China’s Military Reform: In Search of Centrality and Joint Capability
By Bojian Liu

China’s Military Reform: In Search of Centrality and Joint Capability

Jun. 02, 2016  |     |  0 comments

After waves of anti-corruption campaigns that have put a large number of generals in custody, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the world’s largest military force, has undergone unprecedented restructuring through sweeping organizational reforms under Xi Jinping’s strong leadership. From November 2015 to February 2016, China officially launched the long-expected military overhaul to move the PLA away from its Soviet-style command structures towards an American-style joint operation command of the army, navy, air force, etc.

In fact, as the plan proposed by Xi Jinping on November 2015 states, the breakthrough of proceeding with the restructuring and reform should be basically achieved in 2020. Besides, as illustrated in Figure 1, the germ of the reformed PLA structure vividly demonstrates the principle that Xi raised — “the CMC takes charge of the whole, each theatre command takes charge of battle preparation, and each type of force takes charge of constructing” (“CMC’s views on”, 2016, January 1).

According to an announcement made by the Central Military Commission (CMC) on January 11, 2016, the four general military headquarters — the Staff, Politics, Logistics and Armament departments — were reorganized into 15 new agencies including seven departments (offices), three commissions, and five directly affiliated bodies under the administration of the CMC (see Figure 1 for the range of areas with more detailed categories). While the CMC remains a party-state organ of the highest military control comprising top party and military officials and leaders, the priorities of the four headquarters were slightly adjusted particularly to underscore their services under the party’s leadership.

Most of the new agencies were not created without grounds. Under the direct leadership of the CMC, most of the agencies are either integrated or promoted from existing departments in the PLA, in which many young generals loyal to Xi could hope to take control of key sections. The horizontal way of organization that replaces the previously dendritic one reinforces Xi’s power consolidation and clamps down on long-existing factionalism in the PLA.

Figure 1. Overview of China’s Military Reform

On December 31, 2015, Xi announced the establishment of the PLA ground forces’ general command, the PLA Rocket Force, and the PLA Strategic Support Force (SSF). As Xi said, the three forces demonstrate the PLA’s commitment to speeding up the army’s transformation from regional defensive to the full-spectrum combat type (The PRC Ministry of National Defense, 2016, January 1).

With the three newly named forces, which are all built on existing forces, the PLA now has five military branches in total, all directly led by the CMC via the 15 administrative agencies. Three new commanders were appointed to lead the land forces, the Rocket Force, and SSF as part of the effort to promote talented generals. General Li Zuocheng, commander of the ground forces’ general command, was a decorated hero of the Sino-Vietnamese border war in the early 1980s and an active participant in the disaster relief missions during the devastating Sichuan earthquake of 2008.

Announced on February 1, 2016 as a “breakthrough and a historical step” in setting up a joint battle command system integrating the ground, naval, air, and all other forces, five new theater commands (also called “battle zones” or “war zones”) of the PLA, i.e. the east, south, west, north, and central commands, were inaugurated to replace the seven long-existing military regions.1 Similar to other reforms in the military recently, the five new theater commands were designed to strengthen both the Party’s control of the military and the PLA’s capability in adapting to the new demands of national defense.

As Xi said, “The armed forces should maintain a high degree of conformity with the CPC (Communist Party of China) Central Committee and the CMC, strictly obey political discipline and rules, and carry out their orders and instructions to the letter (“China’s military regrouped”, 2016, February 1)”. According to Defense Ministry spokesperson Yang Yujun, the establishment of the new theatres is based on the functions and structures of the former military area commands they replaced, with improved functions for command and logistics (Ibid.).

Most of the commanders of the new theaters were the leaders of the seven previous military regions. For examples, Lanzhou Military Region Commander Liu Yuejun, 62, takes on the role of head of the eastern command; General Wang Jiaocheng, 64, moves from the Shenyang region to the southern command; Jinan Military Region Commander Zhao Zongqi, 61, becomes head of the western command; and former Beijing Military Region Commander Song Puxuan, 62, becomes head of the northern command (Zhen, 2016). Han Weiguo, the Central Theatre Commander, is the only exception as he was promoted from his previous position as a Deputy Commander of the Beijing Military Region.

To ensure the political stability of the PLA during the transition, generals from the ground forces will still dominate the leadership of the PLA’s new theatre commands. The PLA established a Transitional Work Office to serve veteran cadres and wounded or disabled officers, ensuring a smooth transition between the former and newly established structures (“China’s military regrouped”, 2016, February 1).

