year (2011-2015) period as “crucial” in the PLA’s development. The plans received a substantive push when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s Third Plenum, which was held in November 2013, approved proposals for major organisational restructuring and technological upgradation of the PLA. Within days after the Third Plenum, CMC Vice Chairman and former PLA Air Force (PLAAF) Commander Xu Qiliang asserted that the reforms will be implemented, that non-combatant personnel would be “eliminated”, and that the reforms will enable the PLA to “win wars”.

On March 15, 2014, China’s authoritative official news agency Xinhua announced the creation of a new ‘Small Leading Group for Deepening Reform of National Defense and the Military’. It was set up as a subcommittee of the Central Military Commission (CMC) under the chairmanship of Xi Jinping assisted by two Deputy Chairmen who were also the Vice Chairmen of the CMC namely, General Fan Changlong and General Xu Qiliang. Names of the other members have not yet been disclosed, but outspoken General Liu Yuan, a high-ranking ‘princeling’ close to Xi Jinping and Political Commissar of the PLA’s General Logistics Department (GLD), is probably one member.

Implementation of the reforms has been delayed by institutional resistance and the PLA’s downsizing is now expected to be completed only by 2017. Among the factors prompting resistance were reports that consequent to the reorganization of Military Regions (MR) and PLA Headquarters in Beijing, a number of Generals and senior officers would be rendered redundant and transferred to Beijing. This meant loss of authority and perquisites, such as housing, which they currently enjoy. The different services also resisted downsizing of their personnel strengths and reduction in their share of the budget.

At least two signed articles in the Liberation Army Daily (LAD) on September 9, 2015, publicized the existence of resistance to reforms inside the PLA. The first article cautioned that implementation of the reforms would be difficult and “would require an assault on fortified positions to change mindsets and root out vested interests, and that the difficulties would be unprecedented.” Advocating their implementation, which it asserted were essential, the article observed that “if these reforms failed, measures still to come would be nothing more than an empty sheet of paper”. Reiterating that implementing military reforms would be difficult, another article in the same paper said that as reforms begin to be implemented “there could be significant structural contradictions and an accumulation of institutional obstacles”. Its author, Ma Depao, was associated with the Academy of Military Sciences (AMS) till 2006, but is now probably with the PLA Daily.

In this backdrop, the presence on the podium of Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, Chinese President and Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) Xi Jinping’s two immediate predecessors, was significant. Their presence next to Xi Jinping was intended as assurance – to domestic and foreign audiences -- of support for Xi Jinping and his plans to reform and restructure the PLA. Jiang Zemin’s presence was particularly significant since a large number of the PLA Generals and senior officers under arrest, or under investigation, on charges of corruption are closely associated with Jiang Zemin or his protégés. Rumours were also circulating for some months in official circles in Beijing that Jiang Zemin was either already under house arrest, or likely to be detained soon.

A compromise regarding military reforms was undoubtedly reached before Xi Jinping announced the downsizing of the PLA on September 3, 2015. In addition to support for the reforms from his fellow ‘princelings’ and loyalists in senior echelons of the PLA, support would additionally have come from the younger more professional officers. Resistance would have been diluted by the vigorous campaign against corruption launched by the Central Discipline Inspection Commission (CDIC) in the PLA and efforts at ‘education’ by the PLA’s General Political Department (GPD), with both efforts facilitated by the 40 per cent hike in salaries and allowances awarded to PLA personnel last year.

The troop reduction of 300,000 announced on September 3, 2015, is far less than the 800,000 envisaged in 2011. In April 2011, the Beijing-owned Hongkong-based Wen Wei Po publicized plans for reducing the PLA’s size by 800,000 personnel. While the report was denied by China’s Defence Ministry, Professor Han Xudong of China’s National Defence University (NDU), commenting on the Wen Wei Po report to Global Times, a subsidiary of the authoritative CCP newspaper ‘People’s Daily’, disclosed that Wen Wei Po’s report was the personal opinion of a retired PLA General formerly in charge of downsizing. He added, though, that the Defence Ministry’s denial did not mean there would be no reductions in the future. Hinting at the extent of personnel cuts, he elaborated that since the US has a 1.4 million army and India a 1.2 million army, a 1.5 million strength for the PLA would be adequate.

Separately, Chinese military officers commenting on the Wen Wei Po report on background to Jane’s, said the central authorities were working out targets for future downsizing, but big cuts are unlikely. Reductions, they said, could be expected in 2-3 years. However, they would not affect the PLA’s capabilities as it would extensively use Information Technology and science and technology for advanced modern weaponry. PLA personnel would be better educated, better trained and more proficient. These comments as well as appearance of the report in the Wen Wei Po together with excerpts from the ‘PLA’s Development Outline for Cultivating Armed Forces Talent before the Year 2020’, provided insights into the PLA’s restructuring plans.

