China set to put military under one command

Soldiers of China's People's Liberation Army shouting as they march during a training session for a military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, at a military base in Beijing recently.
Soldiers of China's People's Liberation Army shouting as they march during a training session for a military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, at a military base in Beijing recently.PHOTO: REUTERS

Plan also calls for reducing ground forces to elevate roles of navy and air force

BEIJING • Chinese President Xi Jinping will, as soon as this month, announce the most sweeping overhaul of the military in at least three decades, moving it closer to a United States-style joint command structure, people familiar with the matter said.

The blueprint would unify the army, navy, air force and strategic missile corps under one command, said the sources, who asked not to be identified because the proposal has not been released. 

The plans call for thinning the ranks of officers and traditional ground forces, helping to elevate the role of the navy and air force to better project force in a modern conflict, they said. It would also consolidate the country's seven military regions to as few as four, one of the people said.

Mr Xi is preparing to unveil the proposal in the wake of tomorrow's World War II anniversary parade in Beijing, which will showcase his authority over the People's Liberation Army (PLA) and China's growing clout in the region.

The plan to mould the military into a force that meets Mr Xi's goal of being "able to fight and win a modern war" has been delayed for months as anti-graft investigators swept up dozens of current and retired generals.

The new system... would replace the region-based structure that emphasises the army and predates the country's founding in 1949.

Mr Xi "mainly employed the anti- corruption campaign in the military to form his absolute command over the army, so that his military restructuring plan can press ahead after being initially stalled", said Mr Yue Gang, a retired colonel in the PLA's General Staff Department. "Now, his authority in the army is solid enough for him to flesh out his vision to transform the military and set it on a path to emulate the US."

The Ministry of National Defence did not respond to a faxed request for comment.

The plan would set out the details of the Communist Party's endorsement of a joint military command in November 2013. 

The new system - which includes a joint command at both the regional and national level - would replace the region-based structure that emphasises the army and predates the country's founding in 1949 at a time communist soldiers were clashing with Japanese invaders and Kuomintang troops.

Such a command system is seen as necessary to improve communications and coordinate modern forces across the various arms of the military.

The organisational changes would aid China's shift from a land-based military to one able to project force far from its coastline.

"The PLA is currently a territorial muddy-boots military focused on defending the rule of the Communist Party against all enemies foreign and domestic with limited ability to fight jointly," said Mr Andrew Scobell, a senior political scientist at the Rand Corporation in Arlington, Virginia. "With growing attention to China's increasingly overseas interests, the US model is very appealing."

The effort to adopt a US-inspired command comes as China extends its maritime reach and the world's two largest economies face increasing friction from the shipping lanes of East Asia to cyberspace.

The Obama administration is considering cyber retaliation against China or other countries it believes have sponsored hacking attacks on corporate or government computers in the US, people familiar with the matter said.

The PLA's last major overhaul - carried out under Deng Xiaoping in 1985 - reduced the number of military regions to seven from 11 and resulted in the dismissal of about one million soldiers.

In its annual report to the US Congress in May, the Pentagon said that creating joint-command entities "would be the most significant changes to the PLA's command organisation since 1949".

The PLA began practising the use of a joint-command system during a series of nationwide military exercises that began last month. It had an army of 850,000, compared with 398,000 people in the air force and 235,000 in the navy, according to figures released in 2013, the first time China confirmed the relative size of the branches.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 02, 2015, with the headline 'China set to put military under one command'. Print Edition | Subscribe