China Announces Important Military Reforms Guidelines: Implications – Analysis


By D. S. Rajan*

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has officially revealed guidelines on military reforms ,  which can be considered as definite pointers to the likely shape of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and People’s Armed Police (PAP)  by the set dead line of 2020.

The guidelines have come  through  an  “important” speech delivered by China’s leader Xi Jinping in his officially described capacities of the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the President of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Chairman of the Central Military commission (CMC) and the head of the CMC’s  leading small group on deepening defence and military reforms[1], at the CMC Reform Work Conference (Beijing, November 24-26, 2015) as well as  the subsequent statements on military reforms made by the CMC and senior officials in the PRC.   As revealed officially,  the CMC organized more than 860 seminars and forums prior to the conference to solicit suggestions on military reforms, surveying opinions of nearly 700 PLA units and government departments and more than 900 high-ranking officers. One has to look seriously at the latest guidelines, which though lacking in specifics, constitute the second significant move   in China since the earlier announcement by Xi Jinping on September 3, 2015, of a troop cut by 300,000.

By reading through the guidelines, one can get a broad idea of China’s planned military reforms with 2020 as target year which is as follows:

Stated rationale for Reforms:  “China is progressing from a large country to a large and powerful one; defense and military development stands at a new and historic starting line. Taking into consideration the world’s larger picture as well as profound and complicated changes in the international landscape, we must deepen defense and military reforms with greater wisdom and courage” (Quote from Xi);  “Reforms are for developing a modern military system capable of winning information-age warfare” (Global Times Analyst, November 27,2015);  “ Military reforms  will not change China’s defense policy which  will remain defensive in nature  and that the Chinese armed forces will always be a staunch force to safeguard world peace and regional stability” ( quote from Senior Colonel Yang Yujun of the PRC Defence Ministry);  “The future reform of the military command would be based on the nation’s existing strategy as the missions of the armed forces have expanded from safeguarding national security to more global tasks, such as overseas peacekeeping and escort missions” (quote from  Beijing-based military expert Zhao Xiaozhuo).

Stated Aims of Reforms: “ (i) Achieving a breakthrough in military administrative system and joint combat system; (ii) getting rid of systemic hurdles, develop combat capability and build a powerful national defense and (iii) strengthening the absolute leadership of the Party over the military” (State-run Global Times). On (iii) above, the PLA is to maintain “correct political direction, under a series of designs and arrangements to consolidate the basic principle that the CCP has absolute leadership of the armed forces” (Quote from Xi).

Identified Areas of reform:

(i) Reforms in Military Administration and Command: “A new structure will be established, in which the CMC’s centralized and unified leadership and the CCP Central Committee, take charge of the overall administration of and command over the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Chinese People’s Armed Police; battle zone commands focus on combats; and different military services pursue their own construction” (quote from Xi). “Under the CMC’s leadership, the area commands will focus on engagement, while the PLA army, navy and air force will focus on developing their respective force” (Xinhua). “The reform will establish a three-tier CMC – battle zone commands – troops command system and an administration system that runs from CMC through various services to the troops” (quote from Xi). “The CMC will greatly reduce its departments and personnel and give more power to lower-level authorities. The reform aims to enable the CMC to focus on its core missions, integrate similar functions, and intensify supervision and better act as a coordinator. After the reform, the decision on some specific matters will be left to lower-level authorities” (quote from Senior Colonel Yang Yujun of the PRC Defence Ministry).

(ii) Setting up of a Command Mechanism over and above the  four  Staff Departments:  “An army leadership mechanism would be set up to centralise a command structure previously shared by four staff departments, including those responsible for logistics and politics. This  joint operational command structure was needed to ensure the ability to win a modern war” (Yang Yujun, PRC Defence Ministry).

(iii) Establishing  a general command centre for land forces:  “This will be  part of integrating the administrative system and the joint battle command system, enabling the CMC to directly administer and command various military departments”  (quote from Xi). “ This would help complete military service and facilitate future joint operations” ( Chinese Analyst Zhao Xiaozhuo).

(iv) Regrouping  Military Regions (called military area commands in China); “The current regional military commands will be adjusted and regrouped into new battle zone commands supervised by the CMC” (quote from Xi).  “The regrouping is a structural reform aimed at  better integrating  the command over the PLA” (Xinhua).

(v) Regulating  power within the military: “This would demand a strict system to regulate and supervise the use of power. Decision-making, enforcement and supervision powers should be separated and distributed in a manner that ensures they serve as checks and balances on each other but also run in parallel” (quote from Xi ).

(vi) Curbing  military corruption: “The problem of weak discipline enforcement and inspection, auditing and judicial supervision processes of the military should be solved. Corruption in the military needs eradication with stricter rules and systems. A new discipline inspection commission will be established within the CMC and disciplinary inspectors will be sent to CMC departments and zone commands” (quote from Xi).

