China will shake up its military by establishing a joint operational command structure by 2020 and rejig existing military regions as part of overall reforms, President Xi Jinping said in a comments reported on Thursday.
In a lengthy speech carried by the official Xinhua news agency, Xi gave a broad-brush description of the reforms he wanted, but gave few details aside from repeating a September pledge to cut troop numbers by 300,000.
“Under the leadership of the (Communist) Party, our military has gone from small to big, from weak to strong, from victory to victory. On this road, reform and innovation steps have never stopped,” Xi was quoted as saying.
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.