PLA to announce overhaul: five 'strategic zones' will replace regional commands, most army HQ to be scrapped

General Liu Yuan bids farewell as last political commissar of General Logistics Department, while sources say new West zone will be home to more than third of land-based forces

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 December, 2015, 2:09am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 December, 2015, 1:09pm

The People’s Liberation Army is close to announcing how it will be organised into five new “strategic zones” and the army’s four headquarters regrouped, according to sources, as part of a huge overhaul to modernise and improve the efficiency and combat readiness of the military.

General Liu Yuan, political commissar of the PLA’s General Logistics Department, one of the army’s four headquarters, wrote a farewell letter to staff on Wednesday saying he would be “the last political commissar of Logistics” and that he would “absolutely obey the reforms”, introduced by President Xi Jinping.

Liu’s farewell was circulated among Beijing military officials and was posted by Luo Yuan, a retired PLA major general, on his social media account.

The letter indicated that the army’s powerful Central Military Commission, chaired by Xi, would scrap three of the four army headquarters: the General Political department, General Logistics and General Armaments. Only the General Staff department stays.

The South China Morning Post reported in September that the PLA military overhaul included plans to consolidate the seven regional commands into five units and to reorganise the four army headquarters.

One of the sources said that Liu was likely to be the secretary of the new military discipline inspection commission.

The most striking features of the proposals for the five new military zones are a vast new West zone that makes up more than half the country and a larger North zone that will concentrate on Mongolia, the Russian Far East and the Korean peninsula.

The Post reported on Tuesday that the changes to the old military command system were expected to be completed by the end of the month and that the new five strategic areas, also referred to as combat zones, could be up and running as early as January 1.

Sources said plans were nearing completion for the new West zone – by far the largest of the five – to include more than a third of the nation’s land-based military.

The area is home to only 22 per cent of the country’s population, many from the ethnic minorities groups and non-Han Chinese.

“The West combat zone will concentrate on threats in Xinjiang (新疆) and Tibet and other minority areas, close to Afghanistan and other states that are home to training bases for separatists, terrorists and extremists,” one of the sources said.

Another source close to the army said the proposal had been revised in recent weeks to move the West zone headquarters to Urumqi instead of Chengdu or Lanzhou.

President Xi announced in September the PLA would be cut by 300,000 troops to two million by 2017. Sources said up to 70 per cent of forces axed would be officers in land-based units.

A source in Jinan (濟南) said that so far it had been confirmed that the 13 army groups based in the current Beijing, Shenyang (瀋陽), Nanjing (南京) and Guangzhou military commands would be kept.

The Macau-based military observer Antony Wong Dong said the PLA was trying to learn from the US and Russian armies by shifting from the traditional divisional structures to the more nimble and efficient brigade system, with personal strength of each combat group decreasing from 15,000 to about 4,500 personnel.

“If the PLA is going to meet international standards, it’s a must that all the existing army groups should further be downsized to divisions,” Wong said.

He added that the PLA had started to carry out similar reforms since 1998.

“Officials from army units are the key opposition force hindering the overhaul. The sweeping reforms will go smoothly only when commanders of army groups are willing to give way.”

It’s a must that all the existing army groups should further be downsized to divisions
Antony Wong Dong, military observer

The Guangzhou and Nanjing commands have been renamed South and East zones.

The Jinan command has been included in a large Central zone that will mainly protect Beijing, while the North zone will include all the northeast provinces and Inner Mongolia.

“The top priority of the Central zone will be to focus on protecting the capital and let the North zone concentrate on issues with Mongolia, Russia and North Korea,” the source said. Beijing believed the Korean peninsular nuclear issue would prove more challenging under Kim Jong-un’s leadership, the source added.

The East and South combat zones, which also house the PLA’s key naval bases, would be responsible for China’s maritime security in the East and South China seas, one source said.

Hong Kong-based military expert Liang Guoliang said these latest plans could still be revised at the last minute.

“It’s possible that the PLA will change their plans at any time as all the officials must obey without question whatever the party and the CMC wishes to do,” Liang said.

He cited the example of when Deng Xiaoping decommissioned one million troops in the 1980s, which saw Chengdu (成都)military command – originally tipped to be scrapped – eventually retained. At the time the neighbouring Kunming military command was tipped to usurp Chengdu, but was amalgamated with Chengdu.