Xi’s Master Plan for a Stronger, Leaner, More Lethal Chinese Military
China continued to make waves in the South China Sea last week with its deployment of surface-to-air missile launchers and a radar system on the contested Woody Island. While this development undoubtedly challenges both the claims of littoral states and the U.S. regional presence, China’s actions should be thought of as part of a much broader agenda aimed at modernizing the capabilities and operations of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Beyond China’s posturing lies an important process of structural and organizational reforms that will shape the war-fighting capabilities of the PLA for the decade ahead. While a lot remains unknown, President Xi Jinping’s planned comprehensive reforms of the PLA appear to target the development of a leaner, stronger Chinese fighting force, an enhanced power projection capability, and an even greater focus on deterring threats along the periphery.
Xi’s planned reforms are another iteration of similar cycles of military reforms China has experienced since its founding in 1949, each cycle with roughly a fifteen-year lifespan. Onlookers have long called for reorganization but were largely uncertain as to when such changes would occur, particularly given that the last major reform to the PLA took place at the turn of the millennium when the Maoist People’s War doctrine was exchanged in favor of a localized high-tech war strategic paradigm. In late 2013, Xi began his own cycle of reforms with initial moves to optimize the PLA structure, improve the balance between China’s armed forces, and reduce the number of non-combat personnel. More importantly, a foundation for a Western-style command and control network emerged: Xi created a joint operations command authority under the Central Military Commission (CMC) and a theater joint operational command system.
The more robust announcements, however, accompanied the September 2015 military parade. From the rostrum at Tiananmen Square, Xi announced a reduction of PLA active duty forces to two million by the end of 2017. Subsequent coverage has since highlighted that the personnel cuts focus on troops with outdated armaments, non-combat personnel and administrative staff. Just a few months later, last November, Xi announced that the seven existing military area commands would be regrouped into five new battle zone commands. Marking significant progress in setting up a joint battle command system, we now know that the reforms will see the PLA operating separately from eastern, western, southern, northern and central theater commands, avoiding opacity and ineffective command systems that plagued the old seven zone structure.
The first few months of 2016 have continued Xi’s historic steps in reforming the PLA. A PLA Ground Forces (PLAGF), Rocket Force (PLARF), and Strategic Support Forces (SSF) have been inaugurated. The creation of the PLAGF reflects a bureaucratic shake-up; prior to Xi’s reforms, the general departments that ran the PLA also led the ground forces, creating an inherent bias toward the army. Now, in what can be thought of as a demotion of sorts, the PLAGF will act as their own service, entirely separate from the general departments.
By contrast, the creation of the PLA Rocket Force is a huge promotion for the former Second Artillery Corps, the nuclear and conventional missile force of the Chinese military. Now equal to other branches of the armed services, an increased role for the PLARF in the Chinese military establishment writ large signals an intent to further develop Chinese medium- and long-range missile capabilities, a not-so-subtle signal aimed at perceived threats from the United States. It is a necessary upgrade to China’s deterrent capabilities and represents the prominence the military will continue to give to anti-access area denial (A2/AD) strategy. Boosting the PLARF’s role also means that these troops get both their own uniforms and their own patriotic, missile-laden music video, not to mention the likely responsibility for the new missile outpost on Woody Island.