Chinese President Xi Jinping’s military reforms have strengthened his position over the country’s military.
The reorganisation and restructuring of the PLA and the implications it holds for India were the focus of the workshop titled ‘China’s Military Reforms’ organised by the National Security Programme of Observer Research Foundation on March 19, 2016.
The workshop was chaired by Dr. Manoj Joshi, Distinguished Fellow ORF and the principal speaker was Lieutenant General S. L. Narasimhan, Commandant of the Army War College. Dr. Joshi opened the discussion highlighting the fact that Xi Jinping’s focus in the reform process had been on, eradicating corruption within the PLA, ensuring the PLA was loyal to the party and on theoretical and technological innovation within the rank and file of the military. While there has existed an understanding that the PLA is outdated, the reforms indicate a change not only in the structure of the army, but also in the way of thinking. There also been an increased focus on breaking the barrier between military and civilian technology, and accommodating greater civilian technology in the military. The importance of the political leadership in pushing reform was discussed, highlighting the remarkable level of political capital Xi Jinping has put on the line in pushing for the reform.
Lt. Gen Narasimhan noted at the outset that the aim of the Xi Jinping’s military reforms was to strengthen his control over the PLA and make the army a more efficient fighting force by breaking down barriers between rival commands. The reforms optimise the size of the army by reducing the number of non–combat personnel and institutions and improve the balance between services and branches of the military by placing them on equal footing.
At the forefront of the reforms is the absorption of the four general departments of the PLA by 15 new departments within the Central Military Commission. The General Staff Department that was the most important department of the PLA and which also focused on intelligence and operations has now become the Joint Staff Department within the CMC, no longer exercising operational control of the army and instead operating as simply a staff organisation similar to the US’ joint chief of staffs system. In the addition, the other 14 departments and offices of the CMC will include departments for logistics, equipment development, science and technology and fighting corruption.
Another major reform has been the reorganisation of the seven military regions into five theatre commands. While all military regions will have their own commander, the grades and ranking of the theatre commanders have been keep intact. Of the five theatre commands, the Northern Command will concentrate on Mongolia, Russia and Korea; the Central Command on protecting Beijing; the Eastern and Southern Commands will focus on China’s maritime security ambitions protecting the east and South China Sea; while the Western Command will look at part of Mongolia, the Central Asian republics and South Asia. The theatre commands will also have their own army, navy and air force components to respond to security threats from their strategic directions.
The reforms will also focus on out–of–area operations as part of China’s ‘holistic view of national security’. Encompassing both traditional and non traditional security threats, the Chinese military will be directed to address threats well beyond its territorial borders. In the past, it has deployed the PLA Navy to the Gulf of Aden and involved itself in one way or the other in Sudan, Libya, Syria, Myanmar to name a few. This is part of Xi’s strategy to make China shoulder greater international responsibility and obligations in areas of piracy, peacekeeping, disaster response and terrorism.
General Narasimhan also discussed the importance of the creation of the PLA Rocket force. According to him, both conventional and strategic assets would be under this force, which in turn would report to the CMC. In addition, the PLA Strategic Support Force (or PLASSF) is expected to be a game changer, as it is the core China’s information warfare force and will be a central component of China’s active defence concept. Its organisational structure has been designed so as to integrate military systems and services to improve efficiency in information supply. The PLASSF includes space operations, electronic and cyber warfare, technical reconnaissance and missile research and development. Its main aim will be to protect the country’s financial security and the security of people’s lives in the country.
Xi’s military reforms also include a reduction of over 300,000 troops, which will be done in phases up to 2017. While this will save approximately $100 million of their annual budget, it will also optimise the structure of the armed forces by reducing troops that are equipped with either outdated equipment, or are non combat or administrative personnel.
The main implications of the reform include the reduction in power and influence of the PLA. While the reforms enable the PLA to concentrate on territorial defence and combat, it also increases the jointness between the PLA navy, air force and rocket force. Discussing the implications of the reforms for India, General Narasimhan highlighted how the vastness of western theatre command geographic area would perhaps affect its military capability. While earlier India was dealing with two military regions, it would only deal with one- the western command. In addition, the reduction of troops over a period of time as the geographic area of command stabilises over time could mean that they will be fewer troops in operation against India. The large area under the western commander will also make it difficult for the theatre commander to orchestrate his actions. The reforms and their affect on China and its neighbours will play out in time, as Xi implements them in steady phases.
The question and answer session raised some important queries with regard to whether the PLA had been weakened due to Xi’s centralisation of power, who would head China’s out-of-area missions under the new army structure, whether the central theatre command would form the nucleus of the army as it looked after Beijing and how the present reforms would look change the way China behaved with US and its allies, vis-à-vis matters in the South China Sea.
The speaker responded reiterating that in China, the survival of the regime was of paramount importance, and therefore the political department of the PLA would always remain strong. In addition, the ‘headmaster’ of the out–of–area contingency operations would remain with the CMC. General Naramsinhan also stated his belief that there would be no major change in Chinese interest in the South China Sea. Since only the command and control structure had changed, with no major change in troop structure, the US and its allies would therefore view Chinese out–of–area operations in the same way. In addition, any change in how the US and allies would view the PLA reforms, would only be seen as the reform continue to steadily roll out over a period of time.
This report is prepared by Kriti M. Shah, Research Assistant, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.