China has the world’s biggest military force. Now Xi Jinping wants it to be the best

Big changes in the wings for China’s military hardware and top brass

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 October, 2017, 8:02am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 October, 2017, 3:52pm

The Chinese military will embark on a massive hardware upgrade and top personnel shake-up under President Xi Jinping’s orders for the PLA to become a world-class fighting force in the next three decades.

Laying out his ambitious plan for the People’s Liberation Army in a report to the Communist Party’s national congress on Wednesday, Xi said the PLA must modernise by 2035 and become a top-ranked military by 2050.

“A military force is built to fight. Our military must regard combat readiness as the goal for all its work and focus on how to win when it is called upon,” Xi said.

He said technology was at the core of combat strength and the PLA needed to apply information technology and modern warfare strategies to advance.

Xi also said the military’s ongoing overhaul should include changes to the PLA’s top brass, better integration between the civilian and military sectors, and stronger border defence forces.

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Military specialists said Xi was urging the PLA to ramp up equipment and troop changes and promote more young generals to put the military on a par with its Western counterparts.

The PLA has been through an upheaval this year, with its seven military regions trimmed down to five theatre commands and the navy benefiting from a major build-up.

The changes come as China continues to bicker with its neighbours over claims in the South and East China seas and is extending its military presence abroad, setting up a base in Djibouti.

Beijing has also been driven to modernise by the US’ military deployment in the Asia-Pacific and Washington’s defence ties with China’s neighbours.

Beijing-based military expert Zhou Chenming said the 2050 goal suggested Xi felt China faced the looming threat of a security crisis.

“After several decades of peace with the end of the cold war, China is now facing a lot of security challenges, and Xi foresees that a war could happen at any time. But the PLA’s fighting capacity still lags behind those of the world’s superpowers like the United States,” Zhou said.

Military analysts also said the powerful Central Military Commission, which Xi chairs, was destined for big changes. Nearly 90 per cent of the military delegates to the party congress are new faces while two CMC heavyweights have been ousted.

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In the past two months, General Fang Fenghui, former head of the CMC’s Joint Staff Department, has been replaced by General Li Zuocheng, a decorated veteran of the Sino-Vietnamese war; and General Zhang Yang, former head of the commission’s Political Work Department has been sacked and his position filled by Admiral Miao Hua, formerly the PLA Navy’s political commissar.

Military sources said Xi would probably put his own men in key CMC positions to push through his reforms.

Among the front runners for advancement are Li; CMC vice-chairman Xu Qiliang; General Zhang Youxia, a former CMC member who oversaw equipment development and space projects; and General Wei Fenghe, former commander of the newly establishment Rocket Force.

Hong Kong-based military observer Liang Guoliang said Xi might promote more generals like Li with real combat experience or other young innovative senior officers to the CMC.

“Xi understands that China’s military strategies created by Mao Zedong, such as partisan tactics and the human wave strategy, are all outdated. Only new generals are willing to come up with new thinking to meet the military’s modernisation,” Liang said.