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    Greater China
     Jan 25, 2006
China's army leaner and meaner
By Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING - Recent cutbacks in China's vast military - part of Beijing's campaign to modernize and strengthen its army - were accompanied by an unusual public relations stunt.

In contrast to traditional secrecy surrounding the country's military affairs, China chose to publicize its new downsizing campaign by selecting two experts from military-backed think tanks to be interviewed on China Central Television (CCTV) on what the new cuts mean for Beijing's ambitions to build a slimmer and more mobile force.

A 200,000-soldier reduction, under way since 2003, was

completed last month, leaving about 2.3 million troops in what is still the world's biggest standing army, according to a report in the official PLA Daily.

"Our military is marching towards the goal of an appropriately sized, structurally balanced, lean, command-responsive fighting force," the paper said this month.

But responding to doubts in the United States and neighboring Asian countries that its growing military clout might become a regional threat, Beijing chose not to limit its announcement to the state-run print media, but to air its views on the significance of the military cuts on CCTV.

Major-General Peng Guangqian, of the research unit of the China Military Control and Reduction Association, suggested the new round of downsizing has achieved a different objective than previous cuts.

"It is not only about reducing numbers; this time it is also about getting the army tailored to the needs of a new information age and the requirements of a future high-tech war," he said.

The latest staffing reductions included 170,000 officers - some 80% of all the cutbacks. "It reflects the need to trim commanding personnel and make the chain of decision-making swifter and more rational," Peng said.

Teng Jianqun of the Chinese Military Academy said, "In a high-tech environment where information technology is paramount, there won't be a need for so many layers of commanding personnel."

The emphasis on high-tech warfare, as opposed to China's traditional reliance on masses of ground troops, has also seen the infantry falling to an all-time low proportion of the military force, according to the People's Liberation Army's newspaper.

This modernization trend was also reflected in a series of military personnel changes completed last year. The Communist Party's decision-making Central Military Commission, which has long been dominated by the PLA, for the first time admitted into its ranks commanders from the air force, the navy and the missile forces in order to cope with high-tech warfare in the future.

Air force commander Qiao Qingchen, navy commander Zhang Dingfa and commander Jing Zhiyuan, whose units control China's ballistic missiles, joined the top military body in September, signaling the importance given to fighting a war in a new high-tech environment.

Nevertheless, Major-General Peng suggested further reductions in the proportion of ground troops were in the works, with an increase of the role of the navy and missile forces.

"Our goal is to cut fat and add muscle," Peng said. "We need to trim the tail and sharpen our teeth," he added, referring to a saying by the late Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong.

Both military experts took pains to emphasize that the top-to-bottom modernization drive aimed at forming a skilled and lean army was as important as the purchase of the sophisticated weapons China wants to acquire.

Over the past few years, Beijing has had to face accusations that a distinct regional military threat is emerging as the PLA stockpiles more modern weapons. The announced defense budget has risen by double-digit percentages in most recent years. For 2005, it was about US$30 billion, a 12.6% increase from the prior year.

The Pentagon says high-priced programs controlled by the PLA, such as space flights, and other military-backed research are not included in the official budget figure. Last October China reacted sharply when US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld suggested that its true military spending might be three times the announced budget figure.

If true, that would make China's defense expenditures among the world's largest, but still far behind the $420 billion earmarked by the US for defense in 2005.

Though China's total spending is far below US levels, the rate of its increase is much greater than elsewhere in the West, and mainland China now ranks fifth in the world in terms of military spending.

As Rumsfeld's comments during his October visit to Beijing showed, the US and its allies remain very wary about the pace and scope of China's military expansion.

These concerns were heightened when, last August, China and Russia cooperated in the largest joint military exercise in decades. Some 10,000 PLA troops and a range of sophisticated Russian weaponry were deployed for the maneuvers that took place in China's Shangdong province.

Russia remains China's primary supplier of military hardware but Beijing has been lobbying the European Union to lift its ban on weapon sales this spring.

The lifting of the embargo foreseen originally for last spring was delayed by a combination of strong US opposition and the passing by Beijing of its Anti-Secession Law, which provides the PLA with the legal base for invading China's arch-rival - the democratic island of Taiwan.

Beijing has tried to assuage the international community's perceptions of threat caused by increasing military spending. Almost simultaneously with the announcement of the military cuts last month, the government released a foreign-policy white paper in which it made a "solemn promise" that its growing power will never become a threat to other nations.

"China's road of peaceful development is the inevitable way for China to achieve modernization and a serious choice and solemn promise made by the Chinese government and the Chinese people," the white paper said. "China did not seek hegemony in the past, nor does it now, and will not do so in the future when it gets stronger."

(Inter Press Service)

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