Neighbors wary as China’s PLA modernizes, builds capability

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Under Chinese President Xi Jinping, the People’s Liberation Army is undergoing massive changes as it is reorganized, resized and mobilized. On one hand, the PLA is also getting a bigger role in China’s strategic and foreign-policy outreach. On the other hand, it is shedding weight and becoming a leaner and more information-driven army.

These far-reaching changes will have implications for the region, as neighbors India, Japan and Vietnam and powers like the US and Australia watch closely.

Interoperability is clearly the buzzword that best describes the PLA’s future direction. Xi’s various policy decisions have put greater emphasis on the Central Military Commission (CMC) and made it leaner too. Significantly, on at least five different occasions Xi has told the army that the principle of “Party commands gun” must be upheld, including in the recently held 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China.

There have been four distinct areas of PLA reforms under Xi.

First is the dismantling and reorganization of the departments. Second is the change of organization from military regions to a commands system. Third is increasing importance of projection, outreach and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) activities and the first overseas base in Djibouti, and fourth is the anti-corruption drive within the armed forces.

What is significant is that Xi has been able to push these reforms within the first five years of his leadership. His achievements are significant and will have a lasting impact on China’s security and strategic outlook.

For China’s neighbors, greater interoperability may mean faster deployments of the PLA and a greater role for information technology. An even greater role for the PLA Navy (PLAN) may mean more naval exercises, port calls and patrolling as well as more assertion of historic claims and rights. China’s Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) strategy is likely to be further boosted by the reforms, which have greater implications for the country’s neighbors in East and Southeast Asia. Its supply lines to Djibouti and possible other bases also become another reason for extended patrols.

The PLA, which was earlier organized under seven military regions, has been redrawn into five theater commands. This was done in order to increase coordination among the army, navy, air force and the Second Artillery Corps.

Greater interoperability may mean faster deployments of the PLA and a greater role for information technology. An even greater role for the PLA Navy may mean more naval exercises, port calls and patrolling as well as more assertion of historic claims and rights

The theater command system allows for three distinct commands focusing on the eastern maritime borders, which are also the hot spots for three of China’s disputes, namely Taiwan, the East China Sea and the South China Sea. The Western Theater Command borders South Asia and parts of Southeast Asia. The Northern Theater Command covers regions on the borders with Mongolia and eastern borders with the Russian Far East.

The next reforms in 2015 led to the PLA reducing its numbers by 300,000 in order to become lean and efficient. Most of the reduction in numbers was due to the expansion of information technology. At the same time, while the PLA budget has increased, the rate of increase has been less compared with previous years. In particular the increase in the last two years was at approximately 7% per year, which is significantly lower than the consistent double-digit annual rise for the earlier decade.

The 2015 defense white paper laid the background for China’s first overseas military base and for its expanding naval outreach. It said that it was “necessary for China to develop a modern maritime military force structure commensurate with its national security and development interests”.

China’s overseas economic engagements are rapidly rising. In 2016 alone, Chinese companies’ overseas investments were at US$60 billion. Similarly, Chinese banks’ overseas loans are also huge in number. Moreover, CNOOC and China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) together have more than 200 offshore projects. Taken together, this means that a lot of Chinese money is invested aboard and a lot of Chinese workers work at these sites. In Africa alone, there are 1 million Chinese workers.

Xi’s anti-corruption campaign has affected the PLA as well. Since 2012, more than 40 generals have been arrested for corruption in various forms. This list also included two CMC vice-chairmen – Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong. Some 4,000 other cases were investigated.

Xu Caihou was also labeled a traitor by one of the party magazines. Two senior PLA generals, Fang Fenghui and Zhang Yang, both CMC members, were excluded from the army’s list of delegates to the 19th Party Congress, and reportedly may be investigated for corruption.

Moreover, the new Central Military Commission has seven members, whereas there were 11 members in the last CMC. In the new configuration, the heads of four departments – the Ground Forces, Navy, Air and Rocket Forces – are not members of the CMC. This was somewhat expected, since the four general departments were abolished in 2016 after delegating their functions to the newly created theater commands.

In his work report too, Xi said: “Our military must regard combat readiness as the goal for all its work and focus on how to win when it is called upon.” This basically means that the forces should leave the financial and logistical decisions to the CMC and the theater command officials must focus on the core functions. Similarly, a lot of newly promoted officers have served in Fujian and Zhejiang provinces, where Xi was a senior regional cadre.

After the Party Congress, the PLA is required to “arm itself with ‘Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’ and assure its absolute loyalty, purity and reliability.” The Maoist dictum of “red and expert” is back, although in a new formation under Chairman Xi.

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