US Combatant Commands With Chinese Flare: The PLA’s New Joint Command Structure

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US Combatant Commands With Chinese Flare: The PLA’s New Joint Command Structure

A China specialist and a military strategist discuss The PLA’s emerging command structure.

US Combatant Commands With Chinese Flare: The PLA’s New Joint Command Structure
Credit: US Marine Corps

China’s nascent joint military command construct is a marked departure from its previous form and appears to have many of the trappings of the U.S. geographic combatant command (CCMD or formerly COCOM) structure. But are they true doppelgängers? The Diplomat published a description of latest Chinese reforms last year. Even as the reforms complete their second year, however, we are only beginning to see how they operate in practice. Can we call them an American-inspired combatant command with Chinese characteristics? Or is this inappropriate mirror imaging? In the conversation below, two military writers, strategist Wilson VornDick and China specialist Ben Lowsen, discuss these questions.

Wilson: The Trump Administration released its latest revision of the Unified Command Plan, one of many iterations since the command structure was introduced by the Truman Administration in 1947.  As the new plan includes the upgrade of U.S. Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM) to the status of a functional, 4-star combatant command (COCOM), it is worth considering in what ways the Chinese Command structure, reformed in 2016, mirrors the American COCOM structure.  Indeed, both seek to ensure military and political power is more centralized and responsive.  However, while America’s global plan has been in effect for over seven decades, overseen by its geographic combatant commands, it is unclear how and to what extent China’s formal military command and control structure will manifest itself outside the confines of the Middle Kingdom.  This is especially important as China expands its military reach across the globe with military interests in the South China Sea, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, the Maldives, and Djibouti.  Are both nations command structures mirror images or is China’s new structure an American-inspired combatant command with Chinese characteristics?

Ben: As for your comparison of command structures, I think it is an instructive one. China pays very close attention to developments in U.S. security, to the point that at times it can feel like they are copying our homework. The development of the PLAAF J-10, the PLA Army switching to a brigade-based structure, and PLAN development of carrier groups – all these things have direct U.S. counterparts. We often speak of Beijing’s asymmetric challenge and PLA watchers commonly warn us to avoid mirror imaging assumptions about ourselves onto the PLA – and to be sure these are important points to consider – but in the case of China’s force development (called military building or jianjun/建军in Chinese), we should not close our eyes to the fact of Chinese borrowing.

Regarding China’s growing global reach, its involvement in developing countries may have won it resources and made friends of certain local leaders, but it remains to be seen whether its manner of interaction is sustainable. I suspect there are a number of reputational bills coming due, for example in Ghana, although it is ultimately up to the people of each country how much they will put up with.

Wilson: These are salient observations. From a command and control perspective, it appears China has now aligned its forces to provide more integrated operational and functional support with a focus on logistics, specialized support forces, and strategic deterrence and response forces that line up closely with three of America’s own functional combatant commands: U.S. Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM), USCYBERCOM, and U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) respectively.

Ben: The reformed PLA command structure bears a striking resemblance to the U.S. post-Goldwater-Nichols force. Of course, some allowances were needed to account for the PLA being constituted under the authority of the Central Military Commission (CMC, itself a committee of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party) instead of under the Ministry of National Defense. But within the limits of a ‘Party’ Army, the PLA has made significant progress in establishing what may one day be a truly joint force.  Here are three to consider:

First, the formerly “independent kingdoms” of manning, training, and equipping functions have been brought squarely under the control of China’s national command authority, the CMC, with the new Joint Staff Department at the head of an enlarged pack of what are essentially smaller bureaus.

Second, the PLA has established new service and functional headquarters beneath the CMC departments: designated the PLA Army for its ground forces, transformed the Second Artillery into the PLA Rocket Force, stood-up a cyber and space command with the PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF), and formed a Joint Logistics Support Force, the junior partner among the functional services. I think we need more information about PLSSF, though. It is a new and apparently quite extensive organization and I’m not sure a direct comparison with USCYBERCOM covers enough ground.

Third, the CMC has reformed its regional service commands from the seven former Military Regions and three Fleets into five joint Theater Commands (TCs) that control their respective PLAA, PLAAF, and PLAN regional service commands. This structure closely mirrors the American COCOM system, including the inherent friction over control between the newly formed TC’s and the services.

There is, however, one notable difference between the American and Chinese command construct.  The three Chinese fleets have themselves become the Navy theater service command component, whereas the U.S. Navy’s numbered fleets, which are subordinate to a Joint Force Maritime Component Commander, are divided up among the various geographical COCOMs, such as the 5th Fleet under USCENTCOM.

