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Answering the PLA Pie Division Puzzle: A Hypothesis; By Asma Masood

Updated: Feb 1, 2023


Image Courtesy: Globalsecurity.org

C3S Paper No. 0039/2016


Asma Masood

On December 31 2015 President Xi Jinping announced far-reaching reforms in the organization of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). A New Year eve’s gift to the country, it is the eleventh major reorganization since 1952. A Hoover Institution report lists the changes, some of which are as follows[1]:

  1. The seven peacetime administrative Military Regions (Beijing, Chengdu, Guangzhou, Jinan, Lanzhou, Nanjing, and Shenyang, in protocol order) have been replaced by five theater commands (East, South, West, North, and Central, in protocol order), or zhanqu, whose structure is expected to be similar to the exercised warzone commands of the last decade or so. By eliminating the General Staff Departments, the PLA will henceforth use a “two-level joint operations command system”.

  2. The four General Departments (Staff, Political, Logistics, and Armaments) have been abolished, and their constituent elements have been transferred to units subordinated to a more muscular Central Military Commission and distributed among five servicelike organizations, including a new Army service command, Air Force, Navy, a reconstituted Rocket Force (formerly Second Artillery), and a new Strategic Support Force that encompasses cyber, intelligence, electronic warfare, and space missions.

  3. The most important of the new CMC organizations is the Joint Staff Department, which is likely the command interface between the CMC leadership and the new theater or warzone commands. This new system is much closer to its American counterpart, with the CMC departments acting like the Joint Staff, the zhanqu more closely approximating combatant commands, and the services/forces charged with the mission of “manning, training, and equipping” the operational units, or what the PLA terms “construction”.

The military reorganization can be visualised by observing the maps below of China before and after the restructuring:

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The 5 new PLA Theater Commands[2]


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What is the significance of the geographical boundaries of the five new theatre commands? What are the objectives of the reorganization? How will it impact the regional and extra-regional international players vis-à-vis China?


“Act East & South, Think West”?

Before the reforms, there were seven military regions, including the Beijing Military Region, Shenyang Military Region, Jinan Military Region, Lanzhou Military Region, Chengdu Military Region, Guangzhou Military Region and Nanjing Military Region.[3] Now there are five military regions namely the East, West, South, North, and Central theatre commands.


The map above depicts the largest theatre command as the Western division (Chengdu battle zone). Significantly, it borders India, Myanmar and Central Asia among other states. On the other hand the second largest division, that of the Northern theatre command (Beijing battle zone), is proximal to Mongolia, Russia and the volatile Korean peninsula. Surprisingly, the Eastern and Southern theatre commands (Nanjing and Guangzhou battle zones respectively) which are proximal to East China Sea, Taiwan and the South China Sea are comparatively smaller in geographical area.


The reorganization may have an element of sending out subtle signals on China’s strategic priorities. The position and size of the Western theatre command shows that it is giving importance to providing security for China’s One Belt, One Road initiative, as the OBOR passes through Urumqi, which lies in this theater command. It is also indicated that the Indian border issue is uppermost on China’s mind, despite the media spotlight being on South China Sea and East China Sea. Besides, Central Asia’s proximity to Xinjiang and its vulnerability to ISIS may show a hint of insecurity in China about rising terrorist threats. One is compelled to ask why are these three regions (India, Central Asia and Myanmar) are targeted via one theatre command. The answer may well lie in the fact that China expects to use this theatre command as a deterrent force, by showcasing its size. China is extremely insecure about both the Sino-India border as well as the possibility of unrest in Xinjiang being ignited by terrorists.


There may also be some apprehension regarding the restive northern states in Myanmar such as Kachin and Kokang provinces, especially post the November 2015 Myanmar democratic elections and the country’s growing closeness to India. Thus these concerns are being addressed by formulating a large western theatre command which can be easily mobilized. Another objective may be to unify the internal, western defence personnel. By placing them in the largest command, China may be trying to instill a sense of pride in this theatre’s military forces. It will also unite them, leaving no room for doubt or defection in the prominent provinces of Tibet and Xinjiang. The vast rugged terrain of China’s hinterland also demands a larger military division in light of the military forces not being very densely populated in this region. The above reasons may explain the combining of the former two military regions- Lanzhou and Chengdu.


