China’s Military Reform: The Quest for “Jointness” in Action
Photo Credit: Reuters
By Amrita Jash

China’s Military Reform: The Quest for “Jointness” in Action

Oct. 25, 2018  |     |  0 comments


On February 1, 2016, Chinese armed forces transitioned from seven military regions (MRs)[1] to five theater commands (战区).[2] This strategic move aims at building a joint battle system and strengthening joint command ensuring the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA’s) capability of “fighting and winning battles and effectively safeguarding China’s national security.” In particular, the primary focus of the theater commands lies in “combat,” and Chinese President Xi Jinping has categorically stated that the joint battle command system needs to be “absolutely loyal, resourceful in fighting, efficient in commanding and courageous and capable of winning wars.” Such military primacy lies in enhancing “the training of joint operations and command in order to win the initiative in future wars.” Here, the keyword is “jointness,” which according to US military doctrine implies a “cross-Service combination wherein the capability of the joint force is understood to be synergistic, with the sum greater than its parts (the capability of individual components).” The applicability lies in a theater command which acts as the organizational structure that coordinates and controls the jointness of all military assets in a theater of war. In this perspective, the query lies in understanding China’s drive towards attaining jointness.


Given the incremental changes made to its Soviet-based military model, China’s creation of the theater commands has been the largest reform in Chinese military since 1950. The past reforms were mainly witnessed in terms of revision of the MR system in 1985, creation of new general departments in 1998, and the addition of an independent branch, the Second Artillery Force in 1966. However, the PLA largely remained centered on the ground forces. This one-way Chinese approach called for a significant weakness in terms of “an outdated command and control (C2) structure in which the services, rather than theater commanders, possessed operational authority during peacetime.”


With the restructuring, China has streamlined the command structure with the primary aim to prevent bottlenecks in communication — a result of the Ground Forces’ dominance in the C2 process. To fill this gap, it remains indisputable that China’s newly formed theater command framework has significantly drawn from the US military model based on the “Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986” — in which authority flows from the President and Secretary of Defense to the commanders of the regional unified combatant commands, who lead joint forces within their respective theaters, while Service chiefs are responsible to “organize, train, and equip” troops. Similarly, China’s newfound C2 works under a three-tier command system of Central Military Commission (CMC)–Theater Commands–Troops, thereby segregating the operational and administrative chains of command. In comparison to the US model, the difference is that China’s theater commands are limited to China’s own land boundary; second, the CMC is the over-arching authority over the PLA; and finally, the PLA’s primary responsibility lies in defending the rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). These differences therefore make the Chinese case to be rightly described as “Goldwater-Nichols with Chinese characteristics.”


The Chinese military force has been dominantly a “green” army that is “organized, trained and manned to conduct ground combat missions, mainly focused on repelling a land invasion and ensuring domestic stability.” However, taking a departure from the old framework, the 2015 Defense White Paper expounded the change in the Chinese military agenda, as, unlike the past, as noted: the PLA Army “will continue to reorient from theater defense to trans-theater mobility”; the PLA Navy “will gradually shift its focus from ‘offshore waters defense’ to the combination of ‘offshore waters defense’ and ‘open seas protection’”; and the PLA Air Force “will endeavor to shift its focus from territorial air defense to both defense and offense.” What called for China to turn towards “jointness”?



This restructuring towards jointness further clarifies China’s significant departure from Deng Xiaoping’s dictum of “keeping a low profile.” The theater commands exemplify China’s confidence and military preparedness towards fighting future wars.



This can be explained in a three-fold framework: First, this restructuring is primarily premised on China’s assessment of modern warfare. The old outlook of mass mobilization and preparation for an all-out war has been replaced by the need to strive for joint military operations across land, sea, air, cyberspace and outer space, and the application of advanced technology, especially information technology. China’s newfound strategic outlook is based on its assessment of the techniques witnessed in cases such as Operation Desert Storm, NATO operations in the Balkans, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Likewise, China’s military strategy has evolved from “winning local wars in conditions of modern technology, particularly high technology” in 1993 to that of “winning local wars under conditions of informationization” in 2004 to that of “winning informationized local wars” in 2015. This therefore necessitates the PLA to carry out joint operations on a modern high-tech battlefield.


Second, China’s such a move is driven by its threat calculations in which the imminent security challenges as posited in the 2015 White Paper are the US “re-balancing strategy” and “its military presence and military alliances” in Asia; Japan’s increasing militarist posture; tensions in the South China Sea; and most importantly, China’s core security concerns over “Taiwan independence,” “East Turkestan independence” and “Tibet independence.” As Xi describes, China’s security environment is faced with “Three Trends” and “Three Major Dangers.” The “Three Trends” exemplify the external environment, the international situation that is constantly changing, and new opportunities and challenges that are continually emerging, while the “Three Major Dangers” are that of China being “invaded, toppled and separated.” Given these contingencies, the force restructuring further exemplifies China’s determination in safeguarding China’s national sovereignty, security and development interests.


Third, the restructuring is driven by the need to preserve the Party system, which is faced with two grave challenges — the lack of ideology and the existence of corruption. In order to overcome these issues, the CMC issued an official statement: “Opinion on deepening the Reform on national defense and the Armed Forces” which significantly emphasized the PLA’s adherence to the “guiding ideology” of the Party. The agenda behind the restructuring lies in the CMC’s attempt to “consolidate and develop the PLA specifically high level of political dominance, to achieve the objective of a strong army, providing protection to the system (制度, zhidu) and the institution (体制, tizhi, i.e., the Party).”


Given these three factors, Xi’s four-point agenda for military reform called for adjusting China’s military leadership and command system, optimizing structure and function, reforming policies and systems, and promoting deeper civil-military integration.[3] Adhering to the “jointness” principle, China’s theater commands are tasked to function in a four-fold manner, that is: command the joint operations in an highly effective way; enhance their command capabilities; strengthen joint command, joint operations and joint support within the theater commands; and organize troops to complete routine combat-readiness and military operations. With such expertise, the theater commands seek to carry out missions such as responding to security threats in their strategic directions, maintaining peace, deterring wars and winning battles, and playing significant roles in safeguarding the overall situation concerning the national security strategy and the military strategy.


This restructuring towards jointness further clarifies China’s significant departure from Deng Xiaoping’s dictum of “keeping a low profile.” The theater commands exemplify China’s confidence and military preparedness towards fighting future wars. Most importantly, it suggests the strengthening and increasing role of the PLA in China’s foreign policy and making the PLA a more joint and informationized force.



[1] The seven MRs as listed in the order of protocol were: Shenyang, Beijing, Jinan, Nanjing, Guangzhou, Chengdu, and Lanzhou.


[2] The five theater commands are: Eastern Theater Command–Nanjing, Southern Theater Command–Guangzhou, Western Theater Command–Chengdu, Northern Theater Command–Shenyang, and Central Theater Command–Beijing.


[3] Guoli Liu, China’s Foreign Policy in a Changing World, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017, pp. 59.



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