China officially announced the reorganising of its seven military regions to five "theatre command" zones yesterday, the latest in a series of changes aimed at improving the combat readiness of the People's Liberation Army (PLA).
The changes are part of the streamlining and modernisation of the PLA, as it focuses on projecting China's military might, analysts told The Straits Times.
President Xi Jinping conferred military flags on the five newly established zones at a ceremony in Beijing yesterday, stressing in a speech the zones need to "counter security threats, uphold peace, constrain conflicts and win wars".
"The zones must... uphold the spirit of neither fearing hardship nor death, (and) forge a brave and tenacious battle culture, to safeguard the country's sovereignty, security and developmental interests," he said.
The five new zones are East, West, South, North and Central.
Military analyst Wang Xiangsui said cutting the number of zones will streamline the PLA's command structure and make it more efficient. "In the past, roads and telecommunications were not so good, so you needed more zones and more people," he said. "But technology and infrastructure have improved, so the PLA is modernising."
Since Mr Xi took power in 2012, military reforms had been among his key targets, as he sought to build a strong armed forces in line with China's growing might on the global stage. Last year, he inaugurated a general command unit for the PLA, a missile force and a strategic support force. Other reform plans include establishing a joint operational command structure by 2020 and slashing 300,000 troops.
The PLA's four military headquarters were also split into 15 new units. "All combat zones must unwaveringly listen to the Party's direction, insist upon the Party's absolute leadership," Mr Xi reiterated yesterday.
But yesterday's announcements also came with a surprise. Among the seven commanders of the former military regions, former Nanjing military region commander Cai Yingting is apparently the only one now without a major post.
General Cai had been expected to do well, given that the Nanjing military region was supposed to be Mr Xi's power base.
But political analyst Willy Lam said Gen Cai could have been dropped due to recent rumours that linked him to former PLA protegees of former Chinese president Jiang Zemin.
"But Song Puxuan, who was from the Nanjing military region, has been made commander of the North combat zone, so Mr Xi still has somebody trusted in there," noted Dr Lam.
The news comes as regional tensions continue to simmer over rival territorial claims. China yesterday accused the United States of seeking maritime hegemony in the name of freedom of navigation, after a US Navy destroyer sailed within 12 nautical miles of a disputed island in the South China Sea on Saturday.