(vii) Reforming  Military judicial system: “The CMC will have an audit office and a political and legal affairs commission. The independent and fair exertion of judicial power by military courts and procuratorates will be ensured with adjustments to the military judicial system” (quote from Xi).

(viii) Making  military innovative: “The military to stand in strategic commanding heights  in future competition and should promote innovations to drive its  fighting capability. More to be done is  developing national defense science and technology, including frontier research in both major technology and new concepts” (quote from Xi).

(ix) Improving personnel management: “Military personnel management should be streamlined with adherence to the CCP’s leadership so that the military’s human resource can be turned into the army’s capability in combat.  Reforms will be carried out and deepened in the management of all personnel, as well as the systems of medical care, insurance, housing and payments for servicemen. A revolution of the management of the military will be rolled out with modern management techniques so that the army is managed professionally” (quote from Xi).

(x) Optimizing military structure: “The structure of troops will be optimized to improve the quality and efficiency of the army. China will cut its troops by 300,000. Administrative and non-combatant personnel in the military will be downsized. The proportion and structure of forces among different services will be streamlined to suit new security needs and operations” (quote from Xi).

(xi) Strengthening civil-military cooperation: “Cooperation between civil and military bodies is to be encouraged and the defense industry is to be opened for the private sector” (CMC Statement).

The announced reforms guidelines covering 11 areas as identified above appear highly significant.  Xi Jinping could already eliminate from the military certain powerful rivals like Generals Guo Boxiung and Xu Xaihou (now deceased);  under such circumstances, the decisive role sought to be allotted now to the CMC in matters of military administration and command, may imply more capacity on his part  to challenge potential rivals if any in the armed forces  and fully  cement his hold on the country’s military and police establishments. Besides already serving as CMC chairman, Xi is already the head of  a number of new leading small groups, including ones on   comprehensive reforms, state security and internet security. Thus, the leader appears keen to fully consolidate his overall political power in the country. It remains to be seen whether or not he will be successful in this regard. Important to watch will therefore be future trends in domestic politics.  Secondly, the latest guidelines need be seen in the context of China’s unending assertiveness with respect to territorial issues. Any capacity of the PRC to achieve its aim of creating    a “strong military” capable of fighting wars under information conditions through implementing the guidelines by the set deadline of 2020, may, in the ultimate count, have negative implications for regional efforts to find a peaceful solution to territorial disputes, especially with respect to  the maritime claims in South and East China Seas.   The following remarks of   Ni Lexiong, the Director of  defense policy research center at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law,  seem to be noteworthy in this respect  – “ The growing tensions between China and its neighbors are behind the drive to reform the military to make it more combat ready”.

*The writer, D.S.Rajan, is Distinguished Fellow, Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai, India.Email: [email protected]


Xi is determined to modernize the military at the same time as China gets more assertive in its territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas. China’s navy is investing in submarines and aircraft carriers, while the air force is developing stealth fighters.

The troop cuts are part of long-mooted reforms to simplify and further professionalize the military, especially command and leadership structures that are still largely run along Soviet lines.

As part of this move, China’s seven military regions, which have separate command structures that tend to focus on ground-based operations, are expected to be reduced, though Xi did not explicitly say this.

Xi said that the military region structure would be redrawn and a joint operational command structure set up – a move previously flagged by the military which is meant to help coordination between different parts of the defense system.

China has been moving rapidly to upgrade its military hardware, but operational integration of complex and disparate systems across a regionalized command structure is a major challenge.

In the past, regional level military commanders have enjoyed latitude over their forces and branches of the military have remained highly independent, making it difficult to exercise the centralized control necessary to use new weapons systems effectively in concert.

It is not clear if the government will give more information about the reform plan.

The troop cuts and broader reform program have already proven controversial, though, and the army’s official People’s Liberation Army Daily has published a series of commentaries in recent weeks warning of opposition to the reforms.

Xi said that the whole of the armed forces was “ardently anticipating” the reforms and “firmly upheld” them.

China has previously faced protests from demobilized soldiers, who have complained about a lack of support finding new jobs or help with financial problems.

A protest by thousands of former soldiers over pensions was reported in June, although the Defence Ministry denied any knowledge of the incident.

The PLA is already reeling from Xi’s crackdown on deep-seated corruption in China, which has seen dozens of officers investigated, including two former vice chairmen of the Central Military Commission.

Xi said there would be a new military discipline body – he again gave no details – and stepped up efforts to root out graft.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard and Michael Martina)


[1] The first meeting of CMC’s Leading Group on Deepening Defence and Military Reforms, was held in March 2014.


SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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