There has been a lot of debate about the ongoing PLA modernisation and downsizing which was announced by President Xi Jinping recently. The predominant view is that this is with an aim to increase the party’s hold on PLA. Probably there is a need to view it differently. The Communist Party and the President of China already have a very tight grip over PLA and it had not been diluted anytime earlier. Thus there was no real need to strengthen their grip over PLA further. In all probability the objectives would have been two fold. Firstly to reduce the levels of corruption and nepotism within PLA and secondly to make PLA a better fighting force, in keeping with evolving national objectives and regional and global standing of PRC.
Some inkling of this modernisation can be obtained from the Defence White Paper of 2015 wherein an increasingly expeditionary role is envisaged for the PLA. This has also been due to elimination of any real threats from the immediate borders of China. China today has settled borders with most nations and has no reasons to believe an attack will take place on its territories. Even with adversaries like USA a military conflict remains a remote possibility.
An expeditionary capability requires a better force projection capability, jointness in command and control as also better technology for intelligence and surveillance all of which are being attempted in current reorganisation. China is moving from a doctrine of employing mass to a doctrine of harnessing technology. The bid to downsize HQs, have independent brigades in place of divisions, theatre commands, more emphasis on PLAN and PLAAF are all pointers in above mentioned direction.
It will be interesting to study the structures of newly evolved military regions. For instance will they control the PAPF and the militia units or if their control will be with a separate chain. Should the latter happen that would signal the Party’s intention to control internal situation through PAPF leaving the PLA to concentrate on external threats (akin to the Indian Model). If it happens it will be a major shift and will significantly reduce PLAs importance in maintaining the party regime.
Another major area will be to study the new chain of command for the PLAN and the PLAAF. The PLAAF regional HQ were so far coterminous with the Military region. Will the regions now have a structure like the US theatre commands wherein the controls of all services are vested in a single commander. The US model was practical as USA intended to do all the warfighting away from its borders. Can the same model hold good for the Chinese is a moot question.
Nonetheless, the initiative by Xi Jinping is more about modernisation than being about control. It also reflects the changing perception about the type of conflicts the PLA is likely to participate in the future.