‘MAJOR STRUCTURAL REFORMS IN PEOPLE’S LIBERATION ARMY (PLA): BRIEF INITIAL ASSESSMENT’

Mr. JAYADEVA RANADE  January 2016

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   Dated:  11 January 2016

 

‘MAJOR STRUCTURAL REFORMS IN PEOPLE’S LIBERATION ARMY (PLA): BRIEF INITIAL ASSESSMENT’

                                                                by JAYADEVA  RANADE

The crucial phase of the major military reforms -- described as 'far reaching and unprecedented' -- that were publicly announced on September 3, 2015, by Xi Jinping, who is concurrently the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), President of China and Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), began to be implemented over New Year’s Eve. While the reforms have yet to be fully implemented, an initial assessment of the difficulties in implementation and their scope would perhaps be useful.

Though plans had been drafted in 2011, it took Xi Jinping and his predecessor, Hu Jintao, considerable time and effort to build requisite consensus in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to begin this phase of the reforms involving structural reorganisation and personnel downsizing. In addition to setting up the ‘Small Leading Group for Deepening Reform of National Defence and the Military’ in March 2014, a lengthy front-page commentary in the People's Liberation Army Daily and People’s Daily quite unusually separately disclosed that "Chairman Xi went into offices and visited colleges, went to the plateaus, visited the borders, sat in driving seats and cockpits, taking the pulse of reform with soldiers." It added that the Leading Group for Defence and Military Reform collected opinions from more than 900 current and former senior officers and experts, issued questionnaires and received thousands of online suggestions. Between March and October 2015, there were more than 800 meetings about reform covering almost 700 military bases and units. Both the Vice Chairmen of the CMC had also travelled in September 2015, to all seven military regions to explain the reforms to the middle and lower ranking PLA officers. China analyst Peter Mattis recently quantified the efforts as entailing 860 seminars, 900 officer surveys, and several party plenary conference work reports. Resistance in the PLA to downsizing the 2.3 million strong army has apparently been considerable, including at senior levels where many of the approximately 1,144 serving PLA General Staff officers apprehend being deprived of functional posts and attendant perquisites. 

On December 31, 2015, on the occasion of conferring flags on the newly created PLA General Command of Army, PLA Rocket Force and PLA Strategic Support Force, Xi Jinping outlined the future direction of the PLA in an official speech known as Xun Ci -- literally translated as 'admonishing words.' Xi Jinping is only the second Chinese communist leader to give a Xun Ci since the founding of the People's Republic of China (PRC). The other leader to have delivered a Xun Ci to the military in China's 67-year history was Mao Zedong, who did so in 1952 and 1953. Xi's decision to deliver the Xun Ci is a sign of his confidence and indicates that he is consolidating authority to implement the plans for major military reform.

The substantive contours of these reforms are fast becoming clearly visible. On January 1, 2016, the Central Military Commission headed by Xi issued the full text of the 4,993-character Guideline on Deepening National Defence and Military Reform’.

The 'Guideline' clearly emphasised the political nature of the PLA and its subordinate relationship to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The central features of these are: Strengthened political and ideological education; expansion of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) organisation in the military; strict political discipline, organizational discipline and personnel discipline; financial discipline and discipline regarding secrecy; strict action against “political and organisational liberalism”; thorough implementation of the resolutions of the Party's 18th Congress and the Third, Fourth and Fifth Plenum, Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the important thought of 'Three Represents' (of Jiang Zemin), the guidance of Scientific Development Concept (of Hu Jintao) and the teachings of Chairman Xi Jinping’s series of ‘important speeches’.

The Guideline’ asserts that the main objective of the reforms is to equip the PLA for 'Theatre battles' -- in other words to replace the existing military regions with Theatre Commands. Simultaneously, it said a joint operational command system would be established and military-civilian integration would be promoted. Asserting that the PLA will have the capability of “winning the information war” and effectively carrying out “mandated missions by a military system with Chinese characteristics”, the ‘Guideline’ asserted that these reforms would be achieved by 2020. This coincides with Xi Jinping’s declared objective of the “Two 100s” (namely, well-off society by 2021 and fully developed nation by 2049) to realise ‘the Chinese dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’.

