The Implications of China’s Military Reforms
Image Credit: REUTERS/cnsphoto

The Implications of China’s Military Reforms

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Since the second half of 2015, there has been considerable speculation about China’s rumored military reforms. Speculation became especially intense after Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a plan at the September 3 military parade in Beijing to cut 300,000 troops.

In fact, news reports about the replacement of military regions with battle zones first began to emerge in 2012. It was not until Xi made important remarks at a meeting of the Central Military Commission (CMC) on military reforms in November 2015 that the goals and objectives of the reforms were revealed, encompassing the replacement of military regions with battle zones as well as other major organizational overhauls. By January this year, the restructuring had begun to take shape. 

At the forefront of the reforms is the replacement of four general departments of the CMC with 15 new departments, signaling not only a change in name but also a complete transfer of functions. It also represents a demotion for the four general departments. The General Staff Department (GSD), for instance, used to be known as the number one organ in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), partly because it was in charge of operations and intelligence, including human, electronic and Internet intelligence, and partly because it was in command of the army, which, in turn, controlled the seven military regions across the country. The GSD has now become the CMC Joint General Staff Department, with its original intelligence units and functions integrated into the new Strategic Support Force (SSF). It no longer exercises operational control of the army, which now has its own headquarters. The new Joint General Staff Department will function purely as a staff organization, similar to the joint chiefs of staff system of the U.S. The inaugural commander of the SSF is Lieutenant General Gao Jin, a long-time member of the Second Artillery Corps, now renamed as the Rocket Force, before becoming assistant chief of GSD and President of the PLA Academy of Military Science. With outstanding credentials as a commanding officer, Gao is seen as having the requisite expertise in operations and intelligence exchange. Putting the SSF under Gao’s command implies that SSF retains part of the functions of the former GSD.

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The biggest change in the functions of General Political Department (GDP) is the removal of its control over the military legal system to the new Politics and Law Commission. It signifies a breaking up of the discipline, security, and personnel functions that GDP used to monopolize. The Politics and Law Commission, together with the Discipline Inspection Commission, can stop personnel functions from being controlled by a single agency while contributing to Xi’s goal of rooting out corruption rings in the military, as shown in the case involving ex-CMC vice chairman Xu Caihou.

Guo Boxiong, the other ex-CMC vice chairman who also fell from power in Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, was closely linked to the General Armaments Department (GAD), which was downgraded considerably in this round of military reforms. The GAD was responsible not only for developing military equipment but also for managing aviation units taken over from the now defunct Commission for Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense. Under the new guidelines, each of the armed services is to “pursue its own construction,” and as such the development of military equipment is expected to be split between the four services. More importantly, the aviation and aerospace development has been assigned to the SSF. This suggests that the GAD is not as powerful as it was. We can not rule out the possibility that the GAD and General Logistics Department (GLD) might merge in the future.

The activation of the Rocket Force means that the Second Artillery Corps finally has the right name. What’s noteworthy is that it is similar to Russia’s Strategic Rocket Forces, albeit with some differences. The Russian equivalent controls all of the long- and medium-range ballistic missiles in Russia. It had previously been tasked with aerospace development as well, but subsequently the Space Forces were formed to take over that role. Likewise, China has assigned aerospace development to the SSF, not the Rocket Force. The arrangement was most likely made to enable the air force to take the lead in aerospace development, a move toward the realization of the much-stressed “integrated air and space” strategy. On the modern battlefield, satellite positioning, communication, and remote sensing are key factors.

To achieve superiority in space, China might itself opt to establish a separate Space Force. The Rocket Force currently controls all of the country’s intercontinental, medium- and short-range ballistic missiles, suggesting that it will still play an important role in China’s dealing with neighboring countries over disputes.

Firmer Control of the Military

From a structural perspective, the PLA’s reforms are on the one hand a move toward developing a specialized force and meeting the demands of the future battlefield, and on the other a reshuffle of power aimed at getting a firmer grip on the military. This is reminiscent of the Gutian conference of 1929, when Mao Zedong seized the opportunity to establish the leading role of the Fourth Group of the Red Army. In the current reshuffling of power, the four general departments were weakened via the deactivation of some of their units. Some generals have even been removed from their positions. These signs are sufficient to conclude that the ongoing military reforms are in part based on Xi’s desire to consolidate his own position as leader of the military.

