Resistance likely over Beijing's military overhaul

Entire system may be disrupted, top brass see reforms affecting their power base: Experts

Sweeping changes to the structure of the Chinese military will help Beijing deal better with territorial disputes and strategic rivals like the United States, said the Chinese state media, a day after President Xi Jinping launched the country's biggest set of military reforms.

But while observers say the overhaul is long overdue, challenges remain as the changes risk disruption to the entire military system while affecting long-entrenched special interests that are likely to put up resistance.

In an editorial yesterday, the nationalistic Global Times newspaper pointed to the need for China's military power to match its growing world stature amid simmering tensions over territorial spats in the South China Sea.

"China has felt increasing strategic pressure from the Pacific, where provocative military actions happen from time to time. Tensions have been raised in the South China Sea and in the East China Sea," it said.

"Some outside powers are building up the momentum of the rebalance-to-Asia strategy through stretching (their) military presence."

On Thursday, China unveiled its biggest army overhaul in decades, including the establishment of a new joint operational command, in an attempt to turn the People's Liberation Army into a more combat-ready force.

While China emphasises the need to solve conflicts through peaceful means, "the supportive role of military power to China's position on the world stage has become more and more important", the editorial said.

On Thursday, China unveiled its biggest army overhaul in decades, including the establishment of a new joint operational command, in an attempt to turn the People's Liberation Army (PLA) into a more combat-ready force.

Other key reforms expected by 2020 include the rezoning of the existing seven military regions into new strategic zones, strengthening the Central Military Commission command structure over the PLA, and reorganising the military headquarters.

Earlier in September, Mr Xi had also announced that the military would cut 300,000 troops.

The troop cuts and wider reform agenda have proven contentious, with the official People's Liberation Army Daily, in a series of commentaries in recent weeks, warning of opposition to the reforms.

China had previously faced protests from demobilised soldiers, who complained about a lack of support for finding new jobs or help with financial problems.

In an apparent reference to such concerns, Defence Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun said yesterday that more attention would be given to looking after those affected by the military's downsizing and "concern shown to resolve real difficulties".

He also pledged that China's defence policy will remain "defensive in nature". "Chinese armed forces will always be a staunch force to safeguard world peace and regional stability," he added.

Experts say reforms of China's military were mooted a few years back but have taken till now to be announced, likely due to resistance from interest groups.

"There are many high-ranking officers who may have their positions and power bases affected by the reforms, especially with the reduction of the number of military regions," Hong Kong-based military observer Leung Kwok Leung told The Straits Times.

"There are risks for Mr Xi in pushing through these changes and we can't say that it is not a dangerous move for him," he added.

"We can only watch and wait to see if the reforms can truly be implemented by 2020."

Shanghai-based military expert Ni Lexiong, however, pointed out that some form of resistance is inevitable with any form of change.

"But this can be overcome because we can see Mr Xi's resolve in pushing through military reform. With proper coordination and implementation of the new policies, a lot of the problems can be solved," he told The Straits Times, noting that the PLA's last major overhaul under Mr Deng Xiaoping was successfully implemented.

In 1985, the Chinese paramount leader had reduced the number of military regions to seven from 11, which resulted in the dismissal of some one million soldiers.

Still, the difficulty of the task at hand was acknowledged by the Chinese media.

"Changing the mechanism is more difficult than changing equipment, as the former involves a large number of personnel," said the Global Times editorial.

"An overall reform like this might take more determination, effort and courage than fending off provocations from the outside."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 28, 2015, with the headline 'Resistance likely over Beijing's military overhaul'. Print Edition | Subscribe