Mr. JAYADEVA RANADE  February 2016


Dated: 1 February 2016



                                                               by JAYADEVA  RANADE


In a clear demonstration of his authority and confidence over the New Year, Chinese President Xi Jinping began implementing the crucial second phase of military reforms announced earlier on September 3, 2015. The reorganisation and restructuring of the 2.3 million-strong People’s Liberation Army (PLA), described by Chinese analysts as the most “extensive” ever and which has been on the drawing board since well before 2011, is the most critical reform initiative taken by Xi Jinping since he took over in November 2012.  It is also only the second time in the history of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) that the PLA -- a powerful, vital part of communist China’s power structure – is being radically reformed. Designed to qualitatively upgrade the PLA’s capabilities and structure, the objective is to prepare the PLA to assist the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) realise the ‘China Dream’ and protect China’s overseas national interests. There are clear implications for India as well.

A blend of compromise, coercion and consultation preceded implementation of the reforms, clear contours of which are now visible. The appearance of veteran CCP leader Jiang Zemin on the rostrum at the “grand military parade” on September 3, 2015, was suggestive of high level compromise. So also was the discarding of original plans to downsize the PLA by 800,000 personnel and opt instead for reducing troop strength by 300,000. Official Chinese reports additionally disclosed that the Leading Group for Defence and Military Reform collected opinions from more than 900 current and former senior officers and experts, received thousands of suggestions, held 860 seminars and prepared several Party plenary conference work reports. These efforts sought to assuage the concerns of numerous senior PLA officers, including the more than a thousand Generals, who remain apprehensive that the reforms could threaten their jobs and perquisites.

Implementation has moved rapidly since the beginning of January 2016. Creation of two new services, namely the PLA Army (PLAA) and the PLA Strategic Support Force, along with their separate Headquarters and Commanders, have been formalised. The Second Artillery, or strategic force, has essentially been renamed the PLA Rocket Force.  Fifteen organisations including major departments like the General Staff Department (GSD), General Political Department (GPD), General Logistics Department (GLD) and the General Armaments Department (GAD) have been absorbed directly into the Central Military Commission (CMC). Of these, the Political Department is already receiving noticeably more importance, indicating that the CCP leadership is determined to ensure that PLA officers are ‘politically reliable’ and that the PLA remains the Party’s army.

Other departments directly under the CMC are: CMC General Office, CMC Equipment Development Department, CMC Training Management Department, CMC National Defense Mobilization Department, CMC Discipline Inspection Commission, CMC Political and Legal Affairs Commission, CMC Science and Technology Commission, CMC Strategic Planning Office, CMC Reform and Formation Office, CMC International Military Cooperation Office, CMC Audit Office, and the CMC General Affairs Administration.

The PLA Rocket Force and PLA Strategic Support Force were created on December 31, 2015. The PLA Rocket Force, which appears essentially to be a new name for the Second Artillery, will control and retain in its inventory the various missiles presently available with the Second Artillery. Chinese President and CMC Chairman Xi Jinping described the PLA Rocket Force as “China's core strategic deterrence power” and asked that the new Rocket Force 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”. To that extent the existing ambiguity regarding deployment of nuclear and conventional missile systems remains. It is also yet to become clear whether the new Theatre/Zone Commanders – who are senior to the former MR Commanders – will exercise operational authority over PLA Rocket Force elements deployed within their jurisdiction.

Some Chinese language news sources speculate 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. They assess that the new Rocket Force might integrate the missions of strategic nuclear submarines and strategic bombers. 

Xi Jinping described the “PLA Strategic Support Force as a new-type combat force to maintain national security and an important growth point of the PLA's combat capabilities”. The role of the new PLA Strategic Support Force includes high-technology warfare and space, cyber and electronic warfare. It is likely to additionally include technical reconnaissance, 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 (AMS), said the establishment of the Strategic Support Force will integrate the support forces of different services to improve efficiency and save costs.

On January 8, 2016, Hongkong’s well informed 'Tung Fang Jih Pao' quoted Beijing-based military commentator Song Zhongping, a retired military instructor at the PLA's influential Second Artillery Force, as disclosing that the Strategic Support Force will be made up of an Internet Army, an Aerospace Army and Electronic Warfare Troops. Song Zhongping added that the new force would be equipped in the future with the ‘Shenlong’ space plane. The unmanned ‘Shenlong’ is being developed as space weapons launch platform, as well as for surveillance, intelligence and early-warning missions.

The new PLA appointments appear to have followed the same criteria as Xi Jinping’s earlier promotions with the emphasis on professional competence, experience in battle or military operations other than war (MOOTW) and political reliability. While the MR Commanders have been reshuffled, all except one have retained a command. General Liu Yuejun is Commander of the East Zone; General Wang Jiaocheng heads the South Zone; General Song Puxan commands the North Zone and General Han Weiguo is Commander of the Central Zone. 61-year old General Cai Yingting, who was a secretary to the late CMC Vice Chairman Zhang Wannian -- a close aide to Jiang Zemin -- has been moved as President of the prestigious PLA Academy of Military Science (AMS). The description of these appointments “as temporary” suggests that some reshuffling, retirements and promotions should be expected in the coming months.