To deal a further blow to the corruption rings formed by the two fallen ex-CMC vice chairmen, Xu and Guo, Xi has turned to the hitherto less-privileged air force and navy to select lieutenants from among generals. For one, General Xu Qiliang of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force has been promoted to the CMC vice chairman position, which has traditionally occupied by army generals. That Xu had worked together with Xi years ago when the two were assigned to Fujian Province around the same time helped him. The military reforms, highlighting a downsizing of troops, could be used to relieve certain generals of their positions and power, which might be the real reason for Xi to push for the restructuring. 

Implications for Joint Operations Capability

From the perspective of operational effectiveness, the transition from military region to battle zone is of great significance to the development of joint operations capability. The PLA has been underscoring the concept of “integrated joint operations” since the Iraq War of 2003. Many publications on the subject have since been incorporated in the PLA’s internal reference materials. In executing joint operations, however, the biggest challenge is not technology but the army-centric military region system and the conservative attitudes of the military leadership.

For example, the army-dominated military region system, if it is to engage in modern combat, must have the cooperation of the air force, navy, and the rocket force to achieve the desired effects. And in the execution of anti-access/area denial operations, the PLA has come to realize that it can not pose any threat to the U.S. military, especially its aircraft carriers, unless it has the cooperation of other services and ballistic missile forces. That each service goes its own way without building coordination with other services is already a serious problem, as it greatly reduces the combat strength of the PLA. So in terms of improving combat strength, the transition from military region to battle zone is not only to streamline personnel but also to establish battle zones as the main operations command that serve actual needs on the battlefield. For a combat mission to be properly executed, the commander of a battle zone is entrusted with the power and discretion to mobilize troops within his area of responsibility (AOR), greatly enhancing the overall joint operations capability of the forces involved.

The PLA’s performance in this regard can been seen from its execution of missions related to the East China Sea air defense identification zone (ADIZ), which geopolitically falls within the AOR of the Nanjing Military Region and the East Sea Fleet’s naval aviation forces, with a considerable overlap of responsibilities between the air force and navy. In fact, there was no previous example of the air force and navy acting under the command and control of the army. What usually happened was that the three different services acted independently. According to data made public by Japan, Chinese military planes that have been present in the East China Sea ADIZ to date are mostly from the naval aviation forces. These planes include Y-8 electronic reconnaissance aircraft, the H-6 bomber, Su-30 and J-10 fighter jets, and Y-12 transport aircraft attached to the State Oceanic Administration. Before Japan released photos of two Chinese Su-27 fighters flying close to two Japanese surveillance planes over the East China Sea in May 2014, there were few records of planes dispatched to the area by the PLA Air Force. This might have something to do with the fact that PLA Navy’s aviation forces, in accordance with the assignment of duties across the services, are responsible for the airspace over the maritime areas which they are assigned to protect. It is true that a considerable number of fighter jets are deployed in the Nanjing Military Region and that the PLA has been running cross-region exercises since 2012, including the rare deployment of a full fighter regiment from its inland base to a coastal base. However, the outcomes of these exercises did not receive conspicuous media coverage.

In late 2013, the media reported that Xu, the former CMC vice chairman, has delivered remarks on the development of joint operations capability. He called for a further improvement to the joint operations command mechanism of the CMC and that of the various theaters around the country so as to facilitate the relevant training and guarantee the results of structural reforms. The subsequent political developments around the East China Sea ADIZ provided the opportunity for the PLA to train its forces and integrate resources in a joint operations environment. In video footage of Chinese SU-27s made public by Japan, the tail numbers revealed that the planes were based in Chongqing, Sichuan Province. This represents a further step toward the development of cross-region operations and joint operations between the air force and navy.

Meanwhile, the PLA Air Force and PLA Navy have their own independent links to the coastal radar stations under their control. The PLA began developing joint surveillance systems in 2006 in an attempt to integrate aerial images for use by all relevant units. No details have emerged on how the program is progressing. But in light of the current mission requirements for the East China Sea ADIZ, China needs to develop a joint surveillance system. Although the development of “integrated joint operations” has been the goal of the PLA in recent years, improving and integrating infrastructure is only a first step. What’s more important is coordinating other vital factors such as logistics, personnel and organization, and operational thinking. The army-centric military region system has made it difficult to put joint operations into practice. Now with the joint operations command mechanism for the East China Sea ADIZ as the model, the PLA wants to encourage mission-oriented operational thinking, which could overcome structural barriers and serve as a starting point for inter-service joint operations. Ultimately, this will eventually help Beijing achieve its goal of establishing battle zones as the main operational command in modern warfare. 

