How China is reforming its military

How China is reforming its military

After months of discussion, President Xi has finally launched the expected reform of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), saluted as one of the most radical and at the same time ambitious reforms ever seen.

Political transformations

Last September, President Xi Jinping pledged a marked cut of 300.000 troops from an organic composed by nearly 2.5 million servicemen in order to inaugurate the first phase of a broader plan, aiming to transform the PLA from an infantry-focused, low-technology military one into a high-technology, networked force with new and more sophisticated structures able to massive joint operations and naval and air power.

However, the priority given to the modernisation of its military forces was inaugurated in 2004 under President Hu Jintao, under the new strategic framework of the New Historic Mission, aiming to strengthen the loyalty of the PLA to the CCP but also to ensure China‘s economic development through the defence of China’s sovereignty and regional interest with a special stress on maritime security.

The reform, considered one of the most extensive since Deng’s one in 1980’s, will affect different areas of the Chinese military structure and is expected to not merely to modernise its organisation but to inspire political loyalty, coupled with advanced training to the new recruits.

Among the significant transformation the role of the Central Military Commission will be strengthened while a new joint operational command structure will be established by 2020 and the composition of the Chinese Military Regions (MRs) will be reduced from seven to four in order to increase the level of preparedness.

The MRs have a key importance in the PLA organisation since they host relevant HQs and work as administrative and organisational centres during peacetime or, in case of a conflict, they might work as a temporary war zone HQ.

Therefore establishing a joint operational centre and reducing the fragmentation of its organisation will enhance its effectiveness to succeed in executing joint military operations. Compared to modern armies, the PLA tradition has been characterised by a strong allegiance towards the ruling Communist Party that exercises political oversight through the powerful Central Military Commission (CMC) chaired by President Xi that has employed the anti-corruption campaign even inside the PLA to consolidate his authority and foster important transformations.

During this phase, high-ranking PLA Members such as the former CMC chairmen Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong, belonging to Jiang Zemin’s faction and considered a direct threat to President Xi’s ability to control the PLA, have been purged.

The impact of the reform

In the last decade, China’s military budget has steadily increased at an average 9.5% per cent as a consequence of the determination of the Chinese political elites to expand the strategic dimension of its military forces.

The new dimension of China’s rising military power has been characterised by the acquisition of new and more reliable strategic capabilities such as new naval forces that include submarines and destroyers but also an improved air-defence and long-range anti-ship cruise missiles, accompanied by large investments in the aircraft program and the development of a large number of aerial vehicles able to reinforce ISR capabilities.

Through the modernisation of the PLA, Beijing is seeking to maximise the period of strategic opportunity, favourable to the projection of China’s core interests in the region and on the international arena as well.

Certainly, China has shown its determination and assertiveness to pursue a hegemonic role in the Asia-Pacific region under the narrative of a peaceful rise of China. Yet, Beijing considers primarily Washington’s strategic rebalancing to Asia strategy responsible for the increasingly militarisation of the region and the rising tensions that have characterised the Chinese presence in the Asia-Pacific since 2011.

According to Washington’s analysts, the emergence of a new and improved Chinese strategic power will be used to reach goals beyond the national defence or the protection of its core interest in the region.

Moreover, Beijing’s ambiguous foreign policy in the region is too emphasised, the endless confrontation with Washington and its closer allies such as Japan, the exacerbations of the relations with a large part of the Southeast Asian countries directly threatened by Beijing’s territorial ambitions over the South China Sea represent a source of concern for the conservation of the status quo in the region.

Yet, some observers argue that China’s intention to achieve hegemonic ambitions in the region are rather too emphasised and traditionally Beijing’s security orientation has focused on the protection of narrow interests in strategically important areas, relevant for energetic-wise goals.

However, the expected enhancement of the PLA’s power projection capabilities is clearly an important asset to reinforce territorial claim, use coercion towards small Asian nations, consolidating the emerging role of Beijing in the region at expenses of Washington and its allies.

Nowadays, Chinese political elites understand the importance of expanding the control and the direct authority over the PLA and at the same time push for an extensive modernisation of its strategic capabilities. China is determined to achieve global forces projection capabilities by 2020, but yet its strategic orientation will be determined by either possible shifts in the leadership or by broader changes in the international and regional arena (U.S.-China relations, Japan Defence doctrine, Instability in the Korean peninsula).

Regardless of Beijing’s intentions, its limited transparency over its military priorities could compromise the fragile regional balance, increasing the potential for misunderstanding and miscalculation given the unabated arms race that poses a significant threat to the security of the region.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Security

About Author

Daniele Ermito

Daniele Ermito is a London-based analyst. He is also a GRI analyst and regular contributor for the Foreign Policy Association, where he writes mostly on the Koreas ‘blog. He holds a BA (Hons) in International Relations from the University of Bologna and a MSc in Asian Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies. His areas of research include Northeast Asia security, Japanese politics and Chinese foreign policy. You can follow him on Twitter @DanielRmito.