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The Nature of the PRC’s National Defense and Military Reform

By Ching Chang

Last November, after an augmented meeting on reformed policies hosted by the Central Military Commission in Beijing, the longtime prepared and formulated reform of the People’s Liberation Army was eventually activated. This Meeting was assembled on November 24, 2015, and attended by all the major senior cadres of the defense establishment and various services. 

Many features of the coming national defense and military reform were disclosed through the defense spokesmen system right after the meeting. Given the length of the meeting and the scale of participants, it is believed that directives of the reform were already settled by high authorities. No substantial discussion likely took place in this significant gathering of defense elites. Flag officers and commanding generals are only told the predetermined implementation plan. Somehow this reform may seemingly be like the traditional saying, “Theirs not to reason why. Theirs but to do and die.”

The new PLA leadership after reorganization. Edited by LTC. Huang, W. Y., ROCA, a teaching staff of the National Defense University, Republic of China

Later at the end of 2015, the Central Military Commission of the People’s Republic of China released a guideline known as “The Opinions of the Central Military Commission on Deepening the National Defense and Military Reform” (中央軍委關於深化國防與軍隊改革的意見), which provided more detail information about items of the inevitable restructuring process. Many political commentators and military observers put their efforts on features subsequently announced by the Chinese military including establishing new units, redefining AORs (Areas of Responsibility) and name list of the freshly appointed military leadership.

Indeed, grasping the progress of the reorganization can be very helpful to acquire information about many features but it is less productive for us to understand the logic behind the reform process. Understanding the nature of the PRC’s national defense and military reform is more valuable to access the thinking behind the decision making modus operandi of the People’s Liberation Army leadership or even their political masters. By reviewing the history of the military reform planning process started right after Mr. Xi Jinping inaugurated the Chairman of the Central Military Commission until now and the contents of the associated policy documents, we may conclude key attributes regarding the nature of the PRC’s national defense and military reform.

First, this reform is parallel to the tempo of Chinese society by its essence. It is only a part of the overall reform in Xi’s political engineering blueprint. All the issues noted in this deepening national defense and military reform process not only reflect demands from the external strategic environment but also attempt to satisfy the expectations originating from the People’s Liberation Army elites.

Deepening national defense and military reform is a political engineering parallel with the tempo of the whole society. The military can not proceed the reform tasks all by itself.
Deepening national defense and military reform is a political engineering parallel with the tempo of the whole society. The military can not proceed the reform tasks all by itself.

Why may it take more than two years to formulate a guideline for substantiating the military reform? The answer is simple and straightforward. The defense and military reform itself does not act alone. There are many factors associated with other governing mechanisms in Chinese society. The military reform is only a segment of the overall reform endeavor advocated by the Chinese Communist Party. As the defense authority would like to proceed with its reform efforts, it is necessary for them to acquire mature social prerequisites and suitable political conditions.

The overall reform policy was actually settled by the Third Plenary Session of the Eighteenth Chinese Communist Party Central Committee. On November 12, 2013, a policy document known as “The Decision on Major Issues Concerning Comprehensively Deepening Reforms” (中共中央關於全面深化改革若干重大問題的決定) was approved by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. In the document containing sixteen chapters, Chapter Fifteen includes Point 55 to 57 which present the following directives:

Chapter XV—National defense and military reform

The People’s Liberation Army must be loyal to the Chinese Communist Party, be able to win and be persistent with its good traditions.

  1. Deepen the reform of the military’s composition and functions. Improve the combined combat command systems of the Central Military Commission and military commands. Push forward reform of training and logistics for joint combat operations. Optimize the structure and command mechanism of the Armed Police Force. Adjust the personnel composition of the military and reduce non-combatant departments and staff members.
  2. Boost the adjustment of military policies and mechanisms. A modern personnel system for officers will gradually take shape with the establishment of an all-volunteer officer system as the initial step. Improve management of military expenditures.
  3. Boost coordinated development of military and civilian industries. Reform the development, production and procurement of weapons. Encourage private businesses to invest in the development and repair sectors of military products.

