The Cable

China Wants More Planes and Ships — and 300,000 Fewer Troops

A new Chinese military is taking shape.

chinaPLA

China is slashing 300,000 troops, but the cuts aren’t being made to reduce tensions with Beijing’s increasingly anxious neighbors. Instead, China is trying to trim the fat from a force burdened with massive Soviet-era bureaucracy, aging equipment, and enormous numbers of poorly trained, badly paid draftees.

Chinese President Xi Jinping announced the cuts in a public address after a military parade marking the 70th anniversary of the country’s victory over Japan in World War II. Hours after Xi spoke, a Defense Ministry official told a press conference in Beijing that units with the most out of date equipment will be targeted first, along with administrative staff. The savings will be used to pay for new modernization programs in the Chinese navy and air force, as well as funding cyberoperations and raising the pay and living conditions for those who the military most wants to keep. Even with the cuts, the Chinese military — which currently has more than 2 million troops — would remain the largest in the world (the United States, by comparison, has 1.4 million active duty forces).

Beijing’s decision to shift resources away from its ground forces comes at a time when China is placing less emphasis on a potential invasion of Taiwan — something that would require significant numbers of ground troops — and instead focusing more on taking control over a series of small islands in the South China Sea. China has also been involved in a series of long-running maritime territorial disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines, and Japan over offshore fishing grounds and oil and gas deposits. Washington, for its part, has expressed concern about recent Chinese moves to build airstrips and other military infrastructure on disputed atolls.

The People’s Liberation Army is also pushing to recruit and retain a more educated, higher-performing force. Part of the reform package, reports from China suggest, will realign the old army-dominated system and for the first time place all of the military services on equal footing within the government. The army has traditionally had the most influence in Beijing, and each of the country’s seven military districts is commanded by a PLA general. There has been increasing talk of placing leaders from the other services in positions of power.

The U.S. Defense Department is taking a cautious approach to the changes. Cmdr. Bill Urban, a Pentagon spokesman, told Foreign Policy that “we understand that these troop reductions are apart of China’s long-term, comprehensive military modernization program, which the DoD continues to monitor.”

The effort has a certain strategic parallel at the Pentagon, where tightening budgets, the end of combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the administration’s stated desire for a “pivot” to the Pacific have contributed to the army steadily losing money to the Navy and Air Force.

In 2008, during the height of the wars, the Army accounted for about 37 percent of the Defense Department budget, while the Navy and Air Force each hovered around 25 percent. But the Army’s share of the pie has been declining ever since. In 2016, the ground service is slated to drop to about 25 percent of the budget, and the Air Force and Navy will each make up for just over 28 percent. The remaining dollars go to fund the Special Operations Command, the Missile Defense Agency, and the defense health program.

“The [U.S.] Army has pretty clearly been the bill payer so far in this downturn and the strategic rebalance,” said Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

When it comes to troop levels, the U.S. Army and the PLA are also on a similar glidepath, although on a vastly different scale. Army active duty end strength peaked at 566,000 in 2011, and has since fallen to 490,000 on its way down to a projected floor of 450,000 by 2018. The Navy and the Air Force, meanwhile, will add 5,000 sailors and 4,000 airmen next year.

But the new calculus in China cuts even deeper into the traditional way that the PLA has structured itself. The force has always been made up primarily of poorly paid and at times lightly trained draftees, and educational status mattered little. But with the emphasis on building a more professional and technologically savvy force, “you need to recruit people who will want to stay in, and you want people with college education and computer experience,” said Dean Cheng, a Chinese military expert at the Heritage Foundation.

“In China, if you want to make money, you don’t join the military,” Cheng said. “If you want to travel the world, joining the military isn’t the way to do it.”

Changing that mindset means paying more to recruit, train, and then retain skilled troops — an enormously expensive proposition for a military as large as China’s.

There are still many unanswered questions about the new Chinese reform program, including what it means for the top-heavy leadership structure, and what role the reserves and the country’s civilian militias will play in national defense and projecting Chinese power abroad. But there is one certainty: The Chinese military of the near-future will look vastly different than the Chinese military of the recent past.

Photo credit: Jason Lee Pool/Getty Images

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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