A new white paper released by China on Tuesday has for the first time detailed the organisation and structure of the military, and also shed light on the country’s major defence priorities as a new leadership takes over.
The white paper identified as China’s most pressing military challenges the recent strengthening of American military alliances in the Asia-Pacific, as well as renewed territorial disputes with countries like Japan.
The defence white paper – the eighth released by the Chinese government since 1998 – revealed that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was 1.48 million strong. This was, according to State media, the first time that the organisation and structure of the PLA has been detailed.
This included the 850,000-strong PLA Army with 18 combined corps spread under seven Military Area Commands (MACs); 235,000 officers of the PLA Navy in the northern, eastern and southern sea fleets; and 398,000 officers in the PLA Air Force.
Four of the 18 corps are deployed in the two MACs in western China that are responsible for defending the border with India, among other countries. The 21st and 47th corps are in the Lanzhou military region, under whose command the disputed Aksai Chin region falls, while the 13th and 14th corps are under the Chengdu military region in Tibet.
The 1.48 million figure does not, however, include the PLA's Second Artillery Force – the secretive division that is in charge of missile bases and research – and the People’s Armed Police Force (PAPF), a paramilitary unit primarily engaged with domestic security.
The white paper outlined the steps taken by the PLA to fortify China’s 22,000 km land borders, listing inter-military area command exercises conducted by the Beijing, Lanzhou and Chengdu MACs along with the PLA Air Force in 2010, exercises in “plateau areas” in 2011, and a major drill between the Chengdu, Jinan and Lanzhou MACs and the Air Force last year in the southwestern border areas in Tibet.
The defence paper has also shed light on the PAPF’s role in carrying out infrastructure projects, specifically in border regions, underscoring the close link between development projects and security policy in strategically important areas.
For instance, the PAPF had hydroelectric units involved in projects in Tibet, as well as transportation units building highways in the Tianshan mountains in Xinjiang and tunnels in Medog in Tibet near the border with India.
The white paper described the overall regional situation as stable, saying that “the balance of international forces is shifting in favour of maintaining world peace”. It, however, warned of emerging threats and “signs of increasing hegemonism”, specifically mentioning the U.S. “pivot” to Asia.
“The U.S. is adjusting its Asia-Pacific security strategy, and the regional landscape is undergoing profound changes,” the paper said. “Some country has strengthened its Asia-Pacific military alliances, expanded its military presence in the region, and frequently makes the situation there tenser.”
In terms of “issues concerning China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests”, the paper identified tensions with Japan over disputed East China Sea islands and “Taiwan independence” forces as specific threats, and did not specifically mention the border dispute with India in this regard.
The paper highlighted the PLA’s on-going military-to-military ties and exchanges with a number of countries, including India, mentioning the “Hand-in-Hand” joint anti-terrorism training exercises held with India in 2007 and 2008. Defence exercises are set to resume this year following a five-year gap. The paper also detailed the increased coordination between China, India and Japan on anti-piracy escort missions since last year.