Given the complexity and the structure of this policy document, this is why it took such a long period of time after Xi was elected to chair the Central Military Commission and declare his intention of military reform in the first Central Military Commission Standing Committee Meeting. Further. The People’s Liberation Army needs resources granted by the whole of society to support its own reform. Chinese society must accommodate decommissioned manpower released by the military during this reform process. The military reform is therefore a segment in the larger social and political reform project. How can you put your eyes only on a single branch but ignore the whole tree?

The leadership of the communist party is unchallengeable in the military reform process.
The leadership of the communist party is unchallengeable in the military reform process.

Second, the military reform in the PRC once again reaffirmed the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership over the People’s Liberation Army. Although many features exposed by the reform themselves are seemingly promoting the military professionalism, nevertheless, according to the decision-making procedures, the political masters of the military still hold a tight grip on the armed forces in China as always addressed by the tradition known as “the party commands the gun.”

As already mentioned, Mr. Xi has clearly blown the trumpet of military reform right after taking the power of military command in the First Plenary Session of the Eighteenth Chinese Communist Party Central Committee. No key decision had been made nor was clear policy declared on military reform until the eventual policy of a comprehensive social and political reform project was settled by the Chinese Communist Party in its Third Plenary Session of the Eighteenth Central Committee occurring 9–12 November 2013.

The Leading Group for the National Defence and Military Reform of the Central Military Commission (中央軍委深化國防與軍隊改革領導小組) was immediately organized and personally chaired by Mr. Xi, the Chairman of the Central Military Commission, and held its first meeting in early 2014. The second meeting of this leading group was held on January 17, 2015. At the moment, it was known that the military had already successfully coordinated with other government departments and local governments to support their reform tasks through party arbitration mechanisms. Expected resistance within the military was also eliminated by these external sponsorships. It vividly indicates the role played by the communist party within the reform process.

The national defense and military reform is in essence an issue very transparent to the Chinese society.

The Proposal of Deepening National Defense and Military Reform Overall Plan (深化國防與軍隊改革總體方案建議) eventually completed drafting in the third meeting of the Leading Group for National Defence and Military Reform of the Central Military Commission on July 14, 2015. It is essential to note that this proposal still needs to be reviewed by the Central Military Commission Standing Committee by July 22 even though both mechanisms are chaired by Mr. Xi. Finally, the proposal was approved by the Political Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, again chaired by Mr. Xi, later on July 29.

After the political decision was made by the party decision-making mechanism, the Central Military Commission Standing Committee in its routine meeting on October 16 started to inspect the Implementation Plan for Administration and Command Structure Reform (領導指揮體制改革實施方案) submitted by the Leading Group for National Defence and Military Reform of the Central Military Commission according to the party-approved proposal. All features of the PRC’s military reform presented to the public was actually settled by this implementation plan, not from any discussion in the augmented meeting assembled on November 24, 2015. In this decision process proceeding between party and military decision making system, even these mechanisms are basically chaired by Xi. There is no doubt the Chinese Communist Party is still effectively exercising its leadership over the People’s Liberation Army. Regardless of the military professionalism indicated by the features shown in the military reform, the party is still the boss of these military professionals.

Last but not the least, the transparency of the military reform is unquestionably significant. There is a general trend of accusing the transparency of Chinese policies or actions in the community of Chinese observers. Rarely do Chinese experts ever thoroughly read these documents openly released by the communist authorities before criticizing transparency. As noted in this article, dates of decision making meetings and documents of reform policies are essentially quite transparent. At least in two documents already mentioned, the Decision on Major Issues Concerning Comprehensively Deepening Reforms and the Opinions of the Central Military Commission on Deepening the National Defense and Military Reform, are openly available. All features attracting media concern are already listed by these two documents.

Many military professionals’ careers will be undermined by the reform process.

