By reforming the army, Chinese President Xi Jinping is not only enhancing China’s international role but boosting his own position at home, says DW’s Frank Sieren.
China’s head of state and party chief is not slacking, even as the year draws to a close – there’s work to be done on restructuring the country, as well as the army. He plans to streamline it and make it more efficient by cutting down the number of soldiers by 300,000 to just over two million. He’s also going one step further and intends to bring the ground forces, the navy and the air force under a joint command structure. The idea is that China’s bloated army becomes more flexible, modern and high-tech.
Boosting the navy and air force
China’s seven military regions will be transformed into four “strategic zones”. Xi’s message to his generals is that “the Chinese dream is also a dream of a strong military.” The army reform is a project that has been discussed over and over in the past two years, but experts see the newly-announced plans as the biggest overhaul in decades. The goal at the end is to have strengthened the navy and the air force. Until now, the Chinese army was comprised largely of ground forces. But Xi needs a more powerful navy to support China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea and moreover to stimulate the “Maritime Silk Road” between South China and Africa.
So, it is also fitting that China, for the first time in the army’s history, is now setting up a military base abroad – in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa – as was announced after the China-Africa summit last weekend (December 5-6).
Reform also strengthens president’s position
The overhaul of the military is a signal that China wants to make sure that its business interests are protected. However, Xi’s military reform is also directed at the domestic audience. The party chief is also the Chinese army’s top commander. He will be able to further strengthen his control through the new command structures. His anti-corruption campaign helped him dispose of his rivals in the military, including two high-ranking generals, and replace them with loyal supporters. In September, Xi Jinping showcased China’s military might to invited heads of state at a parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of the war against Japan. Even if China’s army is far from being as sophisticated as those of the West in terms of technology, it is clear that the military reform will make Xi become even more powerful.
Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for over 20 years.