02 September 2015

Sweeping Change in China’s Military: Xi’s PLA Restructuring

Andrew S. Erickson, “Sweeping Change in China’s Military: Xi’s PLA Restructuring,” China Real Time Report (中国实时报), Wall Street Journal, 2 September 2015.

Chinese President Xi Jinping needs some positive achievements, immediately. The year began with his striking consolidation of leadership at home and abroad but has become mired in problems and widely-perceived blundering on economic issues. This only strengthens incentive to commemorate the sensitive 70th anniversary of Chinese victory in World War II with history’s most exciting Beijing military parade. Glimpses of new missiles and other armaments will rightly attract widespread attention — so don’t miss the show.

Long after the soldiers and crowds disperse, however, China stands to experience far more lasting impact from a move that may be announced following the pomp and circumstance: major military reforms. Propelled by Xi’s vigorous efforts to realize his dream of a strong country with a strong military, reform plans long underway are finally surfacing. Now reportedly afoot: a sweeping transformation of China’s military, with tremendous implications for its strategy and operations. The parade “will provide Xi a good opportunity to announce his ambitious plans on how to transform the PLA into a real modern army capable of winning wars,” a leading Chinese naval analyst told the South China Morning Post.

A few English-language media sources are speculating about the reforms’ nature. These articles recognize that important ripples of change are underway. But they miss the decision-making and powerful undercurrents beneath these outward changes. As usual, greater understanding is already available in Chinese. Most important: a commentary in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Daily. Authored by an expert from the Academy of Military Science, China’s premier military academic research institution, it emphasizes Xi’s vision and guidance and urges cadres to fall in line. “Because substantive reform will soon unfold,” it stresses, “leaders should particularly strengthen their study of Chairman Xi’s important expositions on deepening defense and military reform.” This is how you grab Chinese officials’ attention.

To realize its “strong military dream,” China must exploit a rare window of opportunity to seize the strategic high ground in the ocean depths, outer and cyber space, the poles and other emerging areas, the article paraphrases Xi as saying. This requires overcoming entrenched obstacles to achieving major reforms, most importantly modernizing China’s form of military organization. To this end, Xi is credited with stressing four main points: adjust China’s military leadership and command system, optimize structure and function, reform policies and systems, and promote deeper civil-military integration.

While specifics remain uncertain, Xi’s military reforms are hardly mysterious: they build on an established foundation. To analyze further what they might mean in practice, I spoke with Naval War College Professor Nan Li, an expert on Chinese civil-military relations.

Through his anti-corruption campaign, Xi has “shown ability to impose his will on the PLA”—a skill that his predecessor Hu Jintao lacked utterly and that Jiang Zemin wielded inconsistently, Li emphasizes. Xi has a clear, ambitious vision for PLA reform and is willing to take temporarily unpopular steps to implement it—such as removing even the highest-level officers he perceives as undisciplined and obstacles to reform. The next step may be a major one: downsizing the ground forces further and making them a subordinate service with their own “PLA Army” headquarters, while expanding the Navy and Air Force.

The biggest winner? The PLA Navy (PLAN), Li argues. It will benefit as leadership, command systems, and force structure are apportioned more evenly among the services to support integrated joint operations. The goal of this is to be able, if necessary, to prevail in nearby maritime crises and fight and win “local war under informatized conditions.” These are the types of high-end contingencies currently of greatest concern to China’s leadership because it judges them, respectively, most likely to erupt, and most likely to threaten vital national interests.

This structural transformation is designed to facilitate a key requirement of fighting and winning modern wars: integrating the “isolated information islands” that PLA strategists call the currently-balkanized components of China’s armed services. In other words, Xi wants his military to be able to engage in something akin to the networked warfare that U.S. joint forces employ so effectively in a wide range of contingencies today.

China’s maritime strategy and its operationalization are being rethought with this concept in mind. To Li, this means increasing emphasis on developing ability to engage in high-intensity combat in both the “Near Seas” (Yellow, East, and South China Seas; the current top priority) and, gradually, the Far Seas (the waters well beyond).

Rather than speculating about details that can’t yet be corroborated, we should ask: What to look for? How will we know if Xi’s bold vision succeeds or fails?

“Don’t just scrutinize hardware,” Li stresses: “Focus on the PLA’s evolving organizational form.” Accordingly, he offers metrics for evaluating the transitions Xi envisions, including the extent to which:

1. The ground forces are downsized and acquire their own headquarters;

2. Non-ground-force (e.g., PLAN) officers come to be represented in leadership of headquarters in reconfigured Military Regions;

3. Aircraft carrier groups are developed and integrated into China’s overall force structure.

So as you watch China’s “V-Day” parade, remember that there’s a lot more happening behind the pageantry—with tremendous stakes. With China’s economic growth rate increasingly uncertain, Xi can’t afford to let the PLA component of his “China Dream” slump. Not only would he fail to realize China’s “military dream,” Li emphasizes, he would pay a major “credibility cost.”


China Military Parade—3 September 2015—Your Complete Hardware & Logistics Guide (Updated Version)


Parade starts at 1000 on 3 September 2015 China time, lasts for about 70 minutes

  • Washington, DC/U.S. Eastern Central Time:  2 Sep at 2200
  • Los Angeles, California/Pacific Time:  2 September at 1900
  • Honolulu, Hawaii: 2 September at 1600

Will be broadcast on CCTV-1 (Chinese).

Further details: New York Times SinoSphere Blog: “Beijing’s World War II Military Parade: What to Expect