Members of the People’s Liberation Marine Corps take part in training. The role of the marines has traditionally been limited to coastal defence, but an expanded size could see them deployed in greater numbers farther afield.

Exclusive | As overseas ambitions expand, China plans 400 per cent increase to marine corps numbers, sources say

PLA will increase fighting force to 100,000 personnel, allowing for deployment in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa and Gwadar in southwest Pakistan, military insiders say

China plans to increase the size of its marine corps from about 20,000 to 100,000 personnel to protect the nation’s maritime lifelines and its growing interests overseas, military insiders and experts have said.

Some members would be stationed at ports China operates in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa and Gwadar in southwest Pakistan, they said.

The expanded corps is part of a wider push to refocus the world’s largest army away from winning a land war based on sheer numbers and towards meeting a range of security scenarios using highly specialised units. Towards that end, Chinese President Xi Jinping is reducing the size of the People’s Liberation Army by 300,000, with nearly all of the cuts coming from the land forces.

Military insiders told the South China Morning Post that two brigades of special combat soldiers had already been moved to the marines, nearly doubling its size to 20,000, and more brigades would be added. “The PLA marines will be increased to 100,000, consisting of six brigades in the coming future to fulfil new missions of our country,” one source said, adding the size of the navy would also grow 15 per cent. Its current size is estimated at 235,000 personnel.

Chinese and Russian marines take part in a joint drill in Zhanjiang in Guangdong province in September last year. Photo: Xinhua

Liu Xiaojiang, a former navy political commissar, said the maritime force would take on an increasingly central role in the military.

“China is a maritime country and as we defend our maritime rights and develop our interests, the ­status of the navy will be more ­important,” Liu told reporters on the sidelines of the annual Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in Beijing on March 5.

Traditionally, marines have mostly operated only in China’s costal areas, as their role was limited by their relatively small numbers and basic equipment, said Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie.

But a bigger corps could be deployed much farther afield as the navy takes on more challenges.

“Besides its original missions of a possible war with Taiwan, maritime defence in the East and South China seas, it’s also forseeable that the PLA Navy’s mission will expand overseas, including protection of China’s national security in the Korean peninsula, the country’s maritime lifelines, as well as offshore supply deports like in Djibouti and Gwadar port in Pakistan,” Li said.

China is constructing a naval base in Djibouti to provide what it calls logistical support in one of the world’s busiest waterways. The defence ministry said in a statement last year that the facility was mostly for resupply purposes for anti-piracy, humanitarian and peacekeeping operations.

Former colonial power France and the United States also maintain sizeable bases in Djibouti, with the latter’s Camp Lemonnier home to more than 4,000 personnel. China has not said how many people its base can accommodate, although some media reports have put the figure as high as 10,000.

Chinese workers arrive in Djibouti as part of China’s evacuation of nationals from conflict-ridden Yemen in March, 2015. Photo: Xinhua

Gwadar port is a deep sea port next to the Strait of Hormuz, the key oil route in and out of the Persian gulf, built with Chinese funding and operated by mainland firms. Although the port is not home to any PLA installation, navy ships are expected to dock at the facility in the near future.

Macau-based military observer Antony Wong Dong said an expanded marine corps could help maintain security for China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative. The plan calls for new trade and investment links stretching from Southeast Asia to eastern Europe, and will likely see Chinese companies as well as their workers operating in high-risk areas such as Pakistan and Afghanistan

The marines were established in the 1950s in the aftermath of the civil war between China’s Communists and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists who fled to Taiwan. For decades, Taiwan had the second-largest marine force in the world, after the United States, but its stature began to decline in the 1990s when Beijing began pursuing claims in the South China Sea.