Chinese President Xi Jinping, in his opening remarks at China’s September 3 parade to celebrate Japan’s defeat in World War II, made a surprise announcement: the Chinese People’s Liberation Army would reduce its troop count by 300,000. Since the 1980s, the PLA has restructured and been cut four times, in 1985, 1997, 2003, and finally, in 2015, with Xi’s announcement.
Xi, in his speech, pitched the troop cut as a gesture of good will and a manifestation of China’s desire for peace. Analysts and observers of China’s military affairs, however, note that the cut allows Beijing to balance its military spending away from infantry and personnel costs toward modernization and its navy — its 2015 defense white paper, for example, says that the PLA needs to abandon “the traditional mentality that land outweighs sea.”
The troop cuts took many by surprise, including many within the PLA, over which Xi, as chairman of the Central Military Commission, exercises absolute authority. Reuter‘s Ben Blanchard reports that the troop cut decision has lead to some bitterness within the officer ranks of the PLA. Even though the PLA will remain the largest military in the world in terms of personnel, with 2 million active troops still standing after the troop cuts, 300,000 is not a negligible portion of the PLA. In economic terms, Xi announced a surprise cut in 300,000 jobs, pulling the rug out from underneath many in the PLA who hadn’t been consulted.
Blanchard’s Reuters report cites a government official close to senior officers in the PLA who notes that the decision was “too sudden.” As a result, there is a perception that Xi’s decision-making regarding the future of the military occurred entirely within the confines of the CMC (not that this is a radical departure from established practice). “People are very worried. A lot of good officers will lose their jobs and livelihoods. It’s going to be tough for soldiers,” the source adds. Meanwhile, China’s Defense Ministry told Reuters that the concerns were exaggerated and that officers and soldiers “resolutely endorsed the important decision of the Party center and Central Military Commission and obey orders.”
I’ve previously written about Xi’s occasionally strained relationship with the People’s Liberation Army. The PLA, it should be noted, is not a professional military that exists to serve the state; it was founded as and continues to remain the military arm of the Chinese Communist Party. Last fall, after returning from his trip to India, which was marred by a sudden PLA border incursion along the disputed India-China border, Xi convened senior PLA officers and demanded their absolute loyalty and stressed the importance of adhering to the chain of command. With these troop cuts, it’s likely that these underlying tensions could become exacerbated.