China’s Military Reforms
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Issue Book Excerpt: China: Threat or Challenge? | Date : 12 Jul , 2017

Buy Now: Threat from China

From end November 2015 to first week of February 2016, the Central Military Commission (CMC) of China had announced a series of fundamental changes to the organisational structure of People’s Liberation Army (PLA). These reform measures are certain to radically change the way some of the major components of China’s Military conducts its business. The four General departments – General Staff, General Political, General Logistics and General Armament, which used to be the basic functional formations of the PLA for a long time has been restructured into fifteen new organs directly under the CMC. These new bodies comprise of six new departments: joint staff, political work, logistical support, equipment development, training and national defence mobilization.

Further, PLA has formally established five theatre commands on 1st Feb 2016, basing on their geographical locations : Eastern theatre command, Southern theatre command, Western theatre command, Northern theatre command and Central theatre command. These five commands will be replacing the existing seven regional commands, better known as Military Regions (MRs), named after the cities where their headquarters were located – Beijing, Shenyang, Jinan, Lanzhou, Nanjing, Chengdu and Guangzhou.

This series of reforms by and large follows the programme announced by nation’s President and CMC chairman Xi Jinping after the conclusion of a three day long CMC Reform work conference on 26 November 2015. The conference attended by the top brass of China’s military and the all powerful Communist Party of China (CPC) agreed upon a long drawn plan to reform the traditional Maoist outfits of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) largely patterned on the conventional Soviet military apparatus. President Xi committed to a major breakthrough in the overhaul by 2020, which is coterminous with the Party’s goal of making China a well off society by 2021, the centenary year of the establishment of the CPC.

The work conference also decided to streamline and consolidate the work of the existing seven military regions. Following these decisions, at a formal ceremony on 31 December 2015, President Xi in his capacity as the Chairman of the CMC officially instituted the newly formed the PLA Army general command, the PLA Rocket Force and the PLA Strategic Support Force (SSF). This decision by the CPC Central Committee and the CMC to realize the Chinese dream of a strong military, and a strategic step to establish a modern military system with Chinese characteristics. It will be a milestone in the modernization of the Chinese military and will be recorded in the history of the people’s armed forces.

However, one should not lose sight of the significant political thought process behind these reforms. Basically, PLA still remains the fighting arm of the Party. According to the official constitution of the People’s Republic of China, this proviso has necessary legal sanction under relevant Party and State rules. Many of these changes also clearly reflect China’s approach towards the ongoing process of transformation happening in military technology and tactics. Over, last twenty years both the military and political leadership of China have closely followed the unprecedented changes taking place in military thinking the world over.

According to ancient Chinese tradition, the military command(er) is nation’s bulwark. His proficiency in war can make the country strong, his deficiency make it weak. Sun Tzu’s Art of War specifies, “three ways by which a sovereign may bring disaster to his army:

One, he arbitrarily orders his army to advance or retreat when in fact it should not, thus hampering the initiative of the army.

Two, he interferes with the administration of the army when he is ignorant of its internal affairs, thus causing confusion among the officers and men.

Three, he interferes with the officers’ command, unaware of the principle that an army should adopt different tactics according to different circumstances. This will create misgivings in the minds of the officers and men.”

The disastrous experiment of great Cultural Revolution under the notorious ‘gang of four’, played havoc with the command and control structure of China’s military. After the cultural revolution and the death of former Chairman Mao Zedong, China under the charismatic leadership of Deng Xiaoping carried out a series of changes in PLA’s command structure. In 1983 the military leadership convened enlarged CMC work conference and proposed a series of measures to modernise the existing military set up of China. By late 1980s China re-introduced the rank system among its services and reduced the number of Military Regions from the existing eleven to seven.

Towards the end of nineties, PLA leadership took another major step in streamlining its command set up and formed the General Armament Department (GAD) in addition to the existing three key departments directly under the control of CMC. The GAD was specifically tasked to take care of large scale procurement for PLA and also for managing major space launches, especially the ones related to military applications. With this China also managed the separation of military related industries as well as other related and not related business ventures under PLA.

Under a rapidly evolving security scenario around the world, Chinese leadership has become more convinced that their old command and control mechanisms are not yielding the desired results. Another lesson they learned from the experiences of other matured armies, especially the US military system, was the importance of jointness in fighting the modern wars.

