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What China's military plans mean for India

By Jayadev Ranade
October 27, 2015 20:50 IST

'There are major implications for India. Though there was a transparently thin attempt to project the troop reduction as intended to promote peace, the downsizing is actually part of plans to streamline and strengthen the PLA, capable of defending China's national interests at home and abroad,' says Jayadev Ranade.

Military vehicles carry DF-21D ballistic missiles roll to Tiananmen Square during the military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Beijing, September 3. Photograph: Damir Sagol/Reuters

IMAGE: Military vehicles carry DF-21D ballistic missiles roll to Tiananmen Square during the military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Beijing, September 3. Photograph: Damir Sagol/Reuters

 

Chinese President Xi Jinping's Announcement at the grand military parade on September 3 that China's People's Liberation Army would be downsized by 300,000 personnel signalled the beginning of extensive reform and restructuring of the PLA.

Described by Chinese officials as the most extensive and far-reaching ever, the military reforms will be carefully studied and monitored in many world capitals. The impact of these military reforms, which are intended to boost China's ability to achieve its regional ambitions, will be felt mainly by countries in China's neighbourhood and those with whom China shares a land or maritime frontier.

There are major implications for India. Though there was a transparently thin attempt to project the troop reduction as intended to promote peace, the downsizing is actually part of plans to streamline and strengthen the PLA and fashion it into a hi-tech, lethal, 'informationised' force capable of defending China's national interests at home and abroad.

For China's Communist Party and military leadership, the main focus of the military reforms and restructuring are the ideological and political indoctrination of the PLA; upgrading of personnel skills; acquisition, development and familiarisation with advanced hi-tech armaments; intensification of training under new conditions to 'fight and win local wars under hi-tech informatised and complex electromagnetic conditions'; and raising the cyber warfare capability of all PLA formations.

Since future conflicts are anticipated to be localised and mainly along China's peripheries, the PLA's capabilities for rapid trans-regional transportation over long distances of large numbers of fully armed and equipped formations comprising all services and reinforced by the second artillery will be further enhanced.

The assessment of China's political and military leaders of the international situation and environment around China has been an important contribution in the formulation of plans for reforming and restructuring the PLA. Noticeable is the continuity in the tenor of their assessments.

Particularly significant for India is the PLA spokesman's statement to the Wen Wei Po on May 27, 2011, when he said, 'China is currently facing an unsafe world. The West is recovering while the East is anxious and the North is stable while the South is tense... a dangerous situation on China's borders is increasing. There is also the possibility that the actions by outsiders will bring about complex changes.'

Equally importantly, the annual conference of the PLA's prestigious Academy of Military Sciences on January 9, 2015 concluded that 'Unprecedented changes are taking place in the global military situation; military force in international relations is more widely used; and the situation in the Asia-Pacific has worsened.'

These assessments are reflected in the manner in which the new Theatre Joint Commands, which will replace the Military Regions, are proposed to be constituted. Pertinent for countries which have unsettled or disputed borders with China is China's assessment that it perceives a considerably low level of external threat from the north.

Consequently, analysts assess that three Group Armies from the northern areas will be demobilised. Chinese media reports additionally indicate that the PLA's troop strength in the southern sector -- the southwest facing India and the southeast responsible for a Taiwan crisis, as well as the South China Sea and Vietnam -- would not experience major cuts.

There are two versions of the plans for restructuring of the PLA. In one, four Theatre Commands are to replace the existing seven MRs while the other states that there will be five Theatre Commands, which would also mean demobilisation of fewer troops.

Reports reveal that plans for restructuring the PLA envisage orienting the Theatre Joint Commands as per their primary task and concentrating firepower and troops trained for a specific type of warfare within a single Theatre for ease of rapid deployment.

The Shenyang and Beijing MRs to be merged into the Northeast Theatre Joint Command and the Jinan, Nanjing and Guangzhou MRs to be absorbed in the Southeast Theatre Joint Command, all have mainly maritime roles.

The primary objective of these two Theatre Joint Commands, which will over time be reinforced by aircraft carriers, will be to enable China to establish dominance over the East China Sea and South China Sea and stand up to a US-Japan alliance.

A glimpse of the India-China military exercises in Kunming this month.

IMAGE: Indian and Chinese soldiers during explosives training, part of the India-China military exercises in Kunming, China, this month. Photograph: Kind courtesy The Indian Army

 

Significant for India is that both versions of the restructuring plans state that the Lanzhou and Chengdu MRs, which are oriented for military operations against India, will be retained as independent Theatre Joint Commands. The two MRs have been strengthened in recent years and their military activity along the Sino-Indian border has visibly increased.

Their conversion now into Theatre Joint Commands while retaining their operational orientation implies that the two MRs will be appreciably reinforced and possibly entrusted with additional responsibilities.

While the Northwest Theatre Command consisting of the Lanzhou MR may also get involved in safeguarding Chinese investments in the northern areas in Pakistan and trying to stop the flow of Islamic extremist elements into Xinjiang, the indication is clearly that China will continue to apply sustained pressure and maintain an 'offensive' posture towards India.

The reform plans, as announced by Xi Jinping, China's president who is chairman of the Central Military Commission, will lead to large scale demobilization. It will reduce the personnel strength of the PLA ground forces, referred to officially for the past few years as the PLA Army (PLAA), to 360,000 personnel from the present 850,000.

The personnel strengths of the PLA Navy (PLAN) and PLA Air Force (PLAAF) will meanwhile proportionately increase. While emphasising the importance of Integrated Joint Operations, China's military leadership has earlier stated that the operational roles and budgets of the PLAN and PLAAF will increase further.

Retired PLA Major General Xu Guangyu, a senior consultant at the Chinese Military Disarmament Control Council and an expert on contemporary Chinese military affairs, was quoted by the government-owned Global Times on September 6, as speculating that the ratio of ground, air and naval forces would finally be 2:1:1! The increased operational role for the PLAN and PLAAF has implications for India.

The personnel strength of the People's Armed Police Force (PAPF) is also set to increase appreciably since demobilised PLA personnel will mainly be absorbed into the PAPF and the border guards. The PAPF is to be transformed into a National Guard.

While with its increased strength the PAPF will be able to more effectively tackle the rising popular discontent in the country, it will additionally be able to help stiffen the implementation of central policies in the troubled border regions of Tibet and Xinjiang by strengthening its presence in those areas.

Augmentation of the border guards will additionally mean that trained ex-military personnel can be deployed along the border.

These planned reforms and restructuring of the military are a bold initiative by Xi Jinping and, if successfully implemented, the reforms could give China military capabilities commensurate with that of a major regional power. They will help realise 'China's Dream.'

Jayadev Ranade, former Additional Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India, is President of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy.

Jayadev Ranade
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