By Lauren Dickey
China continued to make waves in the South China Sea last week with its deployment of surface-to-air missile launchers and a radar system on the contested Woody Island. While this development undoubtedly challenges both the claims of littoral states and the U.S. regional presence, China’s actions should be thought of as part of a much broader agenda aimed at modernizing the capabilities and operations of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Beyond China’s posturing lies an important process of structural and organizational reforms that will shape the war-fighting capabilities of the PLA for the decade ahead. While a lot remains unknown, President Xi Jinping’s planned comprehensive reforms of the PLA appear to target the development of a leaner, stronger Chinese fighting force, an enhanced power projection capability, and an even greater focus on deterring threats along the periphery.
Xi’s planned reforms are another iteration of similar cycles of military reforms China has experienced since its founding in 1949, each cycle with roughly a fifteen-year lifespan. Onlookers have long called for reorganization but were largely uncertain as to when such changes would occur, particularly given that the last major reform to the PLA took place at the turn of the millennium when the Maoist People’s War doctrine was exchanged in favor of a localized high-tech war strategic paradigm. In late 2013, Xi began his own cycle of reforms with initial moves to optimize the PLA structure, improve the balance between China’s armed forces, and reduce the number of non-combat personnel. More importantly, a foundation for a Western-style command and control network emerged: Xi created a joint operations command authority under the Central Military Commission (CMC) and a theater joint operational command system.
The more robust announcements, however, accompanied the September 2015 military parade. From the rostrum at Tiananmen Square, Xi announced a reduction of PLA active duty forces to 2 million by the end of 2017. Subsequent coverage has since highlighted that the personnel cuts focus on troops with outdated armaments, non-combat personnel, and administrative staff. Just a few months later, last November, Xi announced that the seven existing military area commands would be regrouped into five new battle zone commands. Marking significant progress in setting up a joint battle command system, we now know that the reforms will see the PLA operating separately from eastern, western, southern, northern, and central theater commands, avoiding opacity and ineffective command systems that plagued the old seven zone structure.
The first few months of 2016 have continued Xi’s historic steps in reforming the PLA. A PLA Ground Forces (PLAGF), Rocket Force (PLARF), and Strategic Support Forces (SSF) have been inaugurated. The creation of the PLAGF reflects a bureaucratic shake-up; prior to Xi’s reforms, the general departments that ran the PLA also led the ground forces, creating an inherent bias toward the army. Now, in what can be thought of as a demotion of sorts, the PLAGF will act as their own service, entirely separate from the general departments.
By contrast, the creation of the PLA Rocket Force is a huge promotion for the former Second Artillery Corps, the nuclear and conventional missile force of the Chinese military. Now equal to other branches of the armed services, an increased role for the PLARF in the Chinese military establishment writ large signals an intent to further develop Chinese medium- and long-range missile capabilities, a not-so-subtle signal aimed at perceived threats from the United States. It is a necessary upgrade to China’s deterrent capabilities and represents the prominence the military will continue to give to anti-access area denial (A2/AD) strategy. Boosting the PLARF’s role also means that these troops get both their own uniforms and their own patriotic, missile-laden music video, not to mention the likely responsibility for the new missile outpost on Woody Island.
While still shrouded in secrecy, semi-official sources suggest that the SSF will fuse space, cyber, and electronic warfare forces into one cohesive unit. Song Zhongping, a Chinese military theorist, has suggested that the PLA will use the SSF to meet the challenges of both traditional and modern, high-tech warfare by combining hacking, satellite reconnaissance and navigation, and attacks targeting communication channels. Acting as a strategic deterrent in the cyber, space, and nuclear realms, the SSF is intended to strike at one of the most vulnerable points of modern militaries: communication networks. An ability to simultaneously deny access to space, cyber, and the electromagnetic spectrum would pose a formidable and credible deterrent threat not even Washington may be ready to overcome.
Most importantly, the reorganization requires all branches—new and old—of the Chinese armed forces to come under a joint military command. As a retired Chinese colonel opined, the transition to a U.S.-style joint command structure will transform the PLA into a specialized, modern armed force punching above its weight around the world. The CMC, headed by Xi, will slim down to fifteen functional departments, commissions and offices. Even under a leaner joint command structure, however, let’s not forget that the Chinese military is ultimately tasked with serving the Communist Party of China, rather than the Chinese people. As such, another important element of the reforms has been for Xi to reassert the CCP’s grip over the troops, insisting that troops and military media outlets alike must continue to reaffirm the Party’s legitimacy to rule.
To be certain, a lot remains unknown about the breadth and depth of Xi’s planned reforms for the Chinese military. His reforms have not yet addressed other persistent problems in the PLA, including the professionalization of the troops and the reorganization of the general departments. What is certain, however, is Beijing’s steadfast commitment to the development of a modern fighting force. Organizational restructuring complements ongoing technological developments, and begins to fill crucial gaps in Chinese fighting capabilities. Regardless of the capability and operational gaps that may remain, the PLA’s current reforms are but the start of a process that will significantly alter strategic thinking and operational conduct of the militaries in East Asia.
Lauren Dickey is a PhD candidate in War Studies at King’s College London and the National University of Singapore, where she focuses on relations between mainland China and Taiwan. She is also a member of the Pacific Forum Young Leaders program at CSIS.