Chinese President Xi Jinping announced in September 2015 that the country planned to cut the size of its armed forces by 300,000, kicking off the latest round of military reform in China. The plan focused on restructuring Chinese armed forces as part of the efforts to build a modern military force.
Since the establishment of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) during the Chinese civil war in the late 1940s, the Chinese military has always relied heavily on land forces, as the naval and air forces only started to expand after winning the civil war. Land forces continued to dominate the Chinese military until the end of the Cold War, because possible military conflicts over China’s land borders with the Soviet Union were the primary security concern of the nation.
Land Borders Safer
However, military analysts suggested that China no longer needed to maintain a large number of land forces after the end of the Cold War, as the collapse of the Soviet Union greatly reduced security threats over Chinese land borders.
"In general, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, China and Russia reached security agreements to reduce military tensions over their shared land borders that extend over thousands of kilometers. China also reached similar agreements with several Central Asian countries. This helped eliminate land threats over China’s northern borders. The only possible threat over Chinese land borders could be from India. But that’s also not a big issue. That’s why the threats China faces over its land borders have reduced greatly," Arthur Ding, director of the Institute of International Relations under the National Chengchi University in Taipei, told Sputnik.
The military expert pointed out that Xi’s plan for the PLA reform also focused on changing the command structure of the Chinese military by giving naval and air force officers more power.
"Previously, officers of the land forces held most of the senior positions in the PLA. Before the reform, the chief commanders of the seven military regions were all from the land forces. But today, a naval officer and an air force officer each command one of the five military theater commands after the reform," he said.
Following reform plans released in February 2016, the previous seven military regions in the PLA were reorganized into five theater commands.
Growing Maritime Interests
Other Chinese military experts explained that the changes in the structure of the PLA can help protect the country from future potential security threats.
"Previously, our land forces accounted for about 70 percent of the PLA. The recent changes were rather dramatic and could raise concerns from different sides. But I think we shouldn’t over-interpret such changes. As we follow an active defensive military strategy, we need to maintain both deterrence and counterattack capabilities. Our missile forces along with our naval and air forces can help improve our deterrence capabilities. But if our deterrence fails to prevent a war, we also need to be capable of counterstrike and winning the war. That’s why we need to rebalance the PLA’s structure," Xu Guangyu, a retired general and senior consultant with the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association in Beijing, told Sputnik.
Xu Guangyu believes China needs to boost the strength of naval forces to better safeguard the nation’s growing interests overseas, as maritime trading routines have become critical to Chinese economic growth.
"As China develops its naval forces, it can help safeguard our national interests. China is the largest trader in the world today. In addition to the land routines connecting to Europe, a large portion of our trade comes from maritime routines. To protect our interests over the sea and the growing number of Chinese living overseas, we need to rely on naval forces," he said.
To illustrate that, the expert mentioned that China’s naval warships were deployed to help rescue Chinese nationals trapped in Libya when civil war broke out in the country in 2011.
No Separate Maritime Corps
During a recent speech on the issue related to Taiwan, Xi once against stressed the importance of "unification" with the self-ruled island. The speech raised concerns over whether Beijing would try to "reunite" with Taiwan through military action.
Xu, the Beijing-based expert, suggested that it is important for the PLA to boost the strength of its marines to prepare for such a scenario.
"Our country definitely needs to develop and modernize our marines. Without marines, it’s difficult to accomplish some missions on the sea. In addition, our nation has not ‘reunited’ with Taiwan yet. We can’t rule out the possibility of ‘unification’ through military means. If Taiwan really wants to become independent, we need to be prepared," he said.
However, Ding, the Taiwan-based expert, argued that it is unnecessary for the PLA to establish separate Marines from its naval forces to establish something similar to the United States Marine Corps, because the PLA still does not have a strategy to maintain a global presence as the US military does.
"The chief commander of the US Marine Corps holds an equal ranking as the commander in chief of the US Army or US Navy. If the PLA follows this path, the PLA needs to upgrade the rankings of marines to a separate combat theater level. The US military has a global presence, while the PLA primarily focuses on the Taiwan Strait or regional issues in the South China Sea. The PLA still doesn’t have a strategy to maintain a global presence," he said.
The expert added that he believes the PLA will maintain the current status of the marines in the next 10 years.
The views expressed in this article are those of the contributors and do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.