Modernisation of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has entered the final stage of its current phase. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s Third Plenum, which was held in November 2013 and represents a major advance in China’s reforms, provided a substantive push to the PLA’s modernisation when it approved proposals for major organisational restructuring. The reforms coincide with China’s continuing assertiveness that has unsettled its neighbours.
Appointments to the Central Military Commission (CMC) effected earlier by the CCP’s 18th Congress in Beijing in November 2012 accelerated the drive to strengthen and modernise the 2.3 million-strong PLA. Within days of his appointment as the CMC chairman, Xi Jinping not only endorsed the military modernisation policies of his predecessors Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, but also began bluntly advocating more rapid modernisation and technological upgrade of the PLA.
The organisational reforms approved by the CCP’s Third Plenum indicate that changes are imminent in the PLA’s command structure comprising the four principal departments and seven military regions. The PLA Navy (PLAN), PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and China’s strategic missile strike force, namely the Second Artillery, have clearly been allotted an enhanced operational role and will receive priority in allocation of budgets and manpower. Personnel of the Second Artillery, PLAAF and PLAN already receive higher salaries than their counterparts in the PLA’s ground forces. Within days of the Third Plenum, CMC vice-chairman and till recently the PLAAF commander, Xu Qiliang, wrote an article in the party mouthpiece People’s Daily confirming the reforms will be implemented. He mentioned that the number of non-combatants would be drastically reduced and that the reforms would enable the PLA to win wars.
Quite separately, reports filtering out of Beijing and disclosed initially in the solitary official English-language China Daily, suggest that plans have been finalised to merge the military regions. These envisage reorganising the seven military regions into five “combat zones” (zhan chu) within the next five years. Over the past few years China’s military literature has hinted at such impending change with occasional references to “Theatre Commands”. The reorganisation is intended to concentrate firepower and troops trained for a specific type of warfare within a single theatre or zone for ease of rapid deployment. Land and sea warfare forces are to be grouped separately. This reorganisation gives the PLA a definite “outward orientation” neatly meshing with its doctrine of “active defence”.
According to these reports, the three mainly coastal military regions of Jinan, Nanjing and Guangzhou are to be converted into three “combat zones”. Adopting a mainly maritime role, their primary objective will be to reinforce China’s efforts to establish dominance over the East China Sea and South China Sea and face up to the US-Japan alliance. By 2020, all three zones will be reinforced by three aircraft carrier combat groups. Reports suggest existing aircraft carrier Liaoning will be deployed in the East China Sea, while the other two aircraft carriers will be in the South China Sea. Interestingly on January 1, Xinhua showed pictures of Liaoning returning to its home base in Qingdao after month-long exercises in the South China Sea, but avoided mention of the run-in with the US-guided missile warship USS Cowpens.
In April 2013, Xinhua reported Rear Admiral Song Xue, deputy chief of staff of the PLA Navy, saying a second aircraft carrier was under construction. He told foreign military attaches that it would be larger and carry more fighter aircraft. On January 18, 2014, party secretary of Liaoning province Wang Min disclosed China’s second domestically-produced aircraft carrier is being built at Dalian and would be ready in six years.
The four inland military regions of Shenyang, Beijing, Chengdu and Lanzhou are to similarly be merged into two large combat zones. Chengdu and Lanzhou both exercise operational jurisdiction over the India-China border. Each of the two new zones will have units of the PLA Navy, Air Force and Second Artillery integral to them. They will function under a new unified combat command. These reports also disclose that the PLA’s 300,000 non-combatant personnel will be eliminated by 2022. Though China’s ministry of defence denied the reports, it is pertinent that mention was first made in China Daily and that its contents are generally in consonance with Xu Qiliang’s assertion in People’s Daily and the reforms approved at the CCP CC’s Third Plenum.
Rapid advances have also been made in the indigenous development of advanced defence technology and hardware in the past three years. Emphasis was underscored with the appointment of General Zhang Youxia, a known proponent of indigenous development of modern advanced defence technology, as director of the PLA’s General Armaments Department (GAD) in October 2012. The latest development was the announcement on January 9 that China had conducted the first flight test of a new hypersonic glide vehicle, dubbed the WU-14 by the Pentagon, thus becoming one of five nations to possess this capability. The hypersonic vehicle, capable of travelling at speeds between Mach 8 and 12, represents a major advance in China’s secretive strategic nuclear and conventional military and missile programmes. China had in May 2012 opened a new JF12 shockwave hypersonic wind tunnel—the largest of its kind—that replicates flying conditions between Mach 5 and 9.
Also this month, pictures of the new two-seater J-16 stealth fighter built by the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation were posted online. Slated to first be inducted by PLAN and later the PLAAF, the J-16 is loaded with eight tons of air-to-air and anti-ship missiles and has a combat radius of several hundred miles, enabling it to help Chinese warships battle for control of regional waters claimed by China. Some reports claim two dozen J-16 are ready for induction.
These military reforms will give the PLA an outward focus, implying that “recovery” of territories claimed by Beijing will be a central feature of China’s strategic agenda. They will reinforce diplomacy aimed at realising “China’s Dream”. Xi Jinping, meanwhile, continues to further tighten his and the CCP’s grip on the PLA. An important example is the Third Plenum approving the PLA being brought within the ambit of the party’s anti-corruption watchdog, the Central Discipline Inspection Commission.
The writer is a member of the National Security Advisory Board and former additional secretary in the cabinet secretariat, Indian government.