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UPDATED: September 14, 2015 NO. 38 SEPTEMBER 17, 2015
Downsizing the Army
China announces a curtailing of its military while increasing the performance of the troops
By Wang Hairong

A formation of PLA soldiers during a military parade in Beijing on September 3 (XINHUA)

On September 3 before the grand military parade commemorating the 70th anniversary of the victory of the Chinese People's War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression and the World Anti-Fascist War, Chinese President Xi Jinping, also Chairman of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Military Commission, announced that the nation would cut the number of its standing troops by 300,000.

"China will remain committed to peaceful development. We Chinese love peace. No matter how much stronger it may become, China will never seek hegemony or expansion," Xi pledged during his speech.

This cut represents a 13 percent reduction of China's military in active duty. China now has a military force of 2.3 million, including 850,000 ground forces, according to a government paper published in 2013.

After the downsizing, the military will account for no more than 0.15 percent of China's mainland's total population of 1.37 billion. That is equivalent to an average of one soldier out of every 666 people.

This proportion of military to total population is lower than the 0.53 percent of Russia, the 0.44 percent of the United States, and the 0.22 and 0.21 percent respectively in Germany and the UK, according to Xinhua News Agency.

Yang Yujun, spokesman of China's Defense Ministry, said that the move will mainly cut troops equipped with outdated armaments, administrative staff and non-combatant personnel, while optimizing the structure of Chinese forces.

Yang said the cut will be made step-by-step and will be accomplished by the end of 2017.

Military reform

China's armed forces are composed of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), the People's Armed Police Force (PAPF) and the militia. The PLA consists of the army, navy, air force and the Second Artillery Force.

The military force not only safeguards territorial integrity and copes with the threat of terrorism, separatism and extremism; but also performs non-military duties such as disaster relief, emergency rescue and international peacekeeping.

"In 2008, some 1.26 million officers and men as well as militia members were sent to counter the disaster of freezing weather, sleet and snowstorms in south China, and 221,000 to participate in rescue after the devastating earthquake in Wenchuan, southwest China's Sichuan Province," according to the 2013 national defense white paper titled The Diversified Employment of China's Armed Forces.

In 2010, some 21,000 and 12,000 member of the armed forces took part respectively in rescue work after the earthquake that struck the Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of northwest China's Qinghai Province, and the mudslide and rockslide in Zhugqu County of another northwestern province of Gansu, the white paper said.

The armed forces also support national and local infrastructure construction related to national economy and people's livelihood in such areas as transportation, water conservancy, energy and communications.

The PLA, militia and reserve organic troops have been organized to help afforest barren hills, control desertification, preserve wetlands, contribute to poverty-alleviation initiatives and help build new rural areas. Military medical and health institutions and military art troupes also provide services to civilians.

Currently, the PLA has too many administrative staff members and a very complicated commanding system, which makes the military force inefficient, said Xu Guangyu, a retired major general and council member of the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association.

He told the press that the army will be reduced first, because the current army, navy and air force ratio is not very reasonable.

According to the 2013 defense white paper, the ratio of the above three forces was 72:11:17.

International experiences show that from the 1990s, the navy and air force have become the main forces in "informatized" war, Xu said.

He warned that in the current era, clinging to the old idea of maintaining a big army, while regarding the navy and air force as auxiliaries goes against the world trend and will lead to disastrous consequences.

Xu believed that given China's situation, the reasonable ratio between the army, navy and air force is 5:2.5:2.5.

He said that military art troupes and sport teams will be the first cut.

The downsizing is also in line with the top leadership's effort to deepen military reform. At its third plenary session held in November 2013, the 18th CPC Central Committee decided to adjust the ratios between the services and arms, between officers and soldiers, and between troops and military offices, and reduce the number of non-combat departments and staff.

This military cut is a decision made to adjust the military system to meet the requirements of modern war, said Gong Fangbin, a professor with National Defense University PLA China.

He said that the military used to meet its own various demands, including demands for education and medical services, while now some logistics services can be outsourced to civilian service providers, which can reduce the military's burden.

In regards to the impact of the military downsizing, Gong said that modern warfare does not depend on troop numbers, so troop cuts will not affect the military's combat power.

Historical experiences demonstrate that while the defense budget remains stable and the military is modernizing, properly cutting the number of troops will not reduce military combat power, but rather optimize the use of limited resources and make troops more efficient, said Gao Yan, a writer who often covers the military.

Gao said assuming that the military pays an average serviceman 200,000 yuan ($32,258) annually in training and living expenses, a cut of 300,000 means that 60 billion yuan ($9.68 billion), or about 7.5 percent of China's total annual military spending can be saved every year.

Yang said China's defense budget will be kept on a proper level to meet various needs including expenditure on new armaments, information technology and soldiers' salaries.

While responding to concerns about whether the money saved will be used to develop nuclear weapons and increase its power in cyberspace and outer space, military spokesman Yang said that China won't use nuclear weapons first and the country advocates peaceful exploration of outer space.

International response

The troop cut will be the 11th military reduction since the founding of the People's Republic of China on October 1, 1949, when the country had troops of 6.27 million.

The largest troop cut in China took place in 1985, when more than 1 million military personnel were demobilized.

Since the recent cut was announced, it has attracted intense attention from the international community.

"The implicit message of Xi's speech is that a strong China intends to be a peaceful power and can afford to do so without jeopardizing the security of the Chinese people," said Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute in the United States.

"His speech occurred against the backdrop of a military parade that displayed a modern, extremely capable defense force," Carpenter said.

Carpenter noted that Xi said China, despite its growing strength, will never seek hegemony. He said that both the United States and China's regional neighbors should welcome the tone and substance of the speech.

Marisela Connelly, expert in Chinese affairs at the College of Mexico's Center for Asian and African Studies, said that China is saying that it has all this weaponry but that it will cut its armed forces to show its commitment to the peaceful resolution of international conflicts.

China's decision to cut the number of its troops was a welcome decision, said Professor Francis Chigunta, a senior lecturer in the Department of Development Studies at the University of Zambia.

Chigunta said it is a sign that China is trying to reduce tension in the world, especially with its neighbors. China is trying to send a message that even though it has risen as a superpower in the world, it is still committed to peace. This move is good especially for the Asian region."

He said that the decision also suggests that China has realized that the quality of the military matters more than quantity.

Military Cuts Since the 1980s

- By 2017, China will reduce the size of its military force to 2 million by cutting 300,000 troops.

- Between 2003 and 2005, China cut another 200,000 personnel, leaving about 2.3 million soldiers.

- In 1997, troops were cut by 500,000 within three years, reducing the total to 2.5 million.

- By 1990, the number of troops shrank to 3.199 million, with a total cut of 1.039 million.

- In 1987, the army size decreased to a total of 3.235 million from 4.238 million.

- In 1985, the country announced it would cut 1 million troops to focus on economic development.

(Source: Xinhua News Agency)

Copyedited by Kylee McIntyre

Comments to wanghairong@bjreview.com

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