China’s military reform could lead to heightened tensions with U.S.
China has started a structural reform of its military to enhance its readiness for modern warfare entailing the full use of high-tech weapons.
The latest move can be described as a new phase in China’s drive to build a strong army, the goal pursued by President Xi Jinping through rapid progress in his country’s military build-up. Japan and the United States must closely cooperate to strengthen their guard against China’s continuously evolving military.
At a recent military conference, Xi emphasized that deepening national defense and military reform are “requirements of the times” to be fulfilled in pursuing “the dream of a strong army.” He also said China would seek to build, by the end of 2020, a structure for the integrated operation of units from its army, navy, air force and 2nd Artillery (strategic missile forces).
The reform drive entails a plan to reorganize the current structure, which divides the whole country into seven major military districts, each mainly controlled by the army. The plan will rearrange these districts into four to five combat zones, followed by a measure to establish a joint operational command organization in each zone. The reform is aimed at ensuring that orders from the nerve center of the military are thoroughly enforced among frontline troops, thereby making it possible to flexibly respond to any situation.
The current military districts are so strongly influenced by the army that there is a serious degree of vertical segmentation in military management there. There is inadequacy of the army’s cooperation with the navy, air force and missile unit. Xi’s reform drive seems to reflect his belief that, if the current situation goes unrectified, his country will not be able to effectively implement its strategy — known as “anti-access area denial (A2/AD)” — for preventing U.S. intervention in a military contingency.
Xi in command
China’s military reform reflects Xi’s wishes. Since the launch of his administration in the autumn of 2012, he has striven to build “an army that can win a war,” a task necessary for transforming his nation into “a great maritime power.”
The prevailing view has been that it will be difficult to reorganize the military districts due to strong resistance from the army. However, Xi’s success in initiating his reform drive means that he has cemented his power base by removing all foes within the military through his policy of clamping down on corrupt practices. He may also have intended to further tighten up the military.
Earlier, the Xi administration said it would slash his country’s 2.3 million soldiers by 300,000. This seems to entail cuts mainly in the number of noncombatants in the army, a task that can be made possible through a reorganization of the military districts. Budgetary resources to be accrued from this will likely be used for selected purposes of high priority, such as those tied to state-of-the-art weapons to be used by the three arms of the military.
China is reportedly accelerating efforts to develop a next-generation stealth bomber and a new intercontinental ballistic missile while also building several domestically designed aircraft carriers.
We believe Xi’s decision to unveil his military reform plan at this point in time signifies he was keenly aware of how relevant nations have acted in connection with China’s recent movements. For instance, the United States sent a warship to the South China Sea, and conducted patrol activities in waters near artificial islands reclaimed by China in the region. Japan too has been trying to restrain China.
China is also increasing the frequency of naval exercises in the Western Pacific, with a view to advancing into the so-called Second Island Chain, which extends from the Izu Islands to Guam. China’s maritime activities have also been noticeable in waters around the Senkaku Islands. The country’s undisguised provocative acts against the Japan-U.S. alliance will only add to tensions in the region.
However, it should be noted that even the U.S. forces required many years to achieve integrated military operation. Our nation’s Self-Defense Forces are still halfway there in pursuit of a similar goal. China’s neighboring countries need to closely watch whether Xi’s military reform drive will proceed as he calculated.
(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Dec. 16, 2015)