Those elevated to the new posts are: General Fang Fenghui, born in 1951 and till now head of the PLA’s GSD, who has been appointed to head the newly created Joint General Staff. The youngest MR Commander at one time, he is an expert in the digital battlefield and an electronics enthusiast whose hobby is developing integrated military command software; 1953-born General Xu Fenlin, till now Commander of Guangzhou MR is the new Deputy Chief of Joint General Staff; General Li Zuocheng, a battle veteran of the 1979 Vietnam War who is reputed to have preferred delayed promotions rather than buying his rank and was till recently Commander of the Chengdu MR, now heads the ground forces as Commander of the PLA Army (PLAA); 63-year old Admiral Sun Jianguo, a submariner and a former President of the PLAN Submarine Academy, is the new PLA Navy (PLAN) Commander replacing Wu Shengli. He has been the front-runner candidate for the post of PLAN Chief since 2012; 1958-born General Yi Xiaoguang who joined the PLAAF at the age of 16, takes over from Ma Xiaotian as PLA Air Force (PLAAF) Commander. A fighter pilot born into a family with a military tradition, he has been regarded a rising star of the PLAAF since his tenure as the DCOS in charge of Training and Hqrs Affairs when he was the second youngest PLAAF officer holding a Corps level post. He composed ‘The Chinese/English Manual for Jet Pilots’ in 1992; General Wei Fenghe, erstwhile Commander of the Second Artillery continues as Chief of the new PLA Rocket Force; and General Gao Jin is head of the new PLA Strategic Support Force. Born in 1959, both General Gao Jin’s parents were PLA officers and he served in the Second Artillery throughout his career except since December 2014 when he was appointed President of the PLA Academy of Military Science. He became the youngest Regional-level Commander in the PLA when he was 55 years of age.  

The newly created Joint General Staff seems to have been set up to plan and conduct joint integrated operations (JIO), which have been repeatedly emphasised by China’s leadership for almost the past decade. The posts of Chief and Deputy Chief of the Joint General Staff would, therefore, appear to be tenable by officers of the PLAA, PLAAF or PLAN. Similarly the Zones, or Theatre Commands, could in future be commanded by officers from the PLAA or PLAAF or PLAN depending on the primary task of the specific Zone.

The Joint General Staff will additionally plan and coordinate the despatch of PLA troops abroad to safeguard China’s national interests. Coinciding with the assertion in the 2015 Defence White Paper that the PLA would “adapt itself to tasks in different regions, develop the capacity of its combat forces for different purposes, and construct a combat force structure for joint operations,” the same month China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) laid the basis for the military to claim that long-range overseas missions are a legally recognized operational mandate. Clauses 28 and 30 of the new National Security Law provide for “the protection of strategic energy supply channels, PRC citizens abroad, and other external interests”. Chapter 7 of the National Security Law authorised police, intelligence officers, military or semi-military forces to carry out overseas anti-terrorism operations.

The reorganisation of the erstwhile seven Military Regions into five Theatre Commands, or Zones, is of interest to China’s neighbours. The Guangzhou and Nanjing Military Regions remain untouched but have been renamed the South and East Zones. The North Zone includes the entire Shenyang MR and portion of the erstwhile Beijing MR. The Central Zone consists of Jinan MR and the remaining portion of Beijing MR. The Jinan MR is to demobilise more than 60,000 officers.

The usually well informed Hongkong media mentions that each of the five new "strategic zones" will have less than 3,000 staff. The reports state that the North Zone will concentrate on Mongolia, Russia and Korea; the Central Zone will focus on protection of Beijing; and the South and East Zones will primarily be Maritime Commands responsible for maritime security and safeguarding the South China Sea and East Sea respectively. The implication is that Vietnam and Taiwan continue to be areas of concern to China’s military leaders.

Of particular interest for India is the West Zone, which merges the erstwhile Lanzhou and Chengdu MRs. Comprising more than half China’s land area, 22 percent of its population and more than one-third of China’s land-based military, the newly constituted West Zone represents a strengthened military formation. The merger of the Lanzhou and Chengdu MRs will improve joint planning, coordination and operations. Incorporation of the Qinghai region in the West Zone will facilitate the rapid induction and deployment of high altitude acclimatised and trained troops into Tibet and across Ladakh. Establishment of the West Zone also reveals China’s increased and abiding military interest in the region in addition to facilitating focus on “threats in Xinjiang and Tibet as well as Afghanistan and other states that host training bases for separatists and extremists”.

Equally pertinent is the appointment of General Zhao Zongqi, till recently Jinan MR Commander, as Commander of the new West Zone. His credentials indicate he was handpicked for this post. General Zhao Zongqi is fluent in Arabic and has experience of Tibet. He is a war hero, having participated in the Sino-Vietnam War in 1979 when he is reported to have often disguised himself as a Vietnamese to gather information. He served over 20 years in Tibet as Deputy Chief of Staff (1984-99) and Chief of Staff (1999-2004) of the Tibet Military District (TMD). Born in 1955, General Zhao Zongqi has foreign service experience and was posted in Tanzania as Defence Attaché. He has also been military consultant for a drama serial on the PLA in 2006. Incidentally, the new PLAA Chief General Li Zuocheng also has experience of Tibet having served in the Chengdu MR. 

A number of factors will determine whether the reforms succeed and the PLA is strong and adequately competent by 2020 to achieve the goals set by China’s leaders. China’s neighbours would be aware that Chinese leaders have not wavered from their objective of ‘reunifying China’ and that Xi Jinping’s declared goal is to achieve China’s Dream by 2020. Though the official Global Times justified the reforms as intended to overawe adversaries since ‘the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting', there is a potential wild card. Xi Jinping, who was secretary (1979-82) to Chinese Defence Minister Geng Biao in the latter part of the Sino-Vietnam War, might be tempted to emulate Deng Xiaoping and ‘test’ the new PLA once the reforms are completed.


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





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