China to Cut Army in Half to Under One Million Troops

China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers march past Tiananmen Gate during a military parade in Beijing on September 3, 2015

The Chinese state-run People’s Daily newspaper reported Wednesday that the nation’s military will reduce its army to under one million troops in an effort to do away with “the old military structure.”

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is seeking to expand the number of troops in the navy, air force, and cyber combat units as infantry strength becomes less important with technological advances.

The People’s Daily cites an article published by the PLA announcing that “the old military structure, where the army accounts for the vast majority, will be replaced after the reform.” The newspaper notes that “the total PLA personnel was about 2.3 million before the country announced a cut of 300,000 troops in 2015,” and the military announced this would be the first time “that active PLA Army personnel would be reduced to below one million.”

Another state newspaper, the Global Times, cited “senior adviser” Xu Guangyu as explaining that diminishing the number of active army troops would allow for boosting “the PLA Rocket Force, Air Force, Navy and Strategic Support Force (mainly responsible for electronic warfare and communication), with more resources and inputs, and the PLA will strengthen its capability to conduct overseas missions.”

“The PLA must be capable of spotting overseas threats and destroying hostile forces thousands of kilometers away before they enter our 12 nautical mile territorial waters. China’s overseas interests are spread around the world and need to be protected. These are beyond the army’s current capabilities,” Xu added.

The overhaul appears to be part of a larger initiative to revolutionize the PLA and make it more competitive with the military of the United States, as well as more capable of supporting expansionist initiatives in the South China Sea, near the Indian border, and in Africa. In 2015, President Xi Jinping gathered over 200 senior military officers to announce a restructuring of the PLA that would create a joint military command, enhancing communication among branches of the military.

Xi said at the time:

Under the leadership of the party, the army has gone from small to large, from weak to strong and from victory to victory. The reason why the military has stayed vigorous is that it has kept pace with the times and never ceased reforming itself. Now, as the country progresses from a large country to a large and powerful one, defense and military development stands at a new and historic starting line.

The reforms are also intended to ensure “the Communist Party of China has absolute leadership of the armed forces,” state media asserted.

Xi continued to pressure the military to reform long after that announcement. In April of this year, Xi announced that a new set of reforms would place “greater emphasis on new capabilities including cyberspace, electronic and information warfare.” Shortly after the announcement of this most recent overhaul, the government also announced that it would establish its first overseas military base in Djibouti.

“Certainly this is the People’s Liberation Army’s first overseas base and we will base troops there. It’s not a commercial resupply point. … This base can support Chinese Navy to go farther, so it means a lot,” the People’s Daily announced. Djibouti is in east Africa and would grant China greater proximity to multiple hotspots in the Middle East, particularly Yemen, where Shiite rebels have been fighting a civil war against the Saudi-supported legitimate government since 2015.

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