The ‘Guideline’ also disclosed that while in 2015 the focus was on organising implementation of the leadership and management system and reforming the joint operational command system, in 2016 the reforms will focus on downsizing the PLA and its organisation, reforming the “military combat force structure” and institutions, and basically completing the reforms. The period between 2017 and 2020 is to be devoted to making further adjustments to specific areas of reform and optimising and improving the reforms that have been implemented. Attention will be paid to the development of military and civilian integration.

Underscoring the need for reorganising the command structure, the ‘Guideline’ stipulated that there is ‘need for a joint operational command at the CMC level and at the theatre level, a two-level operational command system; and an integrated command system for peacetime and especially a main and capable strategic and tactical command system’. Outlining the Theatre Command configuration, it said the reform will establish a three-tier "CMC-battle zone commands-troops command” system and an administration system that runs from the CMC through various services to the troops. Its main features are:

i) regarding military scale and structure, the focus will be on fewer but better troops with ‘Chinese characteristics’ and a switch from quantity to quality and greater efficiency. There will be a reduction of military personnel by 300,000, whereby 2.3 million troops will be reduced to two million. There will be a proportionate reduction in the number of non-combatant personnel and institutions. Old equipment will be eliminated and there will be developments in new equipments. Separately, the Washington Times reported on January 7, 2016, that as part of downsizing the PLA and structural reforms, the PLA Culture Work Units under the PLA's General Political Department (GPD) had been dismantled after 63 years. Earlier in 2013, there were credible reports that Major General Luo Yuan favoured the closure of the PLA’s Song and Dance Division under the PLA’s General Political Department (GPD). Xi Jinping’s wife, Peng Liyuan, is incidentally a Major General in this division!

ii) depending on the strategic tasks and operational requirements and the need to enhance functions and create more synergy, the structure of the reserve forces and militia will be optimised;

iii) new military academies will be built for training new military personnel; there will be emphasis on military training and practice to improve early, middle and higher three-tier training system; the size and structure of colleges and universities will be optimised;

iv) the human resources policy and military personnel classification system will be revised and adapted to establish a rank-dominated hierarchy and promote professional military service officers, non-commissioned officers, and civilians. Military wages, housing, insurance and other systems will be reformed.

v) reforms will focus on civil-military integration, developing a high level of civil-military integration, focusing on market-led demand and effective institutional policy incentives;

vi) the armed forces command system will be strengthened under the centralised leadership of the CMC; and

vii) the system of Military Law, especially rules and regulations in the military counsel system, military justice, discipline inspection, supervision and inspection system, will be reformed.

On January 2, 2016, the state-run Global Times summarised the contents of the 'Guideline on deepening National Defence and Military Reform' released by the Central Military Commission on New Year's Day. Justifying the reforms the Global Times observed, briefly: 

(i) “China's national interests and current international situation are constantly changing, so is the task of the Chinese army. Hence, the PLA and relevant mechanisms have to be adjusted accordingly to keep up with the pace of China's rise”;

(ii) “the task that confronts China's armed forces is arduous and more than just safeguarding the nation's maritime and land territories…..As China's international cooperation grows, more Chinese enterprises go global and the country embraces greater responsibility to maintain regional and world peace, a strong Chinese army is needed”;

(iii) 'China must have a strong military... China doesn't need to worry about military aggression. But there is more about national security....During China's rise, friction with the US has gone beyond broad geopolitics. If China has a big gap with the US in terms of military prowess, this will affect its international position and other countries' attitude toward China';

(iv) 'with a strong army, China can be more politically appealing, influential and persuasive, and will make it easier to network. As we gain more trust from other countries, many of them will no longer be dependent on the US for security and on China for economic benefits';

(v) 'moreover, our military strength has to be demonstrated to the world. The army needs to be able to fight battles and provide real deterrence. The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting'.

It noted that on December 31, 2015, at a ceremony in Beijing attended by all its members, the CMC had announced establishment of the PLA General Command of the Army, the PLA Rocket Force and the PLA Strategic Support Force. Xi Jinping conferred military flags to all the three new organisations on the occasion and also announced the names of the Commanders and Political Commissars of the new organisations indicating that they are now formal, separate and independent entities.

