Forced by changing conditions in the field of warfare, China this week embarked on a new program to turn its gigantic armed forces built on the old wobbly Soviet model, into a â€œleaner and meanerâ€ modern American-style fighting machine.
The worldâ€™s largest standing armed forces, known collectively as the Peopleâ€™s Liberation Army (PLA), will see a cut in its strength from an estimated 2 million to about one million.
This drastic cut will affect the ground forces primarily. The numbers will increase in the Strategic, Rocket and Naval forces, while they will remain unaltered in the case of the Air Force.
The emphasis placed on the naval, strategic, rocket and air forces shows that China is preparing to face threats from a long distance and to fight in far flung areas given its plans to build ports and highways across the globe as part of its One Belt One Road (OBOR) project.
China knows that almost all powers in the region (apart from the US) are now equipping themselves to fight long distance wars. Among them are traditional rivals Japan, India and Korea.
Like the Americans, the Chinese, especially in the dispensation of President Xi Jinping, want to be equipment-conscious, replacing a large number of ill-equipped troops by a smaller number of well equipped forces, well trained in modern warfare.
It was during the last manpower cut in 2015 that President Xi Jinping ordered the newly formed 84 large military units to give priority to building â€œnew-typesâ€ of fighting capabilities in electronic, information and space warfare.
The process of shedding excess fat has been on since 1985.In 1985, the PLAwas cut by one million. 1997 saw a cut of 500,000. In 2013, there was a slicing down by 200,000and in 2015, there was a further cut of 300,000.
Saving money is hardly the criterion for the cuts, but putting it to better use is. China is still one of the highest spenders on the military in the world. From 2005 to 2014, Chinese military spending is estimated to have increased in real terms from U$71 billion to US $191 billion, making the country the second-largest spender after the US, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
The rate of increase in Chinaâ€™s military spending is the highest in Asia.Between 2013 and 2014, Chinaâ€™s military expenditure increased by 63.4% while that of Japan went up by only 5.7% and Indiaâ€™s by 14.2%.
The extra money is being spent on high quality and hi-techequipment and weapons and Special Forces, which the Japanese academic Dr.Satoru Nagao calls the â€œparamilitaryâ€.
According to Dr.Nagao, China does not have enough weapons for all its men in uniform, and therefore it decided to cut down the number of men and equip the remaining well.
â€œBy decreasing the armed forces by a larger number like one million, the Chinese leadership is trying to give the impression to its people and others that it is not warlike. It is actually an attempt to hide the increase in defense expenditure,â€ Dr.Nagao said.
In PLA terminology, â€œnew-type fighting capabilitiesâ€ generally refers to capabilities of engaging in electronic, information and space operations. Xiâ€™s call for preparation for a new type of war came as Beijing prepared to counter the US deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptor missiles in South Korea, whose powerful radars could see through most part of China including its missile development program, an expert said.
â€œTHAAD is designed to intercept and destroy short and medium-range ballistic missiles during their final phase of flight. As it expanded strategic influence, China is also flexing its military might especially in the neighborhood over the territorial disputes with India, Japan and countries in the South China Sea region,â€ the expert added.
China is aware that India is also improving its missile capability besides being nuclear armed.
Since Xiâ€™s announcement of reducing the number of troops in 2015, the PLA has set up a headquarters for its Ground Force, founded a Strategic Support Force dedicated to electronic, information and space operations, and established a Rocket Force to replace the former Second Artillery Corps.
China has started conducting more missions far from home than before. For example, it has been operating as part of an international effort against piracy off Somalia and participating in UN peacekeeping in South Sudan.And this week, Beijing announced an agreement with Djibouti that gives China its first “base” in Africa.
Centralization of Command
The complexity and destructiveness of modern warfare also demand centralization and therefore,the Rocket Force, the Special Strategic Forces and Cyber warfare forces will be under a central command at the Central Military Commission (CMC).
It will be a â€œCMC – battle zone commands – troops command systemâ€ and an administration that runs from CMC through various services to the troops, an expert commented.
Another goal of the reform is to put China’s navy and air force on a more equal footing with the traditionally dominant ground force.
Jeffrey Engstrom and Michael Chase, both China experts at the US-based RAND Corporation, said that “it is politically important for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that the PLA is an effective military able to competently carry out an increasing number of tasks and missions both close to home and increasingly more globally.”
New strategic zones
There are more potential changes in store. Citing unnamed sources, the Hong Kong-basedÂ South China Morning PostÂ (SCMP) recently reported that the long-anticipated reform plan would include a geographical reorganization, with the current seven military commands re-divided into four strategic zones.
Currently, a majority of Chinese troops, consisting of 850,000 land forces, are deployed in seven military area commands headquartered in Shenyang, Beijing, Jinan, Nanjing, Guangzhou, Chengdu and Lanzhou. Analysts say that the seven new military regionswould help the PLA better focus on external threats, regional power projection, and enhance integrated joint operations between the services.
Engstrom and Chase explain that joint war-fighting commands or geographic zones could be seen as representing a shift in focus from homeland defense to a more external orientation based on various strategic directions of potential threats.
Jean-Pierre Cabestan, Director for Government and International Studies at Hong Kong Baptist University, says that the PLA is still very much compartmentalized.
“The Army, Air Force and Navy do not communicate much and have been trained even less to conduct joint operations,” he said.
China’s military is still unable to conduct joint operations at a high level which undermines its ability to conduct a variety of operations including anti-terrorism, experts added. The new dispensation will correct this flaw through coordination and centralization.
A smaller military also helps fight corruption.Ever since coming to power in late 2012, Xi has conducted an anti-corruption campaign both within the Communist Party and the military, which had led to the removal or reshuffling of senior officials.
Corruption as well as an outdated command and control structure have long been seen by experts as “potentially serious weaknesses” affecting the PLA.