Xi Jinping’s own understanding of military command and control system has certainly played a major role in this restructuring process. After graduating from the famous Tsinghua University of China as worker-peasant – soldier student in 1979, Xi Jinping was assigned to work in the Party- Government head quarters as Secretary to the then Defence Minister Geng Biao. Then Geng was also working as the Secretary General of the CMC.

His first job as a secretary in the military headquarters provided him with many opportunities to understand the original thinking of the first generation leadership including Chairman Mao and others. As a child Xi grew up at Zhongnanhai, the senior leadership residential compound, in Beijing (then Peking) and attended school with other children, many of them become key players in CPC leadership. Some of these friends/classmates includes, current PLA Generals Zhang Youxia, Liu Yuan and others.

Prof. Cheng Li notes, “it has been widely reported that General Zhang Youxia, director of the PLA General Armaments Department, is Xi’s most trusted confident in CMC, Xi once proposed (according to a Reuters source) promoting Zhang to be vice chairman of the CMC in 2012. The first instalment of this series (of articles) revealed the strong family ties between Xi Jinping and Zhang Youxia; their fathers were not only natives of Shaanxi but also “bloody fighting comrades” in the Communist Revolution in northern China… Zhang is currently one of very few active duty officers in the PLA who have had war experience. He participated in the two Chinese wars with Vietnam, first as a company commander in 1976, and then as a regiment commander, in 1984. Zhang is qualified to serve another five year term in the CMC after 2017, and he will be a leading contender for the post of vice chairman of China’s most powerful military leadership body.”

How much Xi Jinping can push this military organisation to serve his own aims has to be watched closely. Some of the results of these reforms would be more manifest in coming few years. One of the fundamental aim is to tighten the control of Party over the army. After taking over the reins of the Party in 2012, Xi paid a lot of attention on making the military stronger and cleaner. He also started the periodic visits to former revolutionary base, Gutian town in Fujian province. Before Xi initiated the military overhaul, in October 2014, he ordered more than 400 senior military officials to gather in Gutian for a two-day conference.

Towards end 1929 the Fourth Army held its Ninth Party Congress in Gutian, under the leadership of Chairman Mao Zedong, the Congress reiterated the absolute leadership of Party over PLA. With this the CPC decided to keep the “gun” under its firm control. Xi Jinping is determined about absolute control over the PLA and the military serving as the vanguard of the Party. Xi also wanted to preserve the purity of the PLA, therefore, he launched the move to eradicate corruption from the Party and military. Hence, Xi wanted the “armed forces to maintain a high degree of conformity with the CPC Central Committee and the CMC, strictly obey political discipline and rules, and carry out their orders and instructions to the letter.”

Some of these basic ideas are very prominent in the recently launched reform measures in PLA’s command structure. Let us take a look at the reformed organs of the Central Military Commission:

CMC Functional Organs*
S No CMC Organization Leader Previous Position
1 General Office(办公厅) Lt. Gen Qin Shengxiang Director CMC General Office
2 Joint Staff Department(联合参谋部) Gen Fang Fenghui(房峰辉) Chief of the General Staff
3 Political Work Department(政治工作部) Gen Zhang Yang(张阳) Director, GPD
4 Logistic Support Department(后勤保障部) Gen Zhao Keshi(赵克石) Director, GLD
5 Equipment Development Department(装备发展部) Gen Zhang Youxia(张又侠) Director, GAD
6 Training and Administration Department(训练管理部) Maj Gen Zheng He(郑和) Deputy Commander, Chengdu MR
7 National Defense Mobilization Department(国防动员部) Maj Gen Sheng Bin (盛斌) Deputy Commander, Shenyang MR
8 Discipline Inspection Commission(纪律检查委员会) Gen Du Jincai(杜金才) Deputy Director, GPD & Secretary, CMC Discipline Inspection Commission
9 Politics and Law Commission(政法委员会) Lt. Gen Li Xiaofeng (李晓峰) Chief Procurator, PLA Military Procuratorate
10 Science and Technology Commission(科学技术委员会) Lt. Gen Liu Guozhi(刘国治) Director, GAD S&T Commission
11 Office for Strategic Planning (战略规划办公室) Maj Gen Wang Huiqing(王辉青) Director, GSD Strategic Planning Department
12 Office for Reform and Organizational Structure (军委改革和编制办公室) Maj Gen Wang Chengzhi (王成志) Director, GPD Directly Subordinate Work Department
13 Office for International Military Cooperation (国际军事合作办公室) R.Adm Guan Youfei(关友飞) Director, MND Foreign Affairs Office (Director, GSD Foreign Affairs Office; Director, CMC Foreign Affairs Office)
14 Audit Office(审 计署) RAdm Guo Chunfu(郭春富) Director, CMC Auditing and Finance Department
15 Agency for Offices Administration(机关事务管理总) Maj Gen Liu Zhiming(刘志明) Deputy Chief of Staff, Shenyang MR
* This Table is basically adopted from a larger one contained in “The PLA’s New Organizational Structure: What is Known, Unknown and Speculation (Part 1)” by: Kenneth AllenDennis J. Blasko, and John F. Corbett in China Brief online Vol. 16 issue no.3