Wilson: So, are these TCs regional-specific COCOMs or are they more akin to an American sub-unified command, such as America’s Alaskan Command or Joint Force Quarters National Capital Region? It would seem that these China’s TCs are essentially part of a larger, latticed COCOM-like structure.  Wouldn’t it better serve the PLA and Party leadership to advance the concept the next step and consolidate those five regional commands into one, unified command – essentially mirroring America’s U.S. Northern Command?  That way it could springboard the PLA’s command and control structure into a more global or regional construct like America’s six geographic combatant commands.  This would enable China to better administer and incorporate its increasing amount of farther-flung interests.  Besides, China already administers its multiple satellite ground stations based in Argentina and Sweden through its Institute of Remote Sensing and Digital Earth, affiliated with its civilian Chinese Academy of Sciences.  In fact, the stand-up of the new Overseas Operations Office under the CMC which administers Djibouti may portend just such a move.  In fact, PLA-Navy Senior Captain Liang Yang (the rank equivalent of a Rear Admiral Lower Half in the U.S. Navy) is the first base commander there.  It would appear the CMC is following a maritime-centric leadership approach in-line with its 2015 Military Strategy with the designation Yang as commander of its first overseas base.  Yang’s rank and placement is commensurate with other American naval base commanders at Guantanamo Bay and nearby Camp Lemonier in Djibouti.  More importantly, it will be interesting to see to what degree Yang’s role in Djibouti portends his future career trajectory.

Ben: Beijing’s domestic security concerns are tantamount.  As such, Beijing sees its domestic regional challenges as being intimately linked to – and if they’re being open and honest caused by – the abutting regions. These neighboring areas can be extensive indeed. In the case of China’s western province of Xinjiang, we can see how the label of terrorism extends out from domestic cases to include much of Western Asia. The foreign-domestic connection is debatable, but at least you can see the point. In fact, Beijing sees Tibet in much the same light, however this connection is a great deal more difficult for Westerners to grasp. The original threat on the North Korean border was a U.S. invasion, although there is increasing debate about a threat from Pyongyang destabilizing the Peninsula. Looking at the South China Sea, if we take literally China’s excessive claims and convince ourselves that their validity should be obvious to all, then perhaps we can understand the “threat” posed by honest disagreement. Taiwan is intimately linked to the U.S. and its Asian security structure, in particular Japan.  If anything, the 2016 reforms have only brought these security perceptions into sharper relief by creating a single command for each one. Until this linkage of internal and external security perceptions is altered, it will be hard for Beijing to adopt a coherent, unitary security strategy.

However, it may be that larger states in times of crisis might actually require a unitary command body to break the power of the policy schools and make the difficult choices needed to maintain the overall system. The US, in its resource-constrained situation, might benefit from such a structure, whether that be a new command or simply a centralization of existing authority. China has in a sense done so already, restraining the power of military procurement and promotion, if not policy.

Wilson:  Perhaps. But as similar as China’s new command and control structure is to America’s, they are not doppelgängers.  One important distinction is with regards to civil-military relations: posse comitatus under American law.  While there are a few exceptions, military personnel are forbidden from participating in law enforcement activities.  This is not the case in China. China has eagerly used its military for disaster relief efforts and law enforcement, such as the 2008 Chengdu earthquake response and 2009 riots in Urumqi.  But there are two noteworthy similarities that Ben mentions.  First, whereas the Chinese structure is subdivided into 5 regionally-based commands, USNORTHCOM’s command structure has both geographically focused sub-commands, such as the aforementioned Alaskan Command and Joint Force Quarters National Capital Region, and service-centric commands, such as U.S. Fleet Forces Command and U.S. Army North.  Second, both Chinese and American support or functional commands are based within their respective national territories, for example the Rocket Force in Qinghe near Beijing and USSTRATCOM in Omaha, Nebraska or USTRANSCOM in St. Louis, Missouri.  Maybe both countries are more alike than they seem.  The Chinese have a term for things that are almost similar, chabuduo (差不多) right?

Ben: You may have hit the nail on the head, except that chabuduo also has another connotation: short of the mark. Chinese author Hu Shih wrote an essay called “Mr. Chabuduo” bemoaning his countrymen’s indifferent, helpless attitude toward important things. In this case, we’re looking at a copy of our work, but up till now it’s chabuduo at best.

Ben Lowsen is an analyst at the Navy’s Asia-Pacific Advisory Group and was previously an Army Foreign Area Officer stationed in Beijing. Wilson VornDick is a Commander in the Navy Reserve and recently served at U.S. European Command and the Joint Staff at the Pentagon. These are their personal views and are not associated with a U.S. government or U.S. Navy policy.