In perhaps the largest military reforms being executed in many decades of recorded history of China’s military modernisation, three new military branches were created on 1 January 2016. China’s President Xi Jinping, also the Chairman of the most powerful military body, Central Military Commission, founded and conferred military flags to the three newly constituted wings, namely, General Command of the PLA Army, Rocket Force and Strategic Support Force. Xi simultaneously named the commanders and respective political commissars for all three branches.
The special force for space and cyber wars (PLA Strategic Support Force) is expected to take charge of a wide range of support functions, including intelligence, technical reconnaissance, electronic warfare and logistics. By establishing an upgraded missile force (PLA Rocket Force) the Chairman of the CMC has ensured a return of the Second Artillery Corps to its core function, that of providing strategic pre-eminence to China’s nuclear and missile arsenal. This is mainly because, since long, the Second Artillery Corps had been functioning as a military branch. The Rocket Force will continue to serve as the core strategic deterrence power, by means of reinforcing medium- and long-range precision strike capabilities, technological advancements and enhanced command and control.
In China’s revamped robust approach and policy, proponents of coercive nuclear and limited war-fighting strategies could find encouragement.
Although China’s Ministry of National Defence underlined that instituting the Rocket Force does not mean a major change in China’s overall nuclear policy, the continuing ambiguity that Beijing maintains in the application of its No-First-Use nuclear policy does not rule out the possibility of coercive military options completely. Besides deterrence, the Rocket Force is expected to focus more on nuclear counter-attack capabilities, intensifying construction of medium- and long-range precision strike power, and reinforce strategic checks and balances.
Upgrading the departments and staff of the General Command of the Army appears essential for downsizing and ensuring greater interoperability for joint operations now with unification of the land forces with other services. Xi Jinping has been stressing that the PLA Army should optimise its power structure and troop formation amidst transformation from regional defence to full-spectrum combat.
This needs to be read in reference to Xi’s announcement in September 2015, wherein he stated that China would cut its troops by 300,000, with non-combatant agencies and their personnel constituting the core of these cuts.
The growth and reform of China’s military arm in terms of strength and scope is noteworthy and as referred to by Xi Jinping, a “breakthrough” in the overhaul that primarily suggests a shift away from an outright army-centric system towards a joint command, with by and large, equal representation from the three services.
Leading editorials and opinion pieces in mainstream Chinese state-controlled media have highlighted that military reforms have been brought in wake of the “constantly changing international situation” that directly impacts upon the tasks of the Chinese army to secure the nation’s national interests.
The PLA, apparently, is said to be “adjusting to keep up with the pace of China’s rise”.
Interestingly, experts and analysts in China are arguing that the mission of China’s armed forces stretches beyond the nation’s maritime and land territories. This clearly brings out the dichotomy in China’s interpretation and application of power, both militarily and politically.
As much as China bawls for what it describes as “peaceful rise/development”, coupled with incessant banality that Beijing shall “never seek hegemony” — the constant attempts to create fresh status quo in almost all its existing territorial disputes in the East China Sea, South China Sea and those in land boundary, suggest otherwise.
The message that Xi Jinping has conveyed by virtue of these reforms is clear: the Party, through the Central Military Commission, is firmly in control, and, in fact, has further tightened its grip over the PLA. According to the guideline released by the CMC, a new structure will be established in which the CMC will take charge of the overall administration of the PLA, the People’s Armed Police, the militia and reserve forces.
Most of these reforms are likely to begin yielding results by 2020. What is most critical in here is the timing, with 2021 establishing 100 years since founding of the Chinese Communist Party and 2049 ushering in 100 years of the People’s Republic of China coming into existence as a nation-state. Realisation of these twin bicentennial goals remains the nucleus of Xi Jinping’s “China Dream”, most significantly including the vital goal of national rejuvenation (read reunification).