President Xi Jinping announced a major overhaul of China’s military to make the world’s largest army more combat ready and better equipped to project force beyond the country’s borders.
Under the reorganization, all branches of the armed forces would come under a joint military command, Xi told a meeting of military officials in Beijing Thursday, the official Xinhua News Agency reported. Bloomberg in September reported details of the plan, which may also seek to consolidate the country’s seven military regions to as few as four.
The plan also seeks to tighten the Communist Party’s grip over the 2.3-million-member military, with Xi insisting the People’s Liberation Army maintain "correct political direction” and stressing "the Communist Party of China has absolute leadership of the armed forces," Xinhua reported.
Under Xi, China has been more assertive over territorial claims in the East China Sea and South China Sea, raising tensions with neighbors such as Japan and the Philippines, as well as the U.S. Xi’s policy marks a shift from China’s previous approach of keeping a low profile and not attracting attention on the world stage, a philosophy laid out by former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.
“Under the leadership of the party, the army has gone from small to large, from weak to strong and from victory to victory," Xi told military leaders, according to Xinhua. “The reason why the military has stayed vigorous is that it has kept pace with the times and never ceased reforming itself. Now, as the country progresses from a large country to a large and powerful one, defense and military development stands at a new and historic starting line.”
Xi, who became chairman of the Central Military Commission upon taking power in 2012, is personally overseeing the overhaul. He made a public display of his commitment to the reforms when he announced that the People’s Liberation Army would shed 300,000 troops at a September military parade in Beijing to mark the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II.
A military parade at Tiananmen Square on Sept. 3 Photographer: ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images.
"This is the biggest military overhaul since the 1950s," said Yue Gang, a retired colonel in the PLA’s General Staff Department. "The reform shakes the very foundations of China’s Soviet Union-style military system and transferring to a U.S. style joint command structure will transform China’s PLA into a specialized armed force that could pack more of a punch in the world."
The country’s navy has been the most visible demonstration of the modernization drive, with advanced Chinese warships participating in anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden and extracting nationals from conflict zones in Libya and Yemen. On Thursday, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed that China was in talks with Djibouti about building logistical facilities to help resupply military vessels operating off the East African coast.
The military has been a prime target of Xi’s anti-corruption campaign as the party chief consolidates power over the PLA. Xi has expelled two former CMC vice-chairman, as well as dozens of generals accused of everything from embezzling public funds to selling ranks. Xi said the PLA would build a new disciplinary structure and a new legal and political committee to make sure the army is under the rule of law.
"The reform enhanced the power of the Central Military Commission and its chairman," Yue said. "This is also a lesson learned from last generation of military leaders, as the former CMC chairman had little real power over the armed forces."
The PLA’s last major overhaul -- carried out under Deng Xiaoping in 1985 -- reduced the number of military regions to seven from 11 and resulted in the dismissal of some 1 million soldiers. In its annual report to the U.S. Congress in May, the Pentagon said creating joint-command entities “would be the most significant changes to the PLA’s command organization since 1949.”