Reforming PRC Armed Forces

A reform of the PRC’s Armed Forces reemerged in discussions after President Xi Jinping announced a 300,000 cut in the strength of the People’s Liberation Army of China (PLA).

The announcement was made at a military parade in Beijing, held to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.

The latest generation of Chinese leaders declared a radical modernization in all spheres of life as their main objective upon coming to power in March 2013. It is hard to assume that the Chinese Armed Forces, one of the biggest in the world, will avoid this modernization processes.

The planned PLA reform began taking shape a year ago after the PRC President became the head of the Central Military Commission and established a new body, the Security Council. Thus Xi Jinping and his team acquired the tools and created the conditions for reforming the Chinese system of control over the armed forces.

In fact, this PLA reform, designed to enable the armed forces and the country to promptly address new issues, has been in progress for a few years. The reform process was undoubtedly influenced by the transformations in the Russian Armed Forces that began in 2008. China is paying close attention to Russian military practices, something that promotes further Russian-Chinese military exercises.

Experts believe that the reduction of 300,000 people from the 2.3-million-strong PLA announced by Xi Jinping will be complete before the end of 2017. But his aim is not so much to reduce military spending as to concentrate resources in key sectors, with the planned cut being only a part of the upcoming changes. These could also affect the institutions and organizations involved in the command and control system.

For example, the existing seven military districts could be replaced by four joint commands controlling all forces and assets in their zone of responsibility (as in Russia). This would entail radical changes in the four main directorates’ military management system including the backbone of the entire army structure: the General Staff, the Main Political Directorate, the Main Rear Services Directorate, and the Main Arms Directorate.

Much change is expected in the command and control system of China’s strategic nuclear forces, which took shape back in the 1960s and 1970s. The reform will also attempt to enhance the PLA’s ability to hold inter-service operations with a focus on modernizing air defenses, the Air Force, and the Navy.

Analysts believe that one of the reasons behind the reform is the need to create a sea fleet, which is vital for China, concerned as it is with securing its economic and political interests. The current state of Russian-Chinese relations marked by a high level of reciprocal trust and strategic partnership makes a Russian-Chinese conventional war extremely unlikely, while China’s borders with India, Indochina, and partly with Central Asia run along natural and hard-to-access divides.

China has emerged as the world’s largest commercial power that mostly specializes in maritime trade. Securing maritime lines of communication and access to foreign raw materials is China’s number one priority. China also seeks to secure the infrastructure of its Maritime Silk Road and Silk Road Economic Belt projects and to implement other mega projects listed as Beijing’s international priorities.

The need to upgrade the Navy and the Air Force is also dictated by the tense situation in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, where Beijing is involved in territorial disputes with its neighbors, as well as by the fact that the US military are beginning to eye the Asia-Pacific Region and are heading towards China’s borders and spheres of vital interests, something that causes legitimate concern.

It is relevant to recall in this connection the successful termination of Russia-China major joint naval exercises, Naval Cooperation 2015, held in the Mediterranean in May 2015. These drills evoked concern in the NATO military establishment that sees the current rates of modernization in the Russian and Chinese navies and their potential for forming joint naval task forces capable of gaining an edge over US carrier task forces and controlling vast areas in the World Ocean.

China’s new White Book on defense says that the Chinese Navy is preparing to implement a “high seas defense” program. The White Book is the clearest reflection of the country’s foreign policy with regard to Japan and the Western countries, which Beijing regards as its main economic and geopolitical opponents both in world markets and in a potential theater of military operations.

We can assume that the PLA will be further developed by building up the capacity of its Navy and its strategic forces. Combined, this will enable the PRC to effectively project its power globally even in situations in which its naval capabilities are inferior to those of its opponent (as was the case with the USSR).

Prospectively the PLA, predominantly a land force manned by conscripts from villages and small towns, will become a balanced armed organization with a high proportion of high-technology combat arms and well-educated personnel. This will entail considerable changes in the army’s social composition and political role in Chinese society.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.