As The Diplomat reported previously, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced last week that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will reduce its forces by 300,000 troops. Xi made the announcement during a speech just before a massive military parade in Beijing, held to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.
While Xi framed the troop cut as part of the PLA commitment to “carry out the noble mission of upholding world peace,” military analysts agree the move is part of a broader context: the restructuring of the PLA as part of a push to modernize China’s armed forces.
The troop reduction announced on September 3 fits in a long line of cuts and restructurings made since the 1980s. The PLA’s size has been cut four times since then–by one million in 1985, by 500,000 in 1997, by 200,000 in 2003, and now by 300,000.
Yang Yujun, spokesperson for China’s Ministry of National Defense, held a press conference last week to provide more details. Yang echoed Xi by saying that the troop cut – and the way it was announced – “fully shows China’s sincerity and aspiration to join hands with the rest of the world to maintain peace.” The cut “also demonstrates China’s active and responsible attitude to push forward the international arms control and disarmament,” Yang added.
But when Yang was asked more specifically why the cut was being made, the answer focused on the military reform process, not on China’s commitment to peace. “Through the cut of troops’ number, China’s military will further adjust and optimize its scale and structure, make its troops more capable and its structure more scientific, and construct a modern military force system with Chinese characteristics,” Yang explained. He further noted that the troops to be cut will be “troops equipped with outdated armaments, office staff, and personnel of non-combat organizations.”
“Cutting the number of troops is conducive to pooling resources, speeding up the pace and improving the quality of informatization construction,” Yang said, emphasizing that the reduction of China’s military will not decrease its ability to defend China’s interests. Even after the troop cuts are completed in 2017, China’s military (at 2 million troops) will remain the largest in the world.
Rory Medcalf, who heads the National Security College at Australian National University, pointed out that the move may be just as much about China’s defense budget as anything else. “Personnel are a massive cost in a military budget, and there’s been a lot of growth in military wages in China in recent years, so there are sensible capability reasons to cut personnel numbers without cutting effectiveness,” he told The New York Times. Medcalf noted that the decreased personnel budget could allow more funds to be devoted to continuing to modernize the PLA.
At the end of Yang’s press conference, the spokesperson noted that the troop reduction is just the beginning of a new round of reform in the PLA. “For the next step, the PLA will launch a lot of new reform initiatives in succession to push forward the national defense and military reform in an active and steady way,” Yang said.
A piece in Xinhua also pushed the idea of military reform, saying that “the overhaul of the military has reached a point of no return as measures to shake up structure, revise attitudes, and adjust interests are already set in motion.” Xinhua cited a PLA Daily piece that pointed to the importance of reform, as well as the dangers from “special interest groups” who might resist the process.
For example, China’s new military strategy white paper, released this May, called for a greater role for China’s navy. The PLA called for an end to “the traditional mentality that land outweighs sea” – a change that could face opposition from army officers used to enjoying more prestige than their naval and air force counterparts.
Former Chinese military officer Xu Guangyu told the Los Angeles Times that the troop reduction could help pave the way for a rebalancing in China’s military, allowing for China’s air force and navy to be proportionately larger parts of the overall PLA.
As the troop reduction progresses from rhetoric to reality over the next two years, keep an eye out for the reforms and restructurings that will redefine the new, leaner PLA.