Commenting on the personnel cuts announced in September 2015, retired Major General Xu Guangyu, a Senior Consultant at the Chinese Military Disarmament Control Council and an expert of Chinese contemporary military affairs, justified the need for reforms and said “these reductions are an effort to stay on this path and increase quality not numbers”. Colonel Yang Yujun, spokesman for China’s Ministry of National Defence (MND), clarified that troops to be disbanded are those “equipped with outdated armaments and office staff and personnel of non-combat organizations”. Separately, the authoritative official news agency Xinhua said on September 3, 2015, that “Non-combat units and administrative staff will be cut, and units with older weapons and equipment will reportedly be targeted for demobilization”.

After a meeting of the CMC on September 10, 2015, the two Vice Chairmen of the CMC, General Fan Changlong and General Xu Qiliang, travelled to all seven Military Regions (MR) to explain the reform plans to middle and low-ranking military officers. Simultaneously, senior officers of the PLA’s four principal general departments -- General Staff Department (GSD), General Political Department (GPD), General Logistics Department (GLD) and General Armaments Department (GAD) -- the PLA Air Force (PLAAF), PLA Navy (PLAN), Second Artillery Force (SAF) and People’s Armed Police Force (PAPF) were instructed to express support for the reforms.

The proposed reforms, described as the most extensive and wide-ranging till now, are likely to introduce changes in the rank structure to bring them on par with international practice. Reports indicate that the new Theatre Commanders would be of lower rank than the present MR Commanders to reduce their political influence and Senior Colonels are to be designated as Brigadier General. The ranks of Second Lieutenant and Lieutenant will be readjusted with possible introduction of a rank of Lieutenant Commander.

Certain is that the PLA’s four principal General Departments (GSD, GPD, GLD and GAD) and the Ministry of National Defence (MND) will be restructured. Equally certain is that non-combat units and administrative staff will be cut and units with older weapons and equipment will be targeted for demobilisation. This could result in the demobilisation of a number of Group Armies (GA) whose inventories have a preponderance of older systems. The GA’s being accorded lower priority by the PLA – evidenced by their not having Special Forces and Army Aviation Brigades/Regiments -- could similarly be earmarked for demobilization.

Based on official reports, which state that Beijing perceives less external threat from the northern sector, analysts assess that three GAs from this area would be demobilised. These are likely to be: 27th GA, Beijing MR; 40th GA, Shenyang MR; and 47th GA, Lanzhou MR. If the cuts are deeper then possibly the 14th GA in the Chengdu MR and 20th GA in Jinan MR could be demobilised. Chinese media reports indicate that the PLA troop strength in the southern sector — southwest facing India and the southeast responsible for a Taiwan crisis, as well as the South China Sea and Vietnam — would not experience major cuts.

Reports suggest the restructuring will result in the establishment of four or five Theatre Joint Commands. There have been indications in China’s official media since at least 2011 and in the official Defence White Papers issued since 2013, that the PLA is contemplating switching to Theatre Commands and discarding the present system of Military Regions (MR). The increasing number of long-range, trans-MR Integrated Joint Operations (IJO) being conducted by the PLA particularly since 2007 have been a pointer.

Based on Chinese media and other reports, the following outline of the proposed restructuring of the PLA emerges.

i) The existing 7 MRs will be replaced by 4 Theatre Joint Commands. These will be a Northeast Theatre Command created by merging the Shenyang and Beijing MRs; a Northwest Theatre Command centered on the Lanzhou MR; a Southwest Theatre Command consisting of Chengdu MR; and a Southeast Theatre Command formed by merging the Guangzhou, Nanjing and Jinan MRs; or

ii) That the 7 MRs will be consolidated into 5 Theatre Joint Commands. In this case the Theatre Commands would be: a Northeast Theatre Command comprising Shenyang and Beijing MRs; Northwest Theatre Command consisting of Lanzhou MR; Southwest Theatre Command comprising Chengdu MR; and a Southeast Theatre Command that incorporates the Guangzhou and Nanjing MRs. This version claims that there will also be a Reserve Joint Command based on Jinan MR, which will provide forces to other Theaters as required and perform other allotted tasks. Yet another option being mentioned is that the Beijing and Shenyang MRs will be merged into a separate Joint Command with responsibility for defense of the capital and protection of the border with North Korea. In such a case, the Southeast Theatre Command will include the Nanjing, Guangzhou and Jinan MRs. This version provides for one additional Command thereby implying that fewer troops/units would be demobilised.

iii) Surprisingly, the reports claim that the Theater Joint Commands would not directly command troops, which will be under the individual PLAA, PLAN, PLAAF commands in each Theatre except in times of war. In times of war the troops will be placed under a Joint Command which is to be established in each Theatre.

iv) The personnel strength of the PLA ground forces, for the past few years being officially referred to as PLAA, will be reduced to 360,000. China’s Defence White Paper issued in 2013 had disclosed the PLAA’s troop strength as 850,000.

v) Both versions state that the personnel strengths of the PLAN and PLAAF will increase but make no mention of the secretive strategic force viz. Second Artillery. This could be because the strength of the Second Artillery has increased by 10,000 personnel over the past year.

vi) In the reorganization of the PLA’s 4 General Departments, the GSD will be upgraded and include high-ranking officers from all service branches. It will be a higher echelon organization than the other General Departments. It will be entrusted with planning functions and provide advice to the Chairman of the CMC and be modeled on the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. Also, the GLD and GAD will be merged into one GLD.

vii) The PAPF will be transformed into a National Guard and will additionally absorb a considerable number of the demobilized PLA personnel.

viii) The number of military academies will be reduced from the present 150 to 29.

