Why a leaner, meaner PLA must be sensitive to worries about China’s military rise


Much of what needs to be said of the recent report on the People’s Liberation Army downsizing has been said. As part of the “transformational changes” undertaken so far, China’s army now accounts for less than 50 per cent of all PLA troops, with almost half of the non-combatant units made redundant and the officer corps slashed by 30 per cent.

By contrast, the navy, air force, rocket force and strategic support force combined now surpass the army in overall numbers.

Back in 2015, President Xi Jinping announced plans to reduce the military by 300,000 troops. But it was not the first time the PLA had taken measures to slash and reorganise its manpower.

In 1985, 1997 and 2003, Beijing announced it would reduce headcount by a million, half a million and 200,000 troops respectively – with the army being the focus of this reduction effort.

President Xi Jinping announced plans to cut 300,000 troops in 2015. Photo: AP
Since then, the process continues to see the streamlining of not only the army but other supporting institutions, such as those for training, while boosting the proportion of other services.

Through such transformative shifts, the PLA is trying to become a leaner, meaner and more professional force.

China cuts size of army to less than half of total PLA force
As the military gains in modern hardware and software, the apparent new parallel focus appears to be on raising the quality of “wetware” – the human factor.

That includes revisiting and revising the concept of operations and tactics to integrate the new assets and training syllabus with Xi’s repeated exhortation for the PLA to “enhance preparedness and improve its capability to win wars”.

But there is also a sociopolitical angle to this recent slew of cutbacks that perhaps would have a longer-term impact, albeit a painful one. Demobilised personnel reportedly have trouble finding employment in the highly competitive civilian job market and have complained about a lack of promised pension and health care benefits.