For many who watched China’s recent parade to commemorate the conclusion of the Second World War, the numbers were the most striking aspect of the event. Twelve thousand soldiers participated, accompanied by almost 200 aircraft and 500 pieces of air and ground equipment. It conveyed the message that China is a formidable military power that will not be bullied by foreigners as it was during its ‘century of humiliation’.
However, the number that captured the attention of many observers was Xi Jinping’s announcement that Beijing will reduce its military personnel by 300,000. While indisputably a large figure, particularly compared to the number of personnel in the Australian Defence Force, the Chinese armed forces will still be able to call upon approximately two million members.
While it seems likely that Xi took this opportunity to announce the cut in order to balance the military display with China’s claim that it seeks peaceful development, there are several other explanations for this planned reduction. China has settled almost all of its land-borders. While some land disputes remain unresolved, notably with India, there is little risk of a land conflict, if for no other reason than the border between the two countries is extremely mountainous. Antagonism persists, but both states have expressed a desire to settle the issue by negotiation. Such relatively peaceful land borders reduce the need for large land forces and may have contributed to the announced reduction.
China’s maritime borders, however, are much more contested. In the East China Sea, Beijing has claimed sovereignty over the Senkaku (Diaoyu to the Chinese) Islands currently administered by Japan. To further its claims, China has declared an air defence identification zone over a large part of the East China Sea while Chinese and Japanese coast guard vessels and military aircraft jockey for position around and above the islands. Beijing also has ongoing disputes with several Southeast Asian states regarding its claimed maritime borders in the South China Sea.
In order to prosecute such claims and defend its growing interests around the world, China requires a strong navy and, to a lesser extent, a strong air force. These services do not demand the same volume of manpower as its land forces, so as China develops these arms of its military, it will require fewer, but more technically skilled, personnel. Reducing the number of its military personnel is a step in this direction.
Finally, as China’s economy develops and wages rise, the cost of paying its military personnel also rises, particularly as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) must increasingly compete with other employers for technically qualified recruits. By cutting 300,000 personnel, Beijing will save money that can be invested in wages for in-demand personnel and military procurement.
This trend has already occurred in countries that have developed technologically sophisticated armed forces, so China’s reduction is not unusual as it continues to modernise its military. While it will field fewer men and women, the PLA will become a more lethal force as it introduces modern naval vessels, aircraft and their supporting technologies. It is this trend, and the purposes for which China’s military may be used, that concerns its neighbours, the United States and American allies in the region.