In a move widely expected to boost resources for China's navy, President Xi Jinping announced restructuring of the People's Liberation Army to consolidate it into four strategic zones, down from seven.
The consolidation comes with deep cuts to the PLA's roster. The army will shed some 300,000 troops and all branches will lose a combined 170,000 officers by 2017.
The Communist Party plans to increase military spending over the same period.
Analyst Liang Guoliang said that the change was essential to meet the Party's goal of maritime defense and a secure sea route to the Indian Ocean. Its “One Belt, One Road’ initiatives needs a real strong blue-water navy to protect China’s maritime lifelines and its expanding overseas interests. But the command structure of today’s PLA is focused on land forces and does not have what it takes to meet those needs,” he told media.
China’s “One Belt, One Road” strategic routes
Under the plan, the civilian State Council's direct control over the military will expand. The PLA's four administrative divisions – the General Staff, General Logistics, General Political, and General Armaments – will be absorbed by the government's Ministry of National Defence and the PLA's General Staff Department.
“It’s a long-anticipated overhaul for grass-roots soldiers because it’s a practical push to turn the PLA into a real modern army of international standard,” another inside source told media.
Some officers have resisted the change, going so far as to say that it could destabilize the country if done without addressing pay and pensions. It is “a setback for some senior officials who lost out in the reform. That’s why Xi has ordered them to obey discipline,” a source said.
Previous administrations have struggled to rein in the PLA. Over the past year, President Xi has overseen an extensive anti-corruption campaign in the most severe PLA purge since the 1980s. It has led to the ouster of dozens of senior officers on bribery charges, and observers suggest it has had the secondary effect of neutralizing opponents.
Analysts at the RAND Corporation view the PLA's Soviet structure and dated priorities as "potentially serious weaknesses,” and its capabilities below those of western counterparts. Christopher Johnson of CSIS has said that despite large funding increases and modernization efforts, the PLA struggles in “conducting truly integrated joint operations.” Mr. Johnson added that President Xi is seeking a “coherent maritime strategy,” and reform could facilitate that goal.