The northern theatre command combines the former Beijing and Shenyang battle zones. As seen in the map, it indicates that it is astride the Korean peninsula. This aspect, as well as the large size of the northern theatre command (Beijing battle zone) is a direct message to North Korea to avoid upsetting the regional security balance. As seen in the map, a portion of the northern new theatre command is also present in a separate region, below the central theatre command. It is obviously aimed at projecting power at the Yellow Sea, which in turn lies next to the Korean peninsula. China is showing it is well prepared to mobilize forces if the need arises given Pyongang’s actions. The recent claims by Kim Jong-un of having overseen North Korea’s nuclear tests are also a trigger. Seoul’s possibility of attaining nuclear weapons and its affinity to U.S.A may well be another reason.  Similarly, Russia is an important Chinese partner, yet it is given strong signals that China will not tolerate instability on its northern border.  However the former Soviet Union is not considered the primary threat as it was in 1985, when the last military reorganization took place.


The central theatre command is likely be composed of troops in charge of overseas operations, such as UN peacekeeping operations.[4] Perhaps the most intriguing divisions are the eastern (Nanjing) and southern (Guangzhou) theatre commands. They do not vary much from the former Nanjing and Guangzhou theatre commands. It shows an unabashed confidence on Beijing’s part that its military modernization, Rocket Force (formerly the Second Artillery) and naval prowess will win the day in any given circumstance, be it concerning Taiwan, East China Sea and South China Sea. It also indicates that these two theatre commands are most likely to be densely populated with PLA personnel. Size does not matter; rather it is only strength which is primary when it concerns these two theatre commands.


Aiming at the Bull’s Eye

Thus the military reorganization appears to have been made keeping in mind the disputes and threats China faces. The reorganization is not on a geographical basis alone but also at an administrative level.


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Firstly, Xi Jinping is trying to consolidate more military decision making power at the center. According to  David M. Finkelstein, director of the China Studies division of CNA, a Washington, D.C.,-based research center:  Politically, Xi appears to be trying to make the military more “red” by re-concentrating power and authority over the armed forces by the Central Military Commission, which Xi chairs.[6] Besides, the abolishment of the four General Departments (Staff, Political, Logistics, and Armaments) and distribution of their elements among the Joint Staff Department (army, navy, air force, Rocket Force and Strategic Support Force) may be with the goal of lessening decision making time in times of mobilization. The launch of the Joint Staff Department, which is likely the command interface between the CMC leadership and the new theater commands, will also offer an integrated approach to threats and conflict, and reduce gaps in decision making. Similar to the armed forces of developed countries, a combination of land, naval and air power according to need enables efficient military operations across branches, such as air units supporting ground troops or naval vessels, as well as coordinated landing operations by the three branches.[7]

The reorganization has been accompanied by a change in leadership of the theatre commands as well:


Most of the commanders of the new military regions previously commanded one of China’s seven military regions, based at Shenyang, Beijing, Jinan, Nanjing, Guangzhou, Chengdu and Lanzhou. However, many were given command of theaters far from their original base of power, ensuring no one commander can maintain a network of personal loyalty that supersedes Party authority. Liu Yuejun, formerly the commander of the Lanzhou Military Region (MR) in northwest China will now command the Eastern Theater. The former commander of the northern Shenyang MR, Wang Jiaocheng, will take over the Southern Theater Command, while Zhao Zongqi of the eastern Jinan MR move to commander of the Western Theater Command. The Beijing MR saw the least displacement for its commanders – and, in fact, a double promotion. Former Beijing MR commander Song Puxuan will head up the Northern Theater Command, while his former deputy commander, Han Weiguo, received a promotion to commander of the Central Theater. On the other end of the scale, three previous MR commanders were left high and dry:  Nanjing MR commander Cai Yingting, Guangzhou MR commander Xu Fenglin, and Chengdu MR commander Li Zhocheng.[8]


The impact is also felt on the cutting down of forces. Xi Jinping had declared in September 2015 that the PLA will be downsized by 300,000 by 2017. Trimming of forces will energize the speed of response, apart from indicating that there is greater dependence on informatized warfare. Besides, political officers, who exist at all levels, are likely to face the biggest brunt.[9] However, a new organ called discipline inspection commission will also be established with in the CMC and battle zone commands to carry out the anti-corruption campaign of President Xi inside the army.[10]


Another new organ has been established: the Strategic Support Force which spans cyberwarfare, reconnaissance, space warfare, etc. This is a marker of intense insecurity being felt by the Chinese leadership. The consolidation of cyberwarfare and intelligence units will increase the risk of China’s attempts to spy on industrial secrets worldwide, especially in the realm of defence. One component of the Strategic Support Force is the 3rd Department or 3PLA, which is believed to have as many as 100,000 cyber warfare hackers and signals intelligence troops under its control; they are highly-trained personnel who specialize in network attacks, information technology, code-breaking, and foreign languages.[11] Classified documents made public last year revealed that U.S.A’s National Security Agency (NSA) estimates 3PLA hackers conducted more than 30,000 cyber attacks aimed at gathering defense industrial secrets, with more than 500 of the cyber attacks gauged to involve “significant intrusions” of defense networks.[12]