With this set of reforms, the Chinese leadership intends to introduce a new work culture among all services. Earlier in September 2015, Xi Jinping announced to reduce the number of troops from 2.3 million to 2 million. Under the reform are also plans to weed out outdated armaments, developing new weapons systems and reducing the size of the militia. Overall security scenario around China is changing rapidly, the tremendous changes taking place in technology, especially in the fields of surveillance techniques and reaction timings, PLA leadership were planning to adopt more changes to make its forces to transform itself to fight a modern war under hi-tech conditions.

One has to wait still longer to understand the full implications of this round of reforms. Like in most other military set ups, one of the main issue will be coordination and how the CMC leadership can manage the divergent interests of different formations. The land forces, senior level Army personnel, still hold the maximum top level positions in the new PLA command structure. Professionalization in the PLA is still a long drawn out process, how the Party leadership can achieve its desired goal of professionalization and tighter Party control is the real challenge.

Role of newly formed SSF needs special mention, from all accounts this new formation will be coordinating all activities relating to the cyber and space activities. The important role played by these two broader areas in modern warfare is crucial. Lieutenant General Gao Jin, commander of the PLA’s new established SSF, has a stronger academic and research background. Gao, 56, has a master’s degree from the Second Artillery Engineering University. Before taking up this position Gen Gao was heading the famous Chinese military think tank, Academy of Military Sciences (AMS) in Beijing.

Another second Artillery General Wei Fenghe, 61, who commanded the Second Artillery Corps before it was recently renamed the Rocket Force, is an upcoming military leader of China who must be observed carefully. The Second Artillery corps commands nuclear and conventional strategic missiles and answers directly to the Central Military Command. Gen. Wei is certain to play a key role in the implementation of these round of reforms in PLA.

Together with this series of reform measures the CMC leadership has appointed Major General Qin Tian, 57, son of former defence minister and revolutionary veteran Qin Jiwei, as chief of staff of the People’s Armed Police Force (PAPF). Qin Tian, a well experienced soldier with a research background from AMS, is well known for his views on anti corruption efforts. In the future, the Communist leadership will be mainly relying on police forces to look after the domestic law and order situations. Army will be carrying out its professional duty of guarding the territorial integrity of the nation.

Buy Now: This book is sequel to “Threat from China”.

The reduction in the strength and consolidation of logistic services are bound to reduce the expenses of PLA however, this may not have a larger impact on the defence budget of China. PRC is likely to increase its defence budget by around ten percent in this coming financial year too. The official defence budget for China in the last financial year was US $ 142 billion.

Under the new dispensation, India will be looked after by the newly constituted Western Theatre Command (WTC). Geographically, this largest theatre command consists of administrative areas like Sichuan, Tibet Autonomous Region, Yunnan, Shaanxi, Gansu, Ningxia, Qinghai, Xinjiang Autonomous Region and Chongqing Municipal Corporation. Unlike the previous arrangement, wherein India – China border was under the watch of two separate Military Regions, Chengdu MR and Lanzhou MR. Under the new set up only one command authority will be responsible for looking after the entire stretch of India – China boundary. Naturally, the coordination efforts can be expected to be far more sophisticated. Both Indian military establishment and civilian agencies including think tanks in India must enhance their awareness about Chinese military and its affairs.

Keeping in view of the prevailing conditions in the adjoining Afghanistan – Pakistan region, the main focus of China’s fight against terrorism and separatism is also likely to be coordinated by WTC. Large scale changes and reforms can be anticipated in the organisational set up of PLA in the near future, hence it need to be watched and studied carefully to safeguard our own security interests.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

MV Rappai

is Honorary Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi.

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