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PLA troops pictured taking part in a military parade in the centre of Beijing two years ago. Photo: Simon Song

China to disband over a quarter of its army corps, sources say

Cutbacks part of sweeping reforms to modernise and streamline world’s biggest military

China will disband five of the PLA’s 18 army corps, according to military sources, as part of a huge overhaul initiated by President Xi Jinping aimed at turning the world’s biggest army into a more nimble and modern ­fighting force.

The cuts could affect up to 200,000 troops, but some military personnel might be deployed to other units such as the newly ­developed rocket force, the navy or the air force, two of the sources said.

The units affected in the cutbacks include the 20th and 27th army corps in the Central Theatre Command, the 14th Army Corps in the Southern Command, the 16th Army Corps in the north and the 47th in the west, one of the sources told the South China Morning Post.

The 16th and 47th corps were the power bases of disgraced former vice-chairmen of the Central Military Commission Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong.

Guo, 74, was jailed for life for corruption in July last year, while Xu died of cancer at the age of 71 two years ago while in custody on suspicion of graft.

“The axing of the 16th and 47th army groups is a decision made by Xi to further clean up all the pernicious influence left by Guo and Xu, paving the way for Xi to assign his men amid the ongoing leadership reshuffle ahead of the party’s congress in autumn,” one of the sources said.

However, another source said the 16th Army Corps could be saved in some form amid Beijing’s concerns over South Korea’s deployment of a US missile defence system, which created the need for more troops. One possibility would include merging the 16th and 40th army groups.

“It’s possible that some of the army corps will be turned into marines or parachutists,” the source added.

SCMP Pictures

Xi announced the most extensive military overhaul in decades two years ago, including laying off 300,000 personnel from the 2.3 million-strong PLA by the end of this year.

The cuts were part of those already announced, sources said. The army has said it would pay a one-time sum as compensation to affected personnel.

However this year’s seven per cent increase in the defence budget, the lowest rise this century, is likely to mean the lay-offs will be spread out over the next five years, according to two of the sources.

Another source close to the PLA said the ongoing redundancies, involving more than 170,000 senior military officials in non-combat forces, had been facing huge resistance inside the army.

Many fear they will face the same problems as veterans laid off in previous shake-ups, who have staged demonstrations in Beijing over the past few months.

“Recent massive demonstrations and protests staged by veterans in Beijing over unpaid pensions and other benefit demands have put the central leadership under great pressure,” the source said.

“Security for this year’s two annual sessions [of the legislature in Beijing] was so tight because the authorities were scared that some rabid veterans might infiltrate the conference hall to do something like demonstrate, as many of them are well trained.”

People's Liberation Army soldiers stand guard in front of the Great Hall of the People during meetings of the National People’s Congress earlier this month. Photo: EPA

After the army corps restructuring, the Western Theatre Command, the largest military region among the five newly established commands, would have only two army corps.

These would be the 13th and 21st corps stationed in Baoji in Shaanxi province and Chongqing. They are considered well-equipped troops ­capable of combat duties.

The command also includes Sichuan, Yunnan, Gansu and Qinghai provinces, plus Xinjiang, Tibet and Ningxia.

“Two army corps in the western military area is enough because China’s most powerful missile troops in the rocket force are all stationed there,” a source said.

The rocket force is estimated to comprise about 100,000 personnel and six ballistic missile brigades, equipped with the world’s longest-range missile, the DF-41, and other nuclear weapons.