China hits the launch button for massive PLA shake-up to create a modern, nimble force

Military’s top brass told that big changes are under way and they should obey reform orders

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 November, 2015, 11:57pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 November, 2015, 1:08am

Top leaders of the People’s Liberation Army were yesterday told the long-awaited overhaul of the armed forces had been launched, with the existing seven military commands to be regrouped into four strategic zones, sources close to the PLA said.

The restructure was formally announced at a plenary session of the leading group for national defence and military reform under the Central Military Commission.

The session was attended by President Xi Jinping and top leaders from the PLA’s four headquarters, seven key military commands, navy, air force, missile corps and armed police.

One of the sources told the South China Morning Post that Xi, who is also CMC chairman, urged the leaders to comply with what is expected to be a long and extensive restructuring.

“It’s a long-anticipated overhaul for grass-roots soldiers because it’s a practical push to turn the PLA into a real modern army of international standard,” the source said.

“However, it’s also a setback for some senior officials who lost out in the reform. That’s why Xi has ordered them to obey discipline.”

READ MORE: China to drastically overhaul its People’s Liberation Army in ‘ambitious’ plan to build modern fighting force on par with West

Another independent source told the Post that the commanders and political commissars of the seven commands had been alerted that three of the areas would be scrapped. The defence ministry’s political power would also expand, the source said. The Post reported in early September that a sweeping overhaul of the PLA would phase out its Soviet-style command structures in favour of a US-style model. The army’s seven military command regions would be consolidated into four in a massive drive to transform the world’s biggest army into a nimble, modern force on par with the best of the West.

As part of the overhaul, Xi announced on September 3 that the army would shed 300,000 troops, leaving it with two million personnel. The Post also reported in September that the cuts would result in 170,000 military officials losing their jobs.

But there are signs of resistance within the military.

READ MORE: PLA overhaul could ‘destabilise’ Chinese society: Military officials fire warning shots over pay and pensions

Just last Thursday the PLA Daily published a commentary by two PLA officials from the PLA National Defence University’s department of strategic education and research, warning the central leadership that the reform could destabilise the armed services and society if it went ahead without addressing salaries and pensions. Many state-owned media outlets published the commentary on their websites but later took the posts down.

Hong Kong-based military observer Liang Guoliang said Xi did not have time to wait to get rolling with the reform.

“Xi has to take action to introduce the overhaul because it has been studied for more than a decade,” Liang said.

“Xi’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiatives need a real strong blue-water navy to protect China’s maritime lifelines and its expanding overseas interests.

Xi has to take action to introduce the overhaul because it has been studied for more than a decade
Hong Kong-based military observer Liang Guoliang

“But the command structure of today’s PLA is focused on land forces and does not have what it takes to meet those needs,” Liang said.

The second source also said there would be an announcement about a restructure of the military’s nerve centre. Of its four existing headquarters – its General Staff, General Political, General Logistics and General Armaments departments – only the one for general staff would remain.

The functions of the other three would be absorbed by the General Staff Department and the Ministry of National Defence.

Liang said the change was designed to create a division of labour between military command and political power, with several overlapping institutions and departments being merged or scrapped.