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China has been working to boost its naval and aerial capacity. Photo:

China’s military overhaul likely to raise neighbours’ concerns over improved offensive capabilities

  • Move away from defensive focus – as seen in downgrading of land army – likely to trigger concerns about growing assertiveness in areas like the South China Sea
  • Regional powers expected to react to PLA’s greater offensive capabilities by boosting their own forces

The recent overhaul of China’s armed forces will have increased concerns among its neighbours about the transformation of the People’s Liberation Army from a purely defensive force into one that can project its power further afield, analysts have said.

On Sunday, state news agency Xinhua reported that the land army “now accounts for less than 50 per cent of the total number of troops” and officer numbers had been cut by 30 per cent, as part of a restructuring that boosted other branches of the service such as the navy, air force, rocket force and the strategic support force, which is responsible for areas such as cyberwarfare.

Security analysts said the ending the army’s traditional dominance would confirm international worries about a strategic shift away from a force designed to counter conventional invasions towards one that could defend Chinese interests far from the country’s borders.

“The shift is likely to generate greater international concern because it foreshadows a more aggressive Chinese military approach of the kind already witnessed in the South China Sea, where China has fundamentally changed the status quo in its favour,” Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, said.

China has been expanding its military presence in the disputed waters, conducting training exercises and building military infrastructure on artificial islands despite the competing claims of at least six other Southeast Asian nations.

Adam Ni, a researcher on Chinese foreign and security policy at the Australian National University, added that neighbours like India, Japan and Taiwan, would find that the PLA is in a much stronger position to project power overseas, which would raise concerns about its ability to coerce them in future.

“Policymakers and planners are increasingly prepared for potential contingencies involving China,” he said.

China cuts size of army to less than half of total PLA force

Ni said this could involve regional disputes such as the South China Sea or Taiwan – which Beijing regards as a breakaway province that must eventually be reunified with the mainland.

He noted that China was one of the first countries in the region to set up a dedicated force for space and cyberwarfare with the establishment of the PLA Strategic Support Force in 2015, but countries like Vietnam and Japan were now boosting their own capabilities in these areas because they know it “will be a critical part of how China conducts its operations”.

Rajeev Ranjan Chaturvedy, a visiting fellow at S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said that India in particular has not only responded to the changes in the PLA by restructuring its own armed forces, but was also investing more in strategic research and increasing its cooperation with its allies.

“While India’s indigenous capabilities are growing, it is also focused on partnership with major powers,” he said.

“India has signed several defence agreements in the last few years to access technology, enhance inter-operability, exchange information in real time, to get greater strategic access and so on.

“Military diplomacy has also become an important part of the country’s strategies.”

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Chaturvedy also noted that India’s Ministry of External Affairs had set up an in-house think tank – the Centre for Contemporary China Studies (CCCS) – in 2017 to ensure it had a better strategic insight into how to handle China on a long-term basis.