China announces massive reforms to its military

Members of People's Liberation Army honour guards preparing for a welcome ceremony in Beijing on Nov 26.
Members of People's Liberation Army honour guards preparing for a welcome ceremony in Beijing on Nov 26. PHOTO: EPA

Changes unprecedented in scale and nature aimed at making PLA more combat ready

China has launched its biggest-ever set of military reforms, including the establishment of a new joint operational command, to turn the People's Liberation Army (PLA) into a more combat-ready force.

The long-anticipated reforms come as tensions simmer over territorial disputes with neighbours and to address the strategic rivalry with the United States and Japan.

China unveiled them yesterday through its official Xinhua news agency at the end of a three-day, closed-door meeting chaired by President Xi Jinping and attended by 200 military officials.

Other key reforms on target for implementation by 2020 include the rezoning of the existing seven military regions into new strategic zones; strengthening the Central Military Commission (CMC) command structure over the PLA; and reorganising the military headquarters.

The imposition of strict discipline on the army, another reform pledge, will see the PLA setting up a new disciplinary structure and a new legal and political committee to weed out graft and legal violations.

But details were scant on most reform pledges except on a promise by Mr Xi at a military parade in September to downsize the 2.3-million strong PLA by 300,000 troops.

"We must build up an elite combat force, enhance the command structure and make-up of troops, and transform our military model from one focused on quantity to one underpinned by quality," said Mr Xi, who chairs the CMC which controls the PLA.

Retired PLA colonel Yue Gang said the latest reforms constitute the biggest military overhaul since the 1950s, shortly after the Communist Party took power in 1949.

"The reform shakes the very foundations of China's Soviet Union- style military system, and transferring to a US-style joint command structure will transform China's PLA into a specialised armed force that could pack more of a punch in the world," he told Bloomberg.

Beijing-based military observer Wang Xiangsui said the latest reforms are not just unprecedented in terms of scale but also in their nature.

"In the past, reforms would continue traditional traits of the Chinese military, but this time it contains more elements of the militaries in Western developed nations, especially the United States," Prof Wang told The Straits Times.

One example he noted was that the seven military regions (known as da jun qu in Mandarin) in Beijing, Shenyang, Nanjing, Jinan, Guangzhou, Chengdu and Lanzhou were drawn to meet defence purposes based on their respective geographic locations and are centred more on the army.

The new strategic zones, known as zhan qu in Mandarin, could be more comprehensive in their composition of combat units with a clear bent towards a particular service, modelled on the US military command structure.

But the military reform programme, first unveiled in late 2013, has reportedly triggered resistance within the military.

Top brass oppose reforms out of fears that their interests would be hurt.

In recent weeks, the People's Liberation Army Daily has published a series of commentaries warning of opposition to the reforms.

But Mr Xi yesterday said the entire military was "ardently anticipating" the reforms and "firmly upheld" them.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 27, 2015, with the headline 'China announces massive reforms to its military'. Print Edition | Subscribe