The implications of China’s troop cuts

The reduction in troop numbers suggests President Xi Jinping is attempting to modernize the People’s Liberation Army

Robert Potter

Government and governance, International relations, National security | East Asia

1 October 2015

Why did China cut troop levels just before a huge nationalist display?

It was a very good diplomatic move, to cut troop levels just before what could have been interpreted as a massive display of nationalist machismo. Certainly, the parade was interpreted as a sign of Chinese confidence. However, by combining the parade with the announcement, it made it hard to paint the entire exercise with a single hawkish brush. President Xi Jinping was then able to declare his peaceful intentions in front of a large number of world leaders.

For the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the result is more mixed. A smaller, more professional and better equipped army will probably be of greater use as a tool of foreign policy. Cutting against this however is the reality that the PLA serves a major role in the country’s internal policing. The PLA is after all not a normal army, it is the army of a political party and one that happens to not be particularly democratic. These two goals do not always align. The present troop cuts show how China is struggling to resolve this tradeoff.

Professor Andrew Nathan of Columbia University and Dr Andrew Scobell from the RAND Corporation produced a stellar work on the capabilities of the PLA. They reached the conclusion that the internal policing role of the PLA has led to their numbers being overstretched facing a broad set of responsibilities. Defending mainland China is just one of those core tasks. After all, 14 countries border China and it has fought wars with a number of them in the last 70 years. It also must contend with long borders with states that have large armies and nuclear weapons.

This means that while many modern militaries have a lot to gain from smaller more professional militaries, the number of troops in the Chinese army was already under capacity to fulfill its missions. Now facing a reduction of 300,0000, cutting from over 2.2 million, the PLA will struggle to support its objectives. This comes on top of a 200,000 man cut by Jian Zemin in 2003.

The implication of this is that it will put the various responsibilities of the PLA into more direct collision. The cuts themselves appear to be strongly opposed within the PLA. While President Xi appears to be firmly in charge, it is entirely possible that China will need to transition many of these soldiers into domestic security forces. If this occurs then the division between military and policing will widen. This will then partially offset the tradeoff that has occurred through mission creep.

Focusing the military on external operations has advantages. By moving troops out of the provinces, the PLA will be able to reduce the impact of corruption. The decision is evidence of China struggling to define the role of the PLA. It is also evidence of the role of President Xi. If the President is successful in achieving his goals in the face of opposition from within the military then this should be taken as evidence of his authority.

As a result, the decision to cut the numbers of the PLA is evidence of President Xi trying to disengage the army from its political role. He will probably increase the demarcation between these roles by increasing the responsibilities of the police and paramilitary forces. This should also be taken to be evidence of President Xi both asserting his authority and attempting to modernize the PLA into a more effective fighting force.

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