The reshuffle has replaced the 4 former headquarters of the CMC with 15 functional sections, transforming the top-down commanding organization from a dendritic to a narrower and more horizontal layout to enhance the leadership of the CMC and its president, Xi Jinping. Corruption cases involving top generals like Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong have shown that the tree-like organizational model could become a seedbed for massive corruption and even put civilian leaders’ authority in the CMC at stake. By placing the 15 major departments under the CMC’s direct control, it has overcome the situation where generals dominate certain sections that were previously too far down the hierarchy for the CMC’s top leaders to supervise. The reorganization enhances intra-PLA supervision and inter-section checks and balances (The PRC Ministry of National Defense, 2016, January 12).

The reform has strengthened both Xi’s and the party’s rein over the PLA, paving the way for a massive personnel reshuffle before the 19th Party Congress scheduled in 2017.

Besides, the organizational reform further ensures the Party’s leadership over the military. Agencies like the CMC Political Work Department, the CMC Discipline Inspection Commission, and the CMC Political and Law Commission have now taken charge of maintaining party discipline in the military. The organizational overhaul could further advance Xi’s anti-corruption campaigns against corrupt senior and middle-ranking military officers. The upgrading and downgrading of some agencies during the process of reorganization could strip some department heads of their power and authority (Chan, 2016), while promoting those who are loyal to Xi and the party. Above all, the reform has strengthened both Xi’s and the party’s rein over the PLA, paving the way for a massive personnel reshuffle before the 19th Party Congress scheduled in 2017.

The military reshuffle aims to advance the PLA’s joint operational capability (also known as integrated joint operations) and consolidate Xi Jinping’s control of the PLA. The lack of joint warfare capabilities in dealing with the Taiwan Strait crisis in 1996 led the White Paper on China’s National Defense in 2010 to discuss, for the first time, the foundation of an integrated joint operations capability as part of its long-term, three-stage military modernization effort (The PRC Ministry of National Defense, 2011, March 31). The White Paper proposed that the five new theater commands of the PLA focus on joint command of the ground, naval, air, and all other forces, which are equally represented. The Army General Command serves as a centralized command hub leading each theater command and coordinating joint operations among various PLA forces, a long-term goal of China’s military reforms.

Before this reform, the main issue for joint operations was “to establish a high level unified command to coordinate joint combat by the services in different areas and throughout the phases of the operation” (McCauley, 2011). While the CMC Joint Staff Department was obviously established as a commanding hub for carrying out joint operations, the setting up of the SSF is for integrating intelligence and material resources to ensure joint operations success for the PLA.

The reform also intends to facilitate the modernization of weapons systems. The country’s defense spending would focus more on improving R&D, the quality of combat forces, and the efficiency of management within the military. The setting up of the CMC Equipment Development Department and the CMC Science and Technology Commission highlights the significance of facilitating R&D in this wave of military reform.

Another goal of the reform is to accelerate China’s transition towards maritime power. In fact, the ability to operate freely at sea is one of the most important elements of joint and interagency operations, as sea control requires capabilities in all aspects of the maritime domain, including space and cyberspace (O’Rourke, 2010, p. 21). Therefore, the development of joint operations capability will inevitably be accompanied by demands of stronger naval power and vice versa. Although the Chinese navy’s R&D has made tremendous advancements, further progress has been limited largely by incompatible and outdated institutional arrangements in the PLA.

Notably, the aspiration to build a “blue navy” can be traced to the 1980s when Liu Huaqing was in office as the navy’s commander (Li, 2009, pp. 122-123; You & Xu, 1991, p. 139). According to Liu, former CMC vice president, the PLA’s war strategy should shift from allowing the enemy to advance into Chinese territories while the country employs the tactic of “people’s guerrilla war” to confronting and defeating enemies before they enter into coastal waters (Ibid.). As expected, the five new theater commands in this wave of reform will largely overcome the problem of the previous overemphasis on ground forces, and four of them, excluding the West command, have confirmed that they have established naval forces in each theatre. According to the latest information released by the PLA, the naval forces built in each theater actually parallels the existing three fleets, i.e. the North Sea Fleet, the East Sea Fleet and the South Sea Fleet (“Five theatre commands”, 2016, April 4).


1. These seven military regions were Beijing, Shenyang, Nanjing, Jinan, Chengdu, Guangzhou and Lanzhou military regions.


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