China to announce sweeping overhaul of military as early as this month: Sources

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) accompanies Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev to view an honour guard during a welcoming ceremony on Aug 31, 2015.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) accompanies Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev to view an honour guard during a welcoming ceremony on Aug 31, 2015.PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - 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 US- 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 hasn't been released. 

The plans call for thinning the ranks of officers and traditional ground forces, helping 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.

Xi is preparing to unveil the proposal in the wake of Thursday'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 mold the military into a force that meets 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, referring the PLA's former top general to prosecutors in July.

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 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 Defense didn't respond to a faxed request for comment.

- Unified Command -

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 emphasizes the army and predates the country's founding in 1949 at a time Communist soldiers were clashing with Japanese invaders and Nationalist 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," 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."

- Maritime Reach -

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 some 1 million soldiers. I

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

The changes would include merging the General Logistics and General Armaments departments, the people said. The defence ministry's focus would be directed more toward administrative and diplomatic matters while the number of non-combat personnel and institutions would be scaled back, they said.

- Nationwide Drills -

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.

In July, the party expelled Guo Boxiong- the PLA's retired top general - on suspicion that he abused power and took bribes either directly or through family members. It was the highest- profile case bought against top brass since Xi took power in 2012, with generals accused of everything from embezzling public funds to selling ranks.

Phillip Saunders, director of the Centre for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the US National Defence University in Washington, said the difficulty in integrating the various forces is a weakness for the PLA now in conducting combat operations.

"Setting up joint command and control mechanisms is intended to fix that," he said. "However, it took the US military years to really learn how to communicate between the services and conduct real joint operations. It will likely take the PLA even longer."