Chinese President Xi Jingping announced a restructure of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on Wednesday.  According to Chinese state media outlets, the shift is intended to transform the PLA into a leaner fighting force and improve its joint operations capabilities.

The new structure will condense China’s military into 84 units and place more emphasis on establishing new military capabilities, including branching further into cyberspace, electronic, and information warfare.

“This has profound and significant meaning in building a world-class military,” Xi told commanders of the new units at the PLA headquarters in Beijing.

This shift in structure for China’s military will consolidate command under officials holding major-general or rear-admiral titles and the personnel in the 84 units will likely be restructured from those who remain after China completes its planned reduction of forces as laid out by President Xi in 2015.

It also calls for the establishment of a joint operations command by 2020 and for streamlining troop numbers in military occupations that don’t involve direct combat operations.

This dramatic shift isn’t the beginning of China’s military restructuring, but rather the next step in a process that began last year with seven military commands being consolidated to five and with the four military departments (staff, politics, logistics and armaments) completely reorganized into 15 state agencies.  The 84 units this next step produces will then fall under those 15 agencies once established.

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“Since military reforms started it has been one step at a time,” Retired PLA Major-General Xu Guangyu, a senior researcher at the Beijing-based China Arms Control and Disarmament Association said. “The high-level framework is now in place, now this is the second phase targeting the entire mid-ranking levels of the military.”

Despite consolidating both forces and command structure, China has been rapidly expanding its military’s technological capabilities and developing modern hardware intended in large part to aid in bolstering their military presence in the South China Sea, where the nation has claimed sovereignty over the vast majority of the heavily traversed and valuable waterway.

These changes are intended to help bridge the gap between China’s military capabilities and those possessed by China’s largest political and economic rival, the United States.

“If China has a big gap with the US in terms of military prowess, this will affect its international position and other countries’ attitude toward China,” China’s state-owned Global Times said in an editorial posted on its website Saturday.

“With a strong army, China can be more politically appealing, influential and persuasive.”

A press release distributed within China by the Ministry of National Defense lays out President XI’s expectations for the restructure as laid out in a meeting with top military officers, which included adhering to the Communist Party’s “absolute leadership:”

During the meeting, Xi ordered the newly reshuffled units to adhere to the Party’s absolute leadership and obey the command of the CPC Central Committee and the CMC.

He also stressed political guarantees in the military restructuring, requiring the military to firm up their belief, abide by political discipline, and stick to the correct political direction.

The military units should ensure combat readiness and conduct more research to achieve that end, Xi said.

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Setting the goal of building “an indestructible combat force,” Xi said major improvements should be made in fighting capability to adapt to integrative joint operations and the new military system.”

China’s second aircraft carrier, the first built in China, will be ready for launch soon – possibly as soon as later this week during the Chinese Navy’s founding anniversary.  Tensions between the U.S. and China have subsided slightly in the face of increasing cooperation to address North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, but this latest change makes it clear that China is setting its sights on establishing a military that could potentially stand up to the likes of America’s and other Western powers, and posturing in the South China Sea is likely far from over.

 

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