Magazine | Security | East Asia

China’s Never-Ending Military Reforms

The implications of the recent large-scale restructuring of the PLA will take time to fully unfold.

China’s Never-Ending Military Reforms
Credit: Damir Sagolj, Reuters

On November 26, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would undergo a fundamental restructuring that goes well beyond the well-publicized cuts of 300,000 personnel announced at the World War II victory parade in September. The restructuring has been long a time coming as the contradictions between the PLA’s previous organizational structure established in the 1950s and the requirements of “winning informatized local wars” (the goal of China’s latest military strategy) sharpened. Despite known organizational hindrances to the operations the PLA would like to execute, the timing of the reform was not predictable. The PLA’s primary vested interest group, the ground forces, probably stood in the way of these kind of reforms for much of the past two decades. Meanwhile, contingent developments beyond the PLA helped reduce the importance of the ground forces. The significance of the reform cannot be understated as nearly every significant department was affected in some way, but the direct implications for key issues in warfighting like intelligence and jointness will be difficult to gauge for the foreseeable future.

Wide-Ranging, Comprehensive Reform

Virtually no part of the PLA is going untouched, and the scope of the reorganization befits the challenges the Chinese military identified under the rubric of the “Two Incompatibles” (liang ge buxiang shiying). The “Two Incompatibles” date to a Central Military Commission (CMC) judgment about shortcomings in PLA capabilities: that the PLA could not meet the needs of “New Historic Missions” and that the PLA was incapable of “fighting and winning wars under informatized conditions.” The judgment subsequently became a touchstone for how the PLA talked about its shortcomings and where it needed to change.