Clearly demonstrating his authority and confidence in the New Year, Chinese President Xi Jinping began implementing the crucial second phase of military reforms announced earlier on September 3, 2015. The reorganisation and restructuring of the 2.3 million-strong People’s Liberation Army (PLA), on the drawing board since well before 2011, is the most critical reform taken up by Xi Jinping since he took over in November, 2012. It is also only the second time in the history of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) that the PLA is being radically reformed. The objective is to prepare the PLA to assist the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) realise the ‘China Dream’ and protect China’s overseas national interests. There are serious implications for India as well.
The reforms have moved rapidly with the formalisation within a month of two new services, namely the PLA Army (PLAA) and the PLA Strategic Support Force, along with their separate Headquarters and Commanders. The PLA Rocket Force and PLA Strategic Support Force were created on December 31, 2015. The PLA Rocket Force, which appears essentially to be a new name for the Second Artillery, will control and retain in its inventory the various missiles presently available with the Second Artillery. Chinese President and CMC Chairman Xi Jinping described the PLA Rocket Force as “China’s core strategic deterrence power” and asked that the new Rocket Force develop “nuclear deterrence and counter-strike capability which is credible, reliable, with medium and long-range precision strike ability, as well as strategic check and balance capacity to build a strong modern Rocket Force”.
Some Chinese language news sources speculate that the new Rocket Force might integrate the missions of strategic nuclear submarines and strategic bombers. The existing ambiguity regarding deployment of nuclear and conventional missile systems remains. It is also yet to become clear whether the new Theatre/Zone Commanders — who are senior to the former MR Commanders — will exercise operational authority over PLA Rocket Force elements deployed within their jurisdiction. Xi Jinping described the PLA Strategic Support Force “as a new-type combat force to maintain national security and an important growth point of the PLA’s combat capabilities”.
The role of the new PLA Strategic Support Force includes high-technology warfare and space, cyber and electronic warfare, technical reconnaissance, innovation and missile R&D. The unmanned ‘Shenlong’, which is being developed as a space weapons launch platform, as well as for surveillance, intelligence and early-warning missions, will be included in this new force. Yao Yunzhu, a Senior Researcher at the PLA Academy of Military Science, said the establishment of the Strategic Support Force will integrate the support forces of different services to improve efficiency and save costs.
Five new Zones have been created to replace the seven Military Regions with all MR Commanders, except one, retaining their jobs though they have also all been reshuffled. Of these, the North Zone will concentrate on Mongolia, Russia and Korea; the Central Zone will focus on protection of Beijing; and the South and East Zones will primarily be Maritime Commands responsible for maritime security and safeguarding the South China Sea and East Sea respectively.
The Guangzhou and Nanjing Military Regions remain intact but have been renamed the South and East Zones. The implication is Vietnam and Taiwan continue to be areas of concern to China’s military leaders.
Elevated to new posts are: General Fang Fenghui, who has been appointed to head the newly-created Joint General Staff; 1953-born General Xu Fenlin as the new Deputy Chief of Joint General Staff; General Li Zuocheng, has been promoted to head the ground forces as Commander of the PLA Army (PLAA); 63-year old Admiral Sun Jianguo, a submariner and a former President of the PLAN Submarine Academy, is the new PLA Navy (PLAN) Commander; 1958-born General Yi Xiaoguang who joined the PLAAF at the age of 16, is the new PLA Air Force (PLAAF) Commander. A fighter pilot, he composed ‘The Chinese/English Manual for Jet Pilots’ in 1992; General Wei Fenghe, erstwhile Commander of the Second Artillery, continues as Chief of the PLA Rocket Force; and General Gao Jin heads the PLA Strategic Support Force. The posts of Chief and Deputy Chief of the Joint General Staff appear to be tenable in the future by officers of the PLAA, PLAAF or PLAN. Similarly, the Zones, or Theatre Commands, could in future be commanded by officers from the PLAA or PLAAF or PLAN depending on the primary task of the specific Zone.
Of particular interest for India is the West Zone, which merges the erstwhile Lanzhou and Chengdu MRs. Comprising more than half of China’s land area, 22 per cent of its population and more than one-third of China’s land-based military, the newly-constituted West Zone represents a strengthened military formation. The merger of the Lanzhou and Chengdu MRs will improve joint planning, coordination and operations. Incorporation of the Qinghai region in the West Zone will facilitate the rapid induction and deployment of high altitude acclimatised and trained troops into Tibet and across Ladakh. Establishment of the West Zone also reveals China’s increased and abiding military interest in the region in addition to facilitating focus on “threats in Xinjiang and Tibet as well as Afghanistan and other states that host training bases for separatists and extremists”.
Equally pertinent is the appointment of General Zhao Zongqi, till recently Jinan MR Commander, as Commander of the new West Zone. His credentials indicate he was handpicked for this post. General Zhao Zongqi is fluent in Arabic and has experience of Tibet. He is a war hero, having participated in the Sino-Vietnam War in 1979 when he is reported to have often disguised himself as a Vietnamese to gather information. He served over 20 years in Tibet as Deputy Chief of Staff (1984-99) and Chief of Staff (1999-2004) of the Tibet Military District (TMD). Born in 1955, General Zhao Zongqi has foreign service experience and was posted in Tanzania as Defence Attaché. He has also been a military consultant for a drama serial on the PLA in 2006.
Whether the PLA will become strong and adequately competent by 2020 to achieve the goals set by China’s leaders will depend on a number of factors. Though the official Global Times justified the reforms as intended to overawe adversaries since ‘the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting’, China’s neighbours are aware that Chinese leaders have never wavered from their objective of ‘reunifying China’ and that Xi Jinping’s declared goal is to achieve China’s Dream by 2020.
The author is a former Addl Secy in Cabinet Secretariat, and is President of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org