China’s rapid deadline for PLA reform could raise political stakes for President Xi Jinping

Some analysts believe the restructuring, set to see ‘substantial breakthroughs’ by 2020, is being rushed, and question the compatibility of its stated aims of improving the military and consolidating the leadership’s power

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 December, 2015, 10:40am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 December, 2015, 1:17pm

China’s President Xi Jinping hopes for overhauling the People’s Liberation Army to provide “breakthroughs in the administration and joint operational command system by 2020” could raise the political stakes for him, analysts have warned.

Some observers believe the deadline for the restructuring does not leave enough time for carrying out the reforms, while there are other concerns over whether the stated aims of the changes - or improving the military and consolidating party control of the military - are compatible.

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The reform plans, which include regrouping China’s seven key miliary commands into four strategic zone areas, have adopted the Russia’s military reform model, which had copied the United States’ joint chiefs of staff system in 1993, said Andrei Chang, editor-in-chief of Canada-based magazine Kanwa Asian Defence.

“The most significant change is that each of China’s new strategic zone’s operational areas will expand outward 1,000 km to cover nearby countries,” Chang said.

“It’s too much of a rush for China to schedule only five year to [achieve reform breakthroughs by 2020] because both Russia and US have planned to spend 30 years carrying out their respective military reforms, which have not been completed yet.”

Before Russian President Vladimir Putin transformed the country’s six military commands into four strategic zones in 2008, the Russian Armed Forces was downsized from 2.1 million to 1.5 million personnel in two rounds of massive disarmament between 1993 to 1999.

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On September 3, Xi, who also chairs the PLA’s powerful Central Military Commission (CMC), announced a cut of 300,000 military personnel by 2017, which will affect many non-combat units overseen by the party’s political departments and lead to the PLA downsizing to two million personnel.

“[Former Russian President] Mikhail Gorbachev lost the support of the army because of his impatience in trying to rush through massive cutbacks in personnel,” Chang warned.

The military overhaul, which aims to shift the PLA from an army-centric system towards a Western-style joint command, in which the army, navy and air force are equally represented, is the biggest restructuring since the PLA was founded in 1933.

The South China Morning Post reported in September that the PLA military overhaul included plans to consolidate the seven commands and also reorganise the four headquarters - the General Staff, General Political, General Logistics and General Armaments departments.

The party’s military mouthpiece PLA Daily published a commentary on Monday and said the political system of four headquarters and seven military commands was outdated, too centralised and challenged CMC, the party’s supreme military decision-making body.

Hong Kong-based military expert Liang Guoliang said Xi would take action to ensure the reorganisation of the PLA’s seven key military commands was top priority, and would put aside the restructure of four headquarters.

“Xi should take action to turn the PLA into a capable combat force, which can meet Western military standards as soon as possible, because China is facing complicated changes in the international situation, especially in the South China Sea, where the US sent its warship into waters near artificial islands built by Beijing in October,” Liang said.

“On the other way, it’s not urgent to move the four headquarters as their respective department heads are still CMC members, who have the right to comment under the CMC’s chairman responsibility system.”

In the past week, the PLA Daily published a series of articles about the PLA’s top brass, stressing that the final goal of the sweeping reforms is to reinforce Xi’s political control over the military.

“This is a big contradiction because these reforms are intended to modernise the military and make the PLA a much more capable fighting force,” said Tai Ming Cheung, an associate professor and director of the Institute on Global Conflict and Co-operation at the University of California.

“Yet at the same time these changes also serve another important purpose of ensuring the political reliability of the PLA - something the party leadership has always intended.”

Early reports said that almost all of the 300,000 redundancies would come from non-combat units. Sources close to the army told the Post that up to 170,000 of the staff cuts would be among military officials, including some holding the top political rank of political commissar.

“The main problem is what does the authority do with the political commissar system, which has been such an important part of the Communist Party’s ability to maintain the loyalty within the military,” Cheung said.

Additional reporting by Kristine Kwok