China begins major military restructuring

People's Liberation Army soldiers at the site of a landslide in Shenzhen on Dec 21, 2015.
People's Liberation Army soldiers at the site of a landslide in Shenzhen on Dec 21, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

Rocket Force set up to control nuke arsenal; new command unit for land-based troops

China has launched its most ambitious military restructuring process in six decades, including the setting up of a separate leadership structure for land-based troops in the People's Liberation Army (PLA).

Observers say the move to set up a new general command unit for the army marks a shift from the current army-centric structure towards a Western-style joint command, in which the army, navy and air force are equally represented. Before, the PLA General Staff headquarters had exercised leadership over the army.

China has also set up a "Strategic Support Force" likely tasked to beef up its capabilities in cyber and electronic warfare, among others.

A "Rocket Force" will replace the Second Artillery Corps (SAC) in controlling the nuclear arsenal.

Chinese President Xi Jinping conferred military flags to commanders of the new units at a ceremony on Thursday at the PLA headquarters in Beijing, though the changes were announced only yesterday by the Xinhua news agency.

In his speech, Mr Xi said the military restructuring was part of a major decision by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Central Military Commission (CMC), which controls the PLA, to "realise the Chinese dream of a strong military".

"It is a strategic step to establish a modern military system with Chinese characteristics," said Mr Xi, who is also the CMC chairman.

He also gave specific instructions to the three new units, such as urging the Rocket Force to "enhance nuclear deterrence and counter-strike capacity, medium- and long-range precision strike ability".

China had announced the military restructuring on Nov 26. These reforms were promised at the CCP's policymaking summit in late 2013 as part of Mr Xi's vision of a strong military able to fight and win wars.

Other key reforms set to take place include the re-zoning of the seven military regions into five new strategic zones; setting up a joint operational command structure; and cutting the 2.3 million PLA troop numbers by 300,000.

China has depicted the changes as part of its military modernisation but they are set to raise fears of its defence prowess amid its territorial disputes with neighbours and strategic rivalry with Japan and the US.

Seeking to allay concerns, Defence Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun yesterday said China would be sticking to its "second-strike" nuclear policy as a deterrent, when asked if there would be changes with the new Rocket Force in place.

Chinese media say the changes mean China now has four armed services - the army, navy, air force and missile force. Hong Kong-based analyst Liang Guoliang said the Strategic Support Force is likely to operate as a de facto armed service.

The PLA Army commander is General Li Zuocheng, previously commander of the Chengdu military region, which includes Tibet.

The Rocket Force is headed by the SAC commander Wei Fenghe while the Strategic Support Force chief is Lieutenant-General Gao Jin, a former SAC chief of staff.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 02, 2016, with the headline 'China begins major military restructuring'. Print Edition | Subscribe