Chinese President Xi Jinping’s public announcement at the grand military parade on September 3 this year that China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would be downsized by 3,00,000 personnel signalled that internal consensus had been reached and reform and restructuring of the PLA has begun. Though there was a transparently thin attempt to package the reduction as intended to promote peace, it is actually part of plans 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.
Institutional resistance to the reforms, however, delayed their implementation with downsizing now expected to be completed only by 2017. Contributing to resistance were reports at that time that following the PLA’s reorganisation, 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 the downsizing of personnel and reduction in their share of the budget. At least two signed articles in the official Liberation Army Daily (LAD) on September 9 publicised the existence of resistance to reforms inside the PLA. They cautioned that implementing reforms would be difficult because it meant changing mindsets, rooting out vested interests and overcoming institutional hurdles.
In this backdrop, the presence of Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, the two immediate predecessors of Jinping, who is also the Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), on the podium at the parade on September 3 was significant. Their presence was intended to assure domestic and foreign audiences of support for Jinping and the military reforms. The presence of Jiang Zemin 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 him or his protégés. Rumours have also been circulating for some months inside China that Jiang Zemin was either already under house arrest or likely to be detained soon. On September 10, General Fan Changlong and General Xu Qiliang, the two Vice Chairmen of the CMC, travelled to all seven Military Regions (MR) to explain reform plans to middle and low-ranking military officers. Senior officers of the PLA, the PLA Air Force (PLAAF), PLA Navy (PLAN), Second Artillery Force (SAF) and the People’s Armed Police Force (PAPF) were simultaneously directed to express support for the military reforms.
Described as the most intensive and wide-ranging reforms ever to be implemented in the PLA, the existing seven MR are likely to be replaced with either four or five Theatre Joint Commands and changes introduced in the rank structure. The new Theatre Commanders are to have lower ranks than the MR Commanders to reduce their political influence. PLA Senior Colonels are to be designated as Brigadier General and a rank of Lieutenant Commander is likely to be introduced while readjusting those of Second Lieutenant and Lieutenant. The PLA’s four General Departments and the Ministry of National Defence (MND) are to be reorganised. The General Staff Department (GSD) will include high-ranking officers from all service branches and be upgraded. Non-combat units and administrative staff will be demobilised together with units holding older weapons and equipment. A number of Group Armies (GA) will resultantly be demobilised. Based on Chinese assessments that less external threat is perceived from the north, analysts assess that three GAs from this area would be demobilised. Chinese media reports indicate that the PLA’s 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.
The personnel strength of the PLA ground forces, officially referred to as PLAA for the past few years, will be reduced to 3,60,000 personnel from the present 8,50,000. Personnel strengths of the PLAN and PLAAF will increase as will that of the PAPF, which will be transformed into a National Guard. Retired PLA Major General Xu Guangyu, a Senior Consultant at the Chinese Military Disarmament Control Council and an expert of contemporary Chinese military affairs, was quoted by the state-run Global Times on September 6 as speculating that the ratio of ground, air and naval forces would finally be 2:1:1.
The PAPF will absorb large numbers of demobilised PLA personnel, enabling it to tackle the rising popular discontent in China and strengthen presence in the troubled regions of Tibet and Xinjiang. The number of military academies is to be reduced from the present 150 to 29 and work to streamline them has already begun under the supervision of General Liu Yuan, Political Commissar of the PLA’s General Logistics Department (GLD) and a ‘princeling’ and close associate of Xi Jinping.
The restructuring also orients the Theatre 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 Joint Command and the Jinan, Nanjing and Guangzhou MRs to be absorbed in the Southeast Theatre Command, all have mainly maritime roles. The primary objective of both Theatre 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 the Theatre commands, which will be reinforced by three aircraft carrier combat groups by 2020, will be established in five years.
The backdrop for reforming the PLA is the Chinese political and military leaderships’ assessment of the international situation and environment around China. Significant for India is the PLA spokesman’s statement to the Wen Wei Po on May 27, 2011, when he said “China is currently facing an unsafe world…. 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 of the PLA’s prestigious Academy of Military Sciences (AMS) on January 9 this year, similarly 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’.
For India it is pertinent that the Lanzhou and Chengdu MRs, both oriented for military operations against India, will be retained as independent Theatre Commands. 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. E-mail:email@example.com