Implications for the Region 

The establishment of battle zones in place of military regions thus represents a shift in the operational thinking of the PLA and a departure from the army-dominated force structure, which is often compared to a dog with a tail too big to wag. What is to come instead is an elite and highly flexible force with integrated joint operations capability. Now that Xi has greater control over the military, the military diplomacy function of the PLA could be put to better use. Besides the old-school tactics of verbal attack and saber-rattling, as seen in the 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis, the expansion of the PLA’s presence could well be used as bargaining chips in international politics. By using the PLA externally as a means for military deterrence, in modern gunboat diplomacy for instance, or as a gateway for making contributions to the international community, Xi should feel more at ease in his application of the well-known carrot-and-stick approach.

Another obvious change in the PLA’s structure after the reforms is the integration of foreign intelligence capabilities. Foreign intelligence was formerly the responsibility of the second and third departments of GSD, which handled human intelligence and electronic and Internet intelligence, respectively. Now the job has been re-assigned to army-led units, the Rocket Force and SSF, in what amounts to an integration of intelligence resources. What’s noteworthy is that the Liaison Department of the GPD and GAD have their own intelligence-gathering units. Along with the extensive restructuring of GPD and GAD, the intelligence units under the two general departments could be merged into SSF, which would signify a reshuffle of the intelligence community. If the CMC is in the future to have intelligence units that directly report to it in a way similar to the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) of the U.S. or Russia’s GRU (Main Intelligence Directorate), it will symbolize a further integration of China’s foreign intelligence capabilities.

In the restructuring of the second and third departments of GSF, it should be noted that the latter used to control the majority of the components of China’s cyber force, which is mainly devoted to computer hacking, while the former specializes in human intelligence and intelligence analysis. If the two departments are to merge, the attacks launched by the cyber force would become even more ferocious. For example, the advanced persistent threat technique commonly used by the cyber force depends heavily upon information about a specific target such as his or her personal data, circle of friends, and reading habits. Acquiring this information is not what a computer hacker excels at. So the integration of intelligence resources will only encourage China’s cyber force to be more aggressive toward target countries like Taiwan. 

Taiwan’s Response

Regarding the potential military threat that China’s five new battle zones might pose to Taiwan, Taipei needs to pay special attention to the PLA troops in the East and South battle zones. Considering the escalation of tensions in the East and South China Seas in recent years, the East and South battle zones, which are upgrading combat strength through their focus on integrated joint operations, will become an increasing threat to Taiwan and other Asia-Pacific nations. As is often the case, when faced with internal instability, China will seek to shift its internal problems onto other countries by playing tough on the world stage. Taiwan and other countries in the region should be prepared.

Despite the apparent storm looming on the horizon, there is time. The PLA’s extensive restructuring has brought major changes to the chain of command, implying that the PLA will need more time to become familiar with the new structure. This gives other countries in the Asia-Pacific time to build military strength or implement strategic deployments. As the PLA downsizes in manpower terms, a sizable number of non-commissioned officers are to be transferred to less desirable posts or will be discharged from military service. This provides an opportunity for Taiwan’s intelligence community to recruit agents behind enemy lines and establish a spy ring, in the style of previous efforts, so as to gain an advantage in intelligence collection.

China’s military reforms are an ongoing process, which, according to China’s own estimation, will take five years to complete. In other words, quite a lot of uncertainty exists in the lead-up to 2020. What is foreseeable, however, is that the PLA will greatly refer to the U.S. military system, especially the joint operations and joint chiefs of staff doctrines, in its projection for the future battlefield.

Despite that, the PLA still can’t go without a force structure and operational thinking derived from Russia and its predecessor Soviet Union, such as the sharing of joint leadership between a commanding officer and political officer of each unit at the company level and above. So it makes sense to use Russia’s military transformation starting from 2000 as a gauge for the current reforms of the PLA. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that for the Chinese leadership, the first priority is always to secure its power base. Although the decades-old slogan “the Party commands the gun” is still an unchanging directive for all party members to follow, what is always on the mind of every Chinese leader from the past to the present is the creed “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” Before establishing a military capable of fighting and winning, it is more important for the Chinese leaders to make the PLA obey and respond immediately to their instructions. That’s the ultimate goal of the military reforms.

Dr. Ying Yu Lin is Adjunct Associate Professor in the International Affairs& Diplomacy Program at Ming Chuan University.

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