China Launches Major Military Overhaul to Project Power Amid U.S. Tensions

Kevin Frayer/Getty Images
Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Chinese President Xi Jinping has unveiled the most significant changes to his nation’s military in over 60 years, laying out plans to boost combat readiness and make the world’s largest army better equipped to radiate force beyond the country’s borders, according to state-backed news media.

The president’s announcement of the biggest military overhaul since the 1950s comes amid tensions between the United States and the Asian powerhouse over the latter’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Xi told a meeting of more than 200 senior military officers that the landmark military reforms would prompt all branches of the armed forces to come under a joint military command, similar to the system in the United States, reports the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

In September, Bloomberg highlighted details of the plan, which may also attempt to reduce China’s seven military regions to as few as four.

“Under the leadership of the party, the army has gone from small to large, from weak to strong and from victory to victory,” Xi told the military leaders, according to Xinhua. “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.”

Bloomberg reports that the reorganization plan also aims to consolidate the Communist Party’s grip over the 2.3-million-member military, adding that Xi insisted that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) maintain “correct political direction” and stressed “the Communist Party of China has absolute leadership of the armed forces,” notes Xinhua.

“Under Xi, China has been more assertive over territorial claims in the East China Sea and South China Sea, raising tensions with neighbors such as Japan and the Philippines, as well as the U.S.,” points out Bloomberg.

The South China Morning Post reports that Chinese military personnel is already protesting the changes over pay and pensions, quoting experts as saying that the poorly managed military overhauls of the past have been utter failures.

“Mr. Xi presided over the three-day meeting [with military leaders] that opened on Tuesday to discuss the military overhauls, signaling a major step forward in his program to shift the focus of China’s military from traditional land armies and military regions to a more flexible, cohesive set of forces that can advance the country’s maritime claims and external interests,” notes the New York Times. “China’s military planning and spending have increasingly focused on territorial disputes in the South China Sea and in waters near Japan.”

Xi’s announcement comes more than two months after he vowed to downsize the nation’s military by 300,000, bringing the total to nearly two million.

Of the current 2.3 million-strong force, an estimated 1.4 million are land forces.

“This is the biggest military overhaul since the 1950s,” retired colonel Yue Gang, of the PLA’s General Staff Department told Bloomberg. “The reform shakes the very foundations of China’s Soviet Union-style military system and transferring to a U.S. style joint command structure will transform China’s PLA into a specialized armed force that could pack more of a punch in the world.”

“The country’s navy has been the most visible demonstration of the modernization drive, with advanced Chinese warships participating in anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden and extracting nationals from conflict zones in Libya and Yemen,” notes Bloomberg. “On Thursday, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed that China was in talks with Djibouti about building logistical facilities to help resupply military vessels operating off the East African coast.”

The United States already has a military base in Djibouti. President Obama has been slammed by critics for allowing China to project military force.

The Pentagon, it its most recent annual report to the U.S. Congress, declared that creating joint-command entities “would be the most significant changes to the PLA’s command organization since 1949.”


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