This shows that China may be reorganizing the PLA but innovation is not its strong point, it rather believes in replication of tried and tested mechanisms. Replication may show signs of weakness but China is using it to build its strength. In fact, the military reorganization is being termed PLA’s own “Goldwater-Nichols moment”, that is, a move similar to that of the United States which took a major step ahead in integrating leadership of the services when President Ronald Reagan signed the Goldwater-Nichols Act in 1986.[13] China is well known for studying western strategies when it comes to military modernization. For instance, it is not surprising that the western theatre command bordering Central Asia is being given prominence, as China may have acknowledged Halford Mackinder’s words that those who rule the Heartland (stretching from the Volga to the Yangtze and from the Himalayas to the Arctic), command the World-Island and thus the world. This theory may partly be behind China’s motivation for the OBOR as well as forming the Western theatre command as the largest one. Thus the Heartland Theory may be at the heart of not only China’s economic aspirations but also military concerns. Although it is clear that China’s military may not yet be as advanced as U.S.A’s, it is noted that China is well on its way to being a force to be reckoned with in the coming decades.


Spiraling the Security Dilemma

The neighouring regions and the rest of the international system are keenly observing China’s military reorganization. Further developments are also being awaited. In the meantime, China’s neighbours as well as U.S.A may do well to take note of the strategic importance of the military reorganization. It is clear that China is focusing on protecting its ‘core interests’. It remains to be seen how countries like India will respond in due course of time. The reorganization has potential to prompt an increase in the regional security dilemma. China’s more effective military power will usher in greater impetus to its neighbours to upkeep their own military modernizations. The Japanese media states that “It is also certain to destabilize the Asian region.”[14] U.S.A’s Asia Pacific focus is also bound to be shaped by this reorganization, given its stakes in Taiwan, South Korea, Southeast Asia and Japan.


China is hence showing that its increasing economic engagement is not softening its stance on its strategic interests. China’s territorial sovereignty and ambitions will continue to be high on its agenda. India must counter these moves by examining its own military organization and make changes if necessary. Time is of the essence, and it is better to ‘prevent’ than to ‘cure’ conflicts. After all, while China’s military pie division is being savoured across the country, it may leave a bitter taste in its neighbours’ palates.


 References: 

[1] James Mulvenon, “China’s “Goldwater-Nichols”? The Long-Awaited PLA Reorganization Has Finally Arrived”, Hoover Institution, http://www.hoover.org/sites/default/files/research/docs/clm49jm.pdf , (Accessed March 14 2016)

[2] Kenneth AllenDennis J. BlaskoJohn F. Corbett “The PLA’s New Organizational Structure: What is Known, Unknown and Speculation (Part 1) ”, China Brief, Volume: 16 Issue: 3, February 4, 2016 http://www.jamestown.org/single/?tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=45069&no_cache=1#.VuZOhdJ97cc

[3] “Military Regions / Military Area Commands”, Global Security, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/china/mr.htm  (Accessed March 17 2016)

[4] Tetsuro Kosaka, “China’s military reorganization could be a force for destabilization”, Nikkei Asian Review, January 28 2016, http://asia.nikkei.com/magazine/20160128-SHATTERED-HOPES/Politics-Economy/China-s-military-reorganization-could-be-a-force-for-destabilization

[5] Ibid

[6] Wyatt Olson, “China reorganizing military to close gap with US”, Stars and Stripes, January 31 2016, http://www.stripes.com/news/pacific/china-reorganizing-military-to-close-gap-with-us-1.391502

[7] Refer 4 above

[8]  Shannon Tiezzi, “It’s Official: China’s Military Has 5 New Theater Commands”, The Diplomat, February 2 2016, http://thediplomat.com/2016/02/its-official-chinas-military-has-5-new-theater-commands/

[9] B. R. Deepak, “PLA Reforms – The Birth of PLA General Command, Rocket Force and Strategic Support Force”, Chennai Centre for China Studies, January 4 2016, https://www.c3sindia.org/military/5335

[10] Ibid

[11] Bill Gertz, “Chinese Military Revamps Cyber Warfare, Intelligence Forces”, The Washington Free Beacon, January 27 2016, http://freebeacon.com/national-security/chinese-military-revamps-cyber-warfare-intelligence-forces/

[12] Ibid

[13] Refer 6 above

[14] Refer 4 above

[Asma Masood is a Research Officer with the Chennai Centre for China Studies, India. Email id : asma.masood11@gmail.com. Twitter:@asmamasood11]

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