Retired PLA Major General Xu Guangyu, was quoted by the official state-run Global Times on September 6, 2015, as separately speculating that the ratio of ground, air and naval forces would finally be 2:1:1, a dramatic shift from the current estimate of about 4:2:1.

Meanwhile, the US-based Chinese news service Boxun reported that restructuring of the existing 150 military academies has already begun under the supervision of General Liu Yuan, Political Commissar of the PLA’s General Logistics Department (GLD) and close associate of Xi Jinping. General Liu Yuan, who is the son of former Chinese President Liu Shaoqi and a ranking ‘princeling’, supports the military reforms pushed by Xi Jinping and has publicly spoken out against corruption in the PLA. Boxun said the 150 academies are to be reduced and merged into 29 academies, with the remaining being transferred to the local civilian administration. Only military academies catering solely to the PLA, like the Army Non-Commissioned Officer Academy, the Officer College, Staff and Command College, Logistics College, Military Engineering College, Armaments and Equipment College and Strategic Artillery Academy are to be retained.

Institutes like the National Defense University (NDU), the Defense University of Science and Technology, the Military Museum, PLA Archives, Military Academy of Medical Sciences, Engineering Design Institute, armaments research institutes affiliated with the general headquarters and military service branches, and science and technology and academic research organizations, will all be incorporated into the national defense administrative system. A major reform measure is that officers of these establishments will be demobilized and no longer have military ranks, but be designated as civilian personnel. The National Defense University (NDU) will, however, continue to be responsible for training senior military cadres.

The reform and restructuring of the PLA essentially orients the Theatre Joint Commands as per their primary task. It is intended to concentrate firepower and troops trained for a specific type of warfare within a single Theatre for ease of rapid deployment. Land and sea warfare forces are to be grouped separately. For example, the Shenyang and Beijing MRs to be merged into the Northeast Theatre Command and the Jinan, Nanjing and Guangzhou MRs to be absorbed in the Southeast Theatre Command have a mainly maritime role. The primary objective of these Theatre Joint Commands will be to enable China to establish dominance over the East China Sea and South China Sea and stand up to a US-Japan alliance. Reports suggest that by 2020, the Theatres will be reinforced by three aircraft carrier combat groups with the existing aircraft carrier ‘Liaoning’ deployed in the East China Sea, and the other two aircraft carriers in the South China Sea. The time-frame for creation of the Theatre Joint Commands is five years.

The backdrop for these military reforms is the assessment of China’s political and military leaders of the international situation and environment around China. Significant for India is the PLA spokesman’s statement to the Beijing-owned Hongkong-based newspaper Wen Wei Po on May 27, 2011. Stating that the strength of 2.3 million is appropriate for the PLA, he justified it because of the “vastness of Chinese territory, the difficulties of the tasks required for defending maritime interests and the endless number of national development interests which are putting new requirements on army building”. The spokesman added that “China is currently facing an unsafe world and increasing uncertainty. The West is recovering while the East is anxious and the North is stable while the South is tense, dangerous situation on China’s borders is increasing. There is also the possibility that the actions by outsiders will bring about complex changes.”

The annual conference on the ‘Global Military Situation’ organized by the PLA’s prestigious Academy of Military Sciences (AMS) on January 9, 2015, also discussed the regional security situation in the Asia-Pacific, Europe and the Middle East. It was attended by over 150 senior PLA officers and experts including from the CMC, the four General departments, NDU and the Commandant and Political Commissar of the AMS. The conference concluded that ‘unprecedented changes are taking place in the global military situation; military force in international relations is more widely used; and the situation in the Asia-Pacific has worsened’.

Based on these and similar high-level official assessments, the reforms are intended to streamline the PLA and equip it to effectively defend China’s claimed maritime domain and “fight and win wars”. Chinese President Xi Jinping, who as secretary (mishu) to Chinese Defence Minister Geng Biao in 1979 had a ringside view of how Deng Xiaoping thoroughly reformed the PLA, will guide implementation of these far-reaching reforms designed to make China strong and realise ‘China’s Dream’.

For India it is pertinent that both versions of the restructuring proposals mention that Lanzhou and Chengdu MRs, which are oriented for military operations against India, will be retained as reinforced, independent Theatre Commands. While safeguarding Chinese investments in the northern areas of Pakistan could be a factor for the Lanzhou Theatre Command, the indication is clearly that China will maintain an ‘offensive’ posture towards India.

(The author is a former Additional Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India and is President of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy.)

Published Date: 7th December 2015, Image Source:
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)

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