This military reform may affect the careers and families of many military personnel. It may also undermine interests of defense industries and local economies. Social engineering of this scale cannot be totally concealed. Three hundred thousand military personnel will be decommissioned by this reform. Many units will be eliminated and their assets need to be disposed of. It is impossible to shut the door and engage with the reform only by the military itself. Can Chinese military experts know the right sources to understand the nature of the People’s Liberation Army’s reform?

The content of these two documents not only address the tasks that need to be done but also consequences that should be actively prevented. This position is considerably pragmatic. Many possible corruptive actions are warned of. To some extent, no intention to ignore the dark side of the human nature that possibly fishing in the trouble water is also evidently presented by the texts of the policy document. These possibly embarrassing issues can be noted by texts with no preservation. The degree of transparency should be undeniable.

However, it is necessary to remember that the title of the Opinions of the Central Military Commission on Deepening the National Defense and Military Reform implies that there are still many uncertainties existing within the future reform process. According to Article Nine of the Procedures for Handling Official Documents in the Administrative Departments of the Government for the PRC, the definition of a document with the title of “opinion” is “An opinion shall be given when providing opinion over important issues and the solutions thereof.” Unlike “decision” its definition is “A decision shall be given in the following situation: deciding on important issues or actions, granting citations to relevant work units and personnel, changing or cancelling inappropriate decisions made by sub-branches.” Are the solutions of all the PRC’s military reform tasks completely settled? Obviously not! Otherwise, the document would be titled with “decision,” not “opinion.”

The features of the military reform involve much information to analyze, but to understand the nature of the People’s Liberation Army reform is the essential foundation to solve this game of jigsaw. Without knowing the fundamental characteristics of this reorganization process, we may only act like a dog chasing its own tail with no result at all.

Chang Ching is a Research Fellow with the Society for Strategic Studies, Republic of China. The views expressed in this article are his own.

China’s Maritime Silk Road Gamble

This is republished from the Johns Hopkins SAIS Foreign Policy Institute.

Ever since Xi Jinping announced the creation of a Maritime Silk Road in an October 2013 speech to the Indonesian parliament, China’s vision for “one road” running through Southeast and South Asia has driven a significant portion of Chinese foreign policy in its periphery. This has led to both the controversial Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) (announced in the same speech) and complementary investment funds such as the Maritime Silk Road Bank, as well as high-level diplomatic visits by Chinese leaders to countries in the region. In addition, China sees its “Silk Road Economic Belt” among its Central Asian neighbors as indivisible from the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road,” as seen by China’s slogan 一带一路 (“one belt, one road”) and its public diplomacy effort to promote both policies together. All of this indicates that, like many Chinese foreign policy initiatives, the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” is multi-pronged: it is intended to serve diplomatic, economic, and strategic purposes.

First and foremost, the Maritime Silk Road is designed to pacify neighboring countries threatened by China’s aggressive territorial claims in the South China Sea. Curiously, China has attempted to both aggravate tensions among its Southeast Asian neighbors and soothe them at the same time, contrary to its normal pattern of swinging back and forth between aggressive brinksmanship and diplomatic rapprochement (such as in China’s relationship with Taiwan or its cutting off and then reestablishing of military to military ties with the United States). Despite the idealistic claims of ‘peaceful economic development absent political strings’ made by Chinese leaders and state media about the Maritime Silk Road, China has continued unabated to strengthen its unilateral claim to vast maritime territory in the South China Sea, turning reefs and other undersea maritime features into full-fledged islands, complete with airstrips that could be used by the People’s Liberation Army.

Conversely, the Maritime Silk Road is also designed to cement relationships with countries that are tacitly friendly to China such as Malaysia, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan. This will be accomplished primarily through economic incentives like infrastructure development and trade deals. In this sense, the Maritime Silk Road not only stands side by side with the Silk Road Economic Belt, but also as part of a historical continuum that includes China’s past investment in maritime-related infrastructure, which has been referred to by some as a “String of Pearls” policy. If one wants to know what kind of infrastructure projects China will fund in the future, look to what it has done in the past: oil and natural gas links to Myanmar’s port in Sittwe, ports in Sri Lanka such as the Hambantota and Colombo Port City projects, and the Pakistani port in Gwadar. Indeed, China and Malaysia have already announced a joint port project in Malacca. Meanwhile, China, which is already the largest trading partner for most countries in Southeast and South Asia, is also signing new free trade agreements with countries such as Sri Lanka.

