Pangs of pain in the PLA

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By sheer force of personality – and the fact that he has already managed to get rid of a number of corrupt and politically disloyal elements – President Xi Jinping has launched a massive restructuring of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

A three-day meeting from 24-26 November allowed the Central Military Commission (CMC) to hash out many of the details to senior PLA figures. The PLA is to be progressively reformed between now and 2020.

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We already know its size will be reduced, with Xi stating during the September parade in Beijing, ‘I announce that China will cut the number of its troops by 300,000.’ This is to occur by 2017, and will reduce the PLA to a mere two million troops. The majority of the cuts will affect the army.

Is Xi doing this because China is peace-seeking? Far from it! The whole rationale is to make the PLA leaner and meaner. China’s military has much surplus fat that needs to be trimmed. It still maintains song and dance troupes (not troops!), for example, and one source spoke to me of PLA-run hotels where senior officers can pay for female company, to put it euphemistically.

IMG_4266So what structural changes are planned? First, the PLA has to move away from a cumbersome army-centric force. That means a joint command system will be established in which the army, navy, air force and missile force are treated as equals. The ground force is overly represented under the current General Staff Department, but a new army headquarters equal in stature to the others will be formed.

The PLA desperately needs to evolve into an agile force that can quickly respond to events in the South China Sea or to evacuations in the Middle East, for example. This will be achieved by reducing the current seven ‘Military Region’ structure into four joint battle zone commands (likely to be North, East and South covering coastal areas and inland, as well as a landlocked West command).

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Greater political control will be exerted – as if there is not enough already. Of course, the PLA is actually beholden to the communist party rather than to the nation of China. The CMC will reduce from the current 11 personnel, but they will have tighter authority over the PLA. Functions of the General Political, General Logistics and General Armaments Departments will be merged under the Ministry of National Defence to exert greater centralised control.

The People’s Armed Police (PAP) will likely be rebadged as a national guard too.

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It isn’t going to be easy. Xi will face extremely stiff resistance, especially with so many jobs being cut and vested interests being harmed. Indeed, there is likely to be a lot of destabilisation during the painful process. That’s why the government regularly calls for loyalty and obedience.

Furthermore, massive corruption that remains. No single person, even if he is the president, can stamp out a culture of greed and selfishness in a matter of a few months.

Watch this space…

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