Generals Li Zuocheng and Liu Lei were appointed Commander and Political Commissar of the PLA's General Command of the Army, the Commander and Political Commissar of the PLA Rocket Force are General Wei Fenghe and General Wang Jiasheng respectively and General Gao Jin has been appointed Commander of the new PLA Strategic Support Force and General Liu Fulian as its Political Commissar.

Establishment of these organisations, it was stressed, was 'to realise the Chinese dream and the dream of a strong military, and a strategic initiative to build a modern military power system with Chinese characteristics.'

Xi Jinping described the PLA Rocket Force as “China's core strategic deterrence power” and asked the new Rocket Force to develop “nuclear deterrence and counter-strike capability which is credible, reliable, medium and long-range precision strike ability, as well as strategic check and balance capacity to build a strong modern Rocket force”. Some Chinese language news sources have speculated that the Second Artillery was restructured due to the realisation that it would be unable to adapt to the future strategic needs of the PLA and to simplify the process of three-dimensional combat missions. The new force, they say, might integrate the missions of strategic nuclear submarines and strategic bombers. The suggestion is apparently that the new Rocket Force will control and have in its inventory missiles with range of over 300 kms and control and coordinate SSBNs and strategic bombers.

Xi Jinping said that the 'PLA Strategic Support Force is a new-type combat force to maintain national security and an important growth point of the PLA's combat capabilities'. The indication is that its responsibilities could include technical reconnaissance, electronic warfare, space-based warfare, innovation and missile R&D. Suggesting that it would cater to the requirements of all the different services, Yao Yunzhu, a Senior Researcher at the PLA Academy of Military Science, said the establishment of the Strategic Support Force will integrate the support forces of different services to improve efficiency and save costs.

The PLA's General Command of the Army appears to effectively be the headquarters of the ground forces – since 2011 described in official Chinese documents including the Defence White Papers as the PLA Army (PLAA). It will likely absorb some of the functions of the erstwhile General Political Department, General Logistics Department and the General Armaments Department while some would be merged into the CMC. The ‘Guideline’, however, also indicated that these PLA General Departments would remain. Lou Yaoliang, Head of Military Strategy Studies at National Defense University (NDU), described establishment of the PLA's General Command of the Army as a “highlight”, adding that modernisation of the ground force had been hindered till now by the more than 20 PLA central departments in charge of various aspects of the ground force. He observed too that "establishment of the Army Headquarters also means the PLA has begun to change its long-held Army-centered mentality".

Separately, on January 6, 2016, Hongkong’s South China Morning Post claimed to have obtained the list of Commanders of the new Theatre Commands/Zones appointed to top PLA posts consequent to the restructuring and reorganisation. It described the appointments as temporary. According to this report General Fang Fenghui will head the newly created Joint General Staff; Xu Fenlin will be Deputy Chief of Joint General Staff; Li Zuocheng will be PLAA Chief; Sun Jianguo will be PLAN Commander; Yi Xiaoguang will be PLAAF Commander; Wei Fenghe will be Chief of the new Rocket Force; Gao Jin is to head the new Strategic Support Force; Liu Yuejun will be Commander of the East Combat Zone; Wang Jiaocheng will head the South Combat Zone; Song Puxan will be Commander of the North Combat Zone and Han Weiguo will be Commander of the Central Combat Zone.   

According to this all Military Region Commanders are being accommodated in the new Theatre Commands except for the former Commander of the Nanjing Military Command, 61-year old General Cai Yingting, who was a secretary to the late CMC Vice Chairman Zhang Wannian a close aide to Jiang Zemin. He has been moved as President of the PLA Academy of Military Science (AMS).

While the substantive parts of this crucial stage of the military reforms are being implemented fairly rapidly, there appears to, however, be continued unease in the middle and lower ranks of PLA officers. Indicative are the publication of at least twenty articles relating to the military reforms from September 3, 2015, until now by the official PLA Daily.

                                                        --------------------------------------------------

(The author is a former Additional Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India, and President of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy.)

 

 

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