China may have more or less finished the broader steps to restructuring its military. On Feb. 1, Chinese President Xi Jinping presided over the inauguration of five new theater commands, replacing China's seven former military regions. While not the first time China has cut down the number of its military regions and redrawn their borders, this particular reform is the first instance in which the function and role of the military regions have been drastically altered by unifying the chains of command of China's military forces. These changes are intended to reinforce the ability of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) to conduct effective joint military operations. China needed to make such changes if it wanted to compete with the world's most advanced militaries.
The old regions were controlled entirely by ground forces, which in peacetime focused more on administration and preparation than command of actual military operations. The regions could be upgraded into "war zones" in times of military emergency, during which these zones would bring the region's naval and air forces under the command of the military region commander — always an army general. The process presumably disrupted chains of command for naval and air forces, which were independent in peacetime but had to subordinate their operations to the demands of ground forces in war.
The new command scheme will be a huge step forward in improving the cross-service cooperation of PLA operations. Like the unified combatant commands of the U.S. military, the new Chinese commands appear to have integrated military staffs composed of members from all branches of military service. In addition, announcements from the Chinese Defense Ministry imply that air force and naval operational forces will also be subordinated to the new theater commands, similar to the U.S. structure in which regional land, air and naval component commands report to overarching combatant commands. The new PLA structure will have joint commands even during peacetime, minimizing the disruption that might have occurred under the old model.
After establishing its new theater commands, China's military will begin perfecting their function. It will test not only whether it can effectively integrate the operations of all forces but also how well they interface with the new Central Military Commission staff and the service headquarters responsible for equipping and training those forces.
Still, several key pieces of information are not yet fully known. China has not officially published how it is dividing the commands, though there have been various unofficial source reports hinting at the rough breakdown. It is also unclear whether the new theater command system will lead to serious changes to how the Chinese military projects power. The degree of control that the theater commanders will have over their units is not known either.
Still, these reforms have the potential to improve the PLA and make it a force capable of meeting the challenges of modern warfare. There will be obstacles: Even the United States' military reorganizations have historically been long and difficult processes. But China knows it needs to adapt to be prepared for future conflicts.