Chinese infrastructure investment, intended primarily to strengthen China’s energy security and increase trade between China and its neighbors, will now get a huge boost with the creation of both the AIIB and more specialized investment vehicles such as the Maritime Silk Road Bank and the Silk Road Fund. While the AIIB has had the flashiest rollout with China contributing $50 billion USD to a planned $100 billion USD in capital, the other two funds are no slouches: the Silk Road Fund has plans for $40 billion USD in capital, while the Maritime Silk Road Bank hopes to attract $100 billion RMB in investment.

Finally, unmentioned in authoritative Chinese sources is that the Maritime Silk Road, and especially Chinese infrastructure investment, is implicitly intended to facilitate more frequent People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) deployments in the Indian Ocean and beyond. The PLAN needs reliable logistics chains across Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) throughout Southeast and South Asia; ships cannot go far without a reliable supply of fuel, food, and armaments. But for the foreseeable future, China is at a serious disadvantage in this regard: the US Navy and allied navies have such a preponderance of force and ability to project power throughout the region that the PLAN is ill-equipped to compete. Given the PLANs current capabilities, China’s logistics capacity would only be dependable during peacetime; they would not survive in a contested environment, particularly if the US decided to close off key chokepoints like the Malacca and Sunda Straits. Therefore, the first step to strengthen the PLAN’s capabilities is to build reliable logistical infrastructure in key friendly states, such as the aforementioned projects in Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan. These logistical links would still be quite vulnerable in a conflict scenario, given the tenuous relationship China would have with even putatively friendly countries if China went to war. Therefore, the primary benefit for the PLAN is to demonstrate presence in peacetime, and to show that it can operate far from its own shores.

The Maritime Silk Road, along with the attendant Silk Road Economic Belt, is truly a multi-headed dragon, so large that it is difficult to disaggregate its many parts. The most difficult challenge for China, however, will not be building infrastructure and signing trade deals—these are no doubt massive undertakings, but they are fundamentally instrumental tasks that will not receive much opposition from countries in the region. The more difficult objective for China is translating investment and trade into building a coalition of states in the region that align their values and foreign policy goals with those of China, and indeed identify with China at the expense of competitors like the US. China will likely find this kind of bandwagoning hard to pull off—when it comes down to it, the Maritime Silk Road may wash away like sand.

William Yale is the Director of Operations at CIMSEC, an Adjunct Fellow at the American Security Project, and a Research Associate at the SAIS Foreign Policy Institute.

Evaluating China’s Anti-Ship Drone Swarms

The Project 2049 Institute recently released a report on People’s Republic of China (PRC) UAV advances, with a focus on how those capabilities could be used to threaten U.S. Navy carrier strike groups.  China’s expanding land- and sea-based UAV inventory runs the range from small tactical systems to medium-ranged Predator-class to unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs) still under development.  This anti-access/area denial capability, or A2/AD in naval parlance, represents just one of several layers of offensive systems the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is developing to exercise naval hegemony in the Western Pacific. 
The report argues that “UAV systems may emerge as the critical enabler for PLA long range precision strike missions within a 3000 kilometer radius of Chinese shores.”  This 3000 km radius represents an area well into the so-called Second Island Chain, control of which is commonly recognized as a long-term strategic goal for the PLA.

China's ASN-229A ISR and Strike UAV, just one of many friendly drones you'll find in the Project 2049 report.
China’s ASN-229A ISR and Strike UAV, just one of many friendly drones you’ll find in the Project 2049 report.

The report details Chinese strategists’ plans to use drones of swarms in a variety of ways to defeat opposing naval forces.  Decoy UAVs would draw fire and reduce the inventories of anti-aircraft missiles.  Electronic warfare (EW) UAVs would jam shipboard radars and anti-radition drones would attack them.  Reconnaissance drones could then cue anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs) and armed UAVs in an attempt to overwhelm strike group defenses.

