As India starts rearranging its military command matrix through Theatre Command and integration of the services through the Chief of Defence Staff, it will be worthwhile to analyse how China has worked on the same issue in the recent past as a part of its military reforms. China, as it started to challenge United States as a global superpower, began to reorganize its Command matrix, enabling a more flexible Command Option. To start with, the broad contours of China’s military reforms were set off in 2013, at the Third Plenary Session of the 18th CPC Central Committee. As a general set-up, the People Liberation Army (PLA), People’s Armed Police (PAP), and the militia and reserve forces were placed under the command and administration of the Central Military Commission (CMC).


Earlier, the CMC exercised command and control over the seven Military Regions (MR) of the PLA, the PLA Navy, the PLA Air Force and the Second Artillery Corps through the four general headquarters, namely, the General Staff Department (GSD), General Political Department (GPD), General Armament Department (GAD) and General Logistic Department (GLD).


In order to integrate and strengthen the joint structure in line with its military doctrine ‘integrated joint operations under conditions of informationisation,’ the seven Military Regions headquartered in Shenyang, Beijing, Jinan, Nanjing, Guangzhou, Chengdu and Lanzhou were reorganised in 2016  into five new ‘Joint Battle Zone Commands’ (Joint Commands) working directly under the CMC. As it reorganized its Command Matrix, China started to have five Theater Commands, namely the Eastern Theater Command, the Southern Theater Command, the Western Theater Command, the Northern Theater Command and the Central Theater Command of the PLA. Further, in order to attain a more lean structure without compromising on its efficiency, China started to cut down the  strength of military by 3,00,000 personnel from late 2015 onwards. The process eventually ended in 2018 and it was the 11th time that the military’s size has been reduced since the founding of New China in 1949.


China’s Military Reforms: Impact on the Force Structure and Party Control


The PLA Rocket Force was formed as a part of the military reforms in 2016.  The activation of the Rocket Force means that the Second Artillery Corps finally has the right name. What is noteworthy is that it is similar to Russia’s Strategic Rocket Forces, albeit with some differences. The Russian equivalent controls all of the long- and medium-range ballistic missiles in the country. It had previously been tasked with aerospace development as well, but subsequently the Space Forces were formed to take over that role. Likewise, China has assigned aerospace development to the Strategic Support Force (SSF), not the Rocket Force. The arrangement was most likely made to enable the air force to take the lead in aerospace development, a move towards the realization of the much-stressed “integrated air and space” strategy. On the modern battlefield, satellite positioning, communication, and remote sensing are key factors.


To achieve superiority in space, China might opt to establish a separate Space Force, something India will take notice as it also develops the Space Command apart from developing the Theatre Command. The Rocket Force currently controls all of the country’s intercontinental, medium- and short-range ballistic missiles, suggesting that it will still play an important role in China’s dealing with neighbouring countries over disputes.


From a structural perspective, the PLA’s reforms are, on the one hand, a move towards developing a specialized force and meeting the demands of the future battlefield; and on the other, a reshuffling of power aimed at getting a firmer grip on the military. This is reminiscent of the Gutian conference of 1929, when Mao Zedong seized the opportunity to establish the leading role of the Fourth Group of the Red Army. In the current reshuffling of power, the four general departments were weakened via the deactivation of some of their units. Some generals have even been removed from their positions as a part of the anti-corruption drive initiated as a part of the China’s Military Reforms. These signs are sufficient to conclude that the China’s military reforms are in part based on Xi’s desire to consolidate his own position as leader of the military.


Implications for Joint Operations Capability


From the perspective of operational effectiveness, the transition from military region to Theatre Command is of great significance to the development of joint operations capability. The PLA has been underscoring the concept of “integrated joint operations” since the Iraq War of 2003. Many publications on the subject have since been incorporated in the PLA’s internal reference materials. In executing joint operations, however, the biggest challenge is not technology but the army-centric military region system and the conservative attitudes of the military leadership.


For example, the army-dominated military region system transformed into a theatre command system and especially to develop and execute -access/area denial operations. The PLA has come to realize that it cannot pose any threat to the U.S. military, especially its aircraft carriers, unless it has the cooperation of other services and ballistic missile forces.


That each service goes its own way without building coordination with other services is already a serious problem, as it greatly reduces the combat strength of the PLA. So, in terms of improving combat strength, the transition from military region to battle zone is not only to streamline personnel but also to establish battle zones as the main operations command that serve actual needs on the battlefield. For a combat mission to be properly executed, the commander of a battle zone is entrusted with the power and discretion to mobilize troops within his area of responsibility (AOR), greatly enhancing the overall joint operations capability of the forces involved.


Implications for the Region


The establishment of battle zones in place of military regions thus represents a shift in the operational thinking of the PLA and a departure from the army-dominated force structure, which is often compared to a dog with a tail too big to wag. What is to come instead is an elite and highly flexible force with integrated joint operations capability. Now that Xi has greater control over the military, the military diplomacy function of the PLA could be put to better use. Besides the old-school tactics of verbal attack and sabre-rattling, as seen in the 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis, the expansion of the PLA’s presence could well be used as bargaining chips in international politics. By using the PLA externally as a means for military deterrence, in modern gunboat diplomacy for instance, or as a gateway for making contributions to the international community, Xi should feel more at ease in his application of the well-known carrot-and-stick approach.


Another obvious change in the PLA’s structure after the reforms is the integration of foreign intelligence capabilities. Foreign intelligence was formerly the responsibility of the second and third departments of General Services Department, which handled human intelligence and electronic and Internet intelligence, respectively. Now the job has been re-assigned to army-led units, the Rocket Force and SSF, in what amounts to an integration of intelligence resources. What is noteworthy is that the PLA’s Liaison Department has its own intelligence-gathering units, which would signify a reshuffle of the intelligence community.  The  CMC  in the future will have  intelligence units that directly report to it in a way similar to the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) of the U.S. or Russia’s GRU (Main Intelligence Directorate),  The above change in structure will be facilitated by Central Military Command’s  switch to Joint General Staff Department from the earlier PLA’s General Staff department. The new arraignment will be routed through the PLA’s Strategic Support Force enabling a holistic approach to intelligence collection. 




As the internal military reforms are underway in the People’s Republic of China, it will continue to push itself in a confrontational way as seen towards its recent border conflicts with India.  Furthermore, the internal civil-military balance in China may lead to a greater role for its military to play externally, which is something that countries such as India, United States, Japan and Australia that are way of Chinese assertiveness will take note of seriously. Finally, as India starts rearranging its Theatre Command, it will take special note of the way China reorganized its military command matrix, having impact on internal Civil-Military Relations and the inter-service relations.


In principle, there are differences between China and India in terms of their military command matrix and adherence of the professional military to the civilian establishment. In this context, as India is bolstering its internal military Command Structure for better synergy among the tri-services and better facilitation of the complex civil-military relations it will take a lesson or two from China’s complex civil-military relations and the re-configuration of its military command structure.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are personal.