The Chinese state media recently reported that Beijing, in a major strategic shift, has significantly boosted its navy, air force and new strategic units. On the other hand, China has downsized its land-based army as part of a strategic shift designed to transform the People’s Liberation Army into a comprehensive modern force, Xinhua reported.
In a report highlighting the “transformational changes” made by the PLA, China’s official news agency said: “This new data is unprecedented in the history of the PLA – the army now accounts for less than 50 per cent of the total number of PLA troops; almost half of our non-combatant units have been made redundant, and the number of officers in the PLA has been reduced by 30 per cent.”
The statement indicated that the four other branches of the PLA – the navy, air force, rocket force and strategic support force, which is responsible for areas such as cyberwarfare – now together make up more than half of the Chinese military, overtaking the army, which has traditionally been the dominant unit of the PLA.
Shanghai-based military analyst Ni Lexiong said the overhaul marked a significant strategic shift from having a homeland-based defensive force to one with the capacity to allow Beijing to flex its muscles beyond its national borders and to protect its interests overseas.
Ni also said it also means that branches such as the navy, air force and missile units can now play a bigger roles in the event of conflict by fighting enemy forces beyond China’s borders.
He explained that modern warfare puts a greater emphasis on superiority in areas such as the air, space and cyberspace – further reducing the importance of the ground force.
“The Chinese military used to … operate following the model established in the Second World War.
“It had to be reformed and optimised to meet the pressing needs of the changing times and this is the purpose of the overhaul,” said Ni.
“In the old set-up, the PLA had too many officers. In this overhaul, all these officers must find new positions and adapt or they will be made redundant,” he added.
The process of downsizing was first announced by President Xi Jinping in 2015 with a pledge to reduce the number of personnel by 300,000. Currently, China has 2 million active servicemen and women, making the PLA the largest armed force in the world.
The Chinese military currently has five independent branches, including the army, navy, air force, rocket force – the strategic and tactical missile operator – and strategic support force, which is in charge of cyber, space, and electronic warfare.
The last two were established three years ago as Xi stepped up efforts to modernise the military.
The PLA Army, founded in 1927 as the Red Army of China, was the key to the Chinese Communist Party’s victory in the civil war in 1949 and maintained its dominance within the military throughout 10 major overhauls between 1950 and 2005.
The PLA had no navy or air force until 1949 and the PLA Rocket Force, first known as “the Second Artillery Corps”, was founded in 1966.
In 2013, the PLA had a total of 2.3 million servicemen, with only 235,000 in the Navy and 398,000 in the Air Force, according to a 2013 defence white paper.
Original Report by Liu Zhen for South China Morning Post