CHINA is to set up its first joint operational command so that the world's largest military can respond faster and better to crises, amid simmering tensions on its surrounding seas and festering unrest in ethnic minority regions.
State-run China Daily newspaper reported yesterday, quoting a statement from the Defence Ministry, that the proposed system will be set up in "due course".
"Setting up the system is a basic requirement in an era of information, and the military has launched positive programmes in this regard," the news report said, without providing further details.
The ministry said the modernisation of China's armed forces is "not targeted at any country".
China is locked in territorial disputes with neighbouring countries, such as one with Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in the East China Sea. Beijing also faces growing violence in border regions like Xinjiang and Tibet.
News of the proposed defence revamp followed a Japanese media report on Wednesday, citing senior Chinese military officials and other sources, that China was set to reorganise its seven military regions into five.
China now has seven military regions (known as da jun qu in Mandarin) in Beijing, Shenyang, Nanjing, Jinan, Guangzhou, Chengdu and Lanzhou.
The Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper said the five military regions would each have a joint operations command overseeing the army, navy and air force, and a strategic missile unit.
It is unclear from the China Daily report and the ministry's statement if such a change is indeed in the works, though observers say there have been clues from the Chinese Communist Party's policy summit held in November.
A reform plan endorsed by the top leaders urged the 2.3 million-strong People's Liberation Army to "improve the combined combat command systems, push forward reform of training and logistics for joint combat operations".
Professor Ouyang Wei of the National Defence University was quoted in the China Daily report as saying that a joint operational command would feature "unified command and information sharing across at least two different military forces", and would help the military respond quickly to a contingency.
Military analysts tell The Straits Times that talk of changes to the military regions has surfaced on and off for several years, and would be hard to implement.
Shanghai-based observer Ni Lexiong said the last change took place in 1985, when late strongman Deng Xiaoping oversaw the reduction of military regions from 11 to the current seven.
"Transport links have improved tremendously since then, making deployment of troops and weaponry across China easier now. So, having just five military regions in the north, south, east, west and centre may be a possible arrangement," he said.
Beijing-based military commentator Wu Ge pointed out that Russia has divided itself into four military districts, even though its 17 million sq km land mass is almost twice as large as China's.
But he said any change will not be easy as military regions would resist efforts to remove them, by citing their strategic purposes.
For instance, north-eastern Shenyang is deemed important due to the North Korea situation, and north-western Lanzhou takes charge of Xinjiang.
Opposition might also come from the military top brass.
"You can be sure the military won't be too happy if changes were to hurt its interests. It may try to sabotage or delay these changes," said Mr Wu.