China: New Military Zones Another Step Toward Modernization

6 MINS READJan 3, 2014 | 11:01 GMT
Soldiers walk past a Chinese flag in Shanghai.
Soldiers walk past a Chinese flag in Shanghai.

The ongoing modernization of China's military is not merely or even primarily a process of expanding and updating hardware. As a Jan. 1 report in Japan's Yomiuri Shimbun makes clear, updating the Chinese armed forces also entails significant changes to the military's organizational structure — changes affecting both the relationship between its various branches and its geographic breakdown. According to the report, Beijing intends to consolidate China's seven military regions into five military zones tasked with overseeing domestic and international security issues. Each zone reportedly will be coordinated by a joint operations command with control over the army, navy and air force, as well as a strategic missile unit, in its area of responsibility. The effort is a key part of a broader reorientation of the Chinese military from a force focused largely on domestic defense and internal security to one better able to meet emerging external threats.

The Yomiuri Shimbun report, which fits with what Stratfor sources have said previously about a possible new command structure, provides few details about the demarcation of the new military zones. At the core of the plan, however, three of the zones will be designed to cover the Yellow, East and South China seas and take over functions that currently fall across three military regions (Jinan, Nanjing and Guangzhou) within five years. Meanwhile, China's inland provinces will fall under the control of two additional zones covering most of the Beijing, Shenyang, Chengdu and Lanzhou military regions.

This move would be part of China's decadelong effort to strengthen the military's combat capability and professionalism. According to the latest report, the People's Liberation Army will also be downsized somewhat (particularly its ground forces), from 2.3 million personnel to around 2 million, and plans call for three carrier battle groups to be launched by 2020. 

The reported changes would fit with the military blueprint circulated in November at China's Third Plenary Session, which called for deepened structural reforms and enhanced strategic guidance in the military, among other changes. They also conform with Chinese President Xi Jinping's recent announcement of the formation of a National Security Committee to improve central coordination and oversight of internal and external security affairs. In the coming weeks, we expect additional details about such changes to emerge in both Chinese academia and overseas media — venues commonly used by Beijing to collect feedback and gauge opinion about pending organizational changes.

The New Zones

Already, discussions within academia and among a growing body of outspoken military officials have provided some insight into the reorganization plans. The restructured military zones were first proposed by a Chinese air force official in a 2009 report examining China's shifting strategic environment and the need for military reorientation. The report, the distribution of which largely remained internal until recently, identified key hotspots in the Chinese periphery (the Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea and the Korean Peninsula), warned of a shift in the Sino-U.S relationship, and called for an adjustment to the military's strategic deployment. 

According to the 2009 proposal, which differs slightly from the Yomiuri Shimbun version, the Beijing and Shenyang military regions would fall under a new northern strategic zone, forming a critical military command center tasked with defending the capital and much of China's traditional industrial and agricultural heartlands against threats from Russia, the Koreas and Japan. A western strategic zone would encompass the Chengdu and Lanzhou military regions, along with Guangxi province, and be oriented toward Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent and Myanmar.

Meanwhile, an eastern strategic zone would combine parts of the Jinan, Nanjing and Guangzhou military regions and focus on Taiwan and the greater Pacific region, with an added emphasis on air and naval capabilities. A southern strategic zone would replace much of the current Guangzhou military region and be concerned primarily with the South China Sea and countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines engaged in territorial disputes with China there. This zone would also emphasize air and naval capabilities, and it would include operations in the Indian Ocean basin. Finally, a central strategic zone would serve as a reserve and support group for the other zones and assume many of the duties of the current Jinan military region. Airborne and rapid reaction forces would remain concentrated in this region. 

The circulation of similar plans and the multitude of ongoing discussions about restructured military zones indicate that the Chinese military is indeed taking a logical step toward greater interoperability and coordination among its different branches and regions. Also notable is that command of each of the new strategic zones would be open to officers from the air force and navy, not just the army as in the past — an important step toward equal sharing of power among the branches. 

Rethinking the Role of the Armed Forces

The Chinese military has long been focused on self-defense and internal security issues. Its primary concern has been consolidating its landmass and unifying the Chinese population. Even with China greatly accelerating the development of its naval and air capabilities in its periphery (particularly in the East and South China seas) in recent years, the command and organizational layout of the military has not changed much since the mid-1980s. Modernization of such structures is needed to develop a more cohesive focus on external threats and international opportunities. 

Meanwhile, the armed forces are also taking on an expanded role in shaping strategic policy through the creation of a strategic research institute and the National Security Committee. While the committee's ultimate organizational and personnel structure must yet be determined, it will integrate China's various institutions overseeing diplomacy, security, military and intelligence into a coordinated agency under the authority of the president, boosting strategic and operational coherence.

Alongside the military reforms, the Chinese government is also revamping its management of internal security issues, most notably by strengthening its control over the People's Armed Police, a paramilitary unit that formally falls under the authority of the Central Military Commission but that also takes orders from the Ministry of Public Security. With roughly 1.5 million officers (more than half of whom are employed in internal security), the People's Armed Police has emerged in recent years as China's premier internal crisis management force, highlighting the need for the changes to the military. The strengthening of the People's Armed Police, in conjunction with other police and internal security forces, has freed up military resources for Chinese needs abroad, whether defensive or humanitarian in purpose — a development that will be key to Beijing's ability to establish a more proactive and robust foreign policy in the coming years.

The restructuring of the military thus fits China's broader imperative to centralize and better coordinate strategic policy planning. Its current system is too diffuse. The military has been making strides in this direction for more than a decade, consolidating logistics and support services, raising education requirements and training and accelerating interoperability training among the military's various branches and area commands. The military has also informally become more active in foreign policy debates (or it has at least been participating with a louder voice), and the reforms may solidify and formalize this role.

Ultimately, while the ruling Communist Party still ostensibly controls the People's Liberation Army, Party leaders and military officials appear to have agreed to transform the military into one that is more functional and capable of coping with the country's internal and external security threats — an armed force designed to serve the nation, not just the Party, as has often been the perception.


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