China's Embattled Military Modernization
China's sweeping military reforms are proceeding apace. In a meeting in Beijing on Tuesday with the country's top military leadership, President Xi Jinping announced the start of the next phase in the effort to thoroughly modernize the Chinese military. The program, launched in late 2015, aims to enable China to wage modern warfare by updating the military's structure, its command and control, and, in particular, its service branches' ability to conduct joint operations. Xi's latest announcement highlights his administration's progress with the plan, expected to be in place by 2020. Nevertheless, it will be a hard-fought campaign for Beijing.
Reforming the military's structure hasn't been easy. Many components of the modernization campaign put personnel and even branches of the armed forces at a disadvantage. As the country moved to develop a capable joint force, it had to elevate other services such as the navy and air force to the detriment of the army, traditionally China's pre-eminent military branch. Beijing upgraded the Second Artillery Corps (now known as the Rocket Force) to a full service branch, reorganized China's four military departments into 15 agencies, and consolidated the People's Liberation Army's seven command areas into five regions. In addition, the government said it would retire a projected 300,000 troops, including generals and headquarters units, to streamline its force structure. The country's leaders braced for opposition, which some worried might derail the endeavor.
But the announcement of the reforms' next phase demonstrates that Xi's administration has so far managed to keep the program on track, negotiating the pitfalls along the way. Having largely established the new military structure's strategic framework, China's leaders will now move on to address its operations. To that end, Beijing announced that it had established or adjusted 84 corps-level or equivalent units representing armed formations from across the military's branches to improve their efficiency. (The revised units will have the advantage of more combined arms, less overhead and streamlined logistics, for instance.) Operational reforms will likely require considerable time and effort, given the vast number of formations that will have to acclimate to the new command and control structure.
Furthermore, despite the progress that the Chinese military has made toward achieving its ambitious goals, problems may still arise that could delay or even halt the reform initiative. The number of protests, including demonstrations in the capital, by Chinese military veterans has risen over the past year (though most have involved long-retired soldiers demanding unpaid benefits). If the government follows through with its plan to cut another 300,000 personnel, many of whom are officers, the flood of new retirees could strain the country's ability to provide for its veterans. This outcome would be particularly problematic for Beijing in the event of a severe economic downturn — something that can't be ruled out in the next several years.
And even if Beijing realizes its goals, as it seems more and more likely to do, the military modernization could backfire on the Chinese government. As it becomes increasingly professional, flexible and powerful, the military could see itself as beholden to the Chinese people rather than to the government, thereby jeopardizing the Party's continued rule over the country. The military's adherence to the Party's absolute authority will be critical, then, for the country's political leaders. With that in mind, Xi has repeatedly exhorted the military to "abide by political discipline" and stick to the "correct political direction."