Defense against these swarms could take a number of forms.  First, dispersal of naval forces – over tens, hundreds, and thousands of kilometers – would prevent a drone swarm from doing too much harm to concentrated ship formations, also causing the PLA to prioritize its targets or disperse the swarm, limiting its effectiveness.  In an exchange against large numbers of low-cost drones, the engagement ratio, in both cost and number of weapons, is not favorable to air defense missiles such as those used by Japanese and U.S. Aegis ships.  A return to anti-aircraft cannon may be one option to reverse this asymmetry, though the introduction of directed energy weapons in the place of limited defensive missile inventories might be a better way to handle large numbers of incoming drones.  Interestingly, the U.S. Navy has announced it will deploy a prototype laser system, a previous version of which has been tested against UAVs, on USS Ponce in the Persian Gulf later this year.

It should also be noted that these systems would be susceptible to the same vulnerabilities cited by many observers of U.S. UAV operation: they can be jammed or spoofed, and the satellite or other communications links that control the drones can also be disrupted by various means. Finally, in the spirit of “it takes a network to defeat a network,” China would not have a monopoly on UAV development.  In time, PLA drone swarms would face large numbers of UAVs operated by other navies in the South China Sea.  Expect to see drones develop with air-to-air capabilities, defensive counter-measures, and programming to “sacrifice” themselves to protect surface fleets.

See more on China’s maritime UAV developments here.

This article was re-posted by permission from, and appeared in its original form at NavalDrones.com.

Who’ll get the Lion’s share?

In the last week, during a visit to the People’s Republic of China, Singapore’s Defence Minister Ng En Hen has reaffirmed bilateral military ties between the two countries with his Chinese counterpart, Liang Guanglie. Since the Agreement on Defence Exchanges and Security Cooperation was signed in 2008, there have been regular exchanges between the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and the People’s Liberation Army, port calls, joint courses, seminars, and a counter-terrorism exercise. But China is not the only suitor trying to woo the Lion City-state. Earlier this month, Mr Ng also met with US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, with the two agreeing that America could deploy up to four Littoral Combat Ships out of Singapore on a rotational basis, with the first due to arrive in the second quarter of next year. In addition, its Changi naval base was designed from the outset to accommodate ships up to the size of a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, way beyond the country’s own capabilities. With China becoming increasingly assertive towards its neighbours in the first island chain it see as its sphere of influence, followed by America’s pivot towards Asia in support of its regional allies and the advent of Air-Sea Battle to meet the Chinese threat, Singapore may be forced to choose between its two military partners.

Singapore’s Formidable-class stealth frigates – but which side could they end up on?

Though Singapore’s military relationship with the US stretches back further, the country has always had an ethnocentric strategic outlook. At the time of its secession from the Federation of Malaysia on 9 August 1965, Singapore only possessed around 1,000 armed servicemen. This and the republic’s small population of approximately four million, prompted Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew to introduce national service from 14 March 1967. Another major factor behind this was that the majority of those personnel, particularly senior officers, we’re Malay and Indian. With Singapore having a Chinese majority population, and with Malaysia seen as the country’s main threat at the time, Malays were excluded from the draft for its first ten years as Chinese filled out the armed forces’ ranks and were swiftly promoted. Even when Malays were included after 1977, they were assigned to the police and civil defence, not combat roles. The Second Minister for Defence, Lee Hsien Loong, stated in 1987 that “If there is a conflict, if the SAF is called to defend the homeland, we do not want to put any of our soldiers in a difficult position where his emotions for the nation may be in conflict with his religion”. Singapore’s political leaders did not trust Malays to fight against their kith and kin. Should hostilities erupt between the United States and China, can Singapore’s Chinese-dominated armed forces be expected to do the same, and does America need to think more carefully about how far it enters into the Lion’s den?

Dr Daniel Owen Spence is Lecturer in Imperial and International History at Sheffield Hallam University, United Kingdom, and publishes on nineteenth and twentieth century maritime history.