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"Ocean Defense" Strategy Fuels PLA Changes
Recent discussions on the modernization of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) have focused mainly on technological advances, with less attention paid to the personnel aspects of change in the PLA forces.
The People's Liberation Army (PLA) has declared its intention to reposition the armed forces as a measure of modernization operations. Against this backdrop, an analysis of the promotion patterns of 118 PLA generals could provide important insights into the centers of gravity of change in the PLA forces.
A series of recent statements by senior Chinese military officials have hinted that the PLA's realignment suggests that the composition of China's armed forces may be undergoing significant change.
In April of this year, Defense Ministry spokesman Huang Xueping said in an interview, "We naturally want to develop a modernized military force that focuses more on technology than manpower." In recent years, China's navy has shown increasing confidence in international waters near Japan and in the South China Sea. Against this backdrop, Huang Xueping's remark raises questions about the PLA's intentions and capabilities.
Nicely, Chinese military leaders seem to indicate that they want to shift their long-standing focus from the army to the navy and air force. Their goal seems to be to expand China's military power projection capabilities into the Pacific Ocean by strengthening the role of the navy and air force, while downsizing the overall force.
Yang Chengjun, a researcher at the PLA's Second Artillery, said that the proportion of land forces in the Chinese army was a "problem" of historical origin, one that demonstrated the need to "make full use of the composition of the different branches" in order to equip the Chinese army to meet the challenges of the modern era.
Teng Jianqun, director of the Center for Arms Control Studies at the China Institute of International Studies (CIIS), believes that China's emphasis on naval and air force development is "inevitable."
Xu Guangyu, a retired PLA major general who currently works for the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association (CACDA), a government think-tank, takes the analysis one step further. He argues that China could achieve these goals of change if the budget allocation between the army, navy, and air force were changed from the current 60:20:20 to 50:25:25.
Xu Guangyu does not believe that the ratio will become 40:30:30 because he believes that China's navy and air force will be used "primarily to enhance the operational effectiveness of our ground forces." His words seem to imply that the PLA (at least for now) does not intend to catch up with U.S. global power projection capabilities. In recent years, the U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force budgets have been split roughly 40:30:30.
The PLAN's "ocean defense" strategy, which requires China to develop long-range naval capabilities, appears to be the main driver of change in the composition of China's armed forces.
Retired Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo, who serves as a senior researcher at the People's Liberation Army's Naval Equipment Demonstration and Research Center, said in an interview that the People's Navy has two main missions: to safeguard China's maritime security (including its territorial integrity), and to protect China's emerging and extensive maritime economic interests.
Although the former is still the People's Navy's main task, the People's Navy has begun to increase its focus on the latter. Rear Admiral Zhang Huachen, deputy commander of the East Sea Fleet, said, "As the country's economic interests expand, the navy has to protect the country's transportation lines and the safety of our major sea lanes." The Rear Admiral's words provide a rational explanation for the Navy's new strategy.
The importance of an oceanic defense strategy is based on two grounds. First, it declares that China's naval ambitions extend beyond traditional coastal areas or offshore. Second, it expands the People's Navy's defense responsibilities to include the protection of China's maritime economic interests.
It can be inferred that a key motivation for the repositioning of China's armed forces may have been because China saw a need to expand its forces beyond its shores and to allow its navy to perform oceanic defense missions.