China's `Battle Zones' Complete Rollout of Xi Military Overhaul

Xi Jinping PLA

Xi Jinping confers military flags on the five newly-established theater commands of the People's Liberation Army on Monday.

Photographer: Li Gang/Xinhua via Getty Images
  • Five areas replace seven regions under newly unified command
  • Strategic move advances dream of building strong army, Xi says

President Xi Jinping formally reorganized the People’s Liberation Army under five "battle zones," securing the last major piece expected in China’s biggest military overhaul in decades.

Xi, who also serves as commander-in-chief, presided over a ceremony in Beijing on Monday to formally convey banners to generals in charge of the new zones, the official Xinhua News Agency said.

QuickTake Territorial Disputes

The areas -- northern, southern, eastern, western and central -- replace seven military regions and unify the branches under a single command structure for the first time. The new commanders and political commissars for the five zones were also announced, Xinhua said.

The regional rezoning was the last major component of a shakeup first floated by Xi more than two years ago and intended to make the world’s largest army better equipped to project force beyond the the country’s borders. The overhaul comes at a time when China has become more assertive about its territorial claims over the East China Sea and South China Sea, raising tension with its neighbors and the U.S.

“It is designed to streamline command-and-control functions and organizationally restructure the PLA into a military better able to wage war in the information age and make it more accountable to the party," said Andrew Scobell, a senior political scientist at RAND Corporation. “It remains to be seen how successful the reforms will be and how long the reorganization will take.”

The creation of the battle zones "marks a strategic decision made by the party central leadership and the Central Military Commission with the aim of realizing the Chinese dream and the strong-army dream," Xi said, according to Xinhua. Xi became chairman of the CMC upon taking power in 2012.

China’s defense stocks rallied Tuesday with AVIC Helicopter Co. jumping as much as 9.2 percent in Shanghai morning trade. China Avionics Systems Co. rose as much as 6.6 percent.

Fewer Soldiers

Bloomberg first reported details of the plan in September, days before Xi announced the reorganization during a parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II. The plan calls for reducing the 2.3 million-member PLA by 300,000 and redefining missions and responsibilities among the military branches, with the goal of building a fighting force that "can win modern wars."

"The reforms will also increase CCP control over the military, and Xi Jinping’s personal control as chairman of the Central Military Commission," said Phillip Saunders, director of the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the National Defense University in Washington. "The reform is bigger than I expected, and will be disruptive to the PLA until it is fully implemented, probably by 2020."

The overhaul has been rolled out in recent months, including: 

  • Sept. 3: Xi announces overhaul and troop reduction
  • Nov. 26: Joint military command established to bring all branches of the armed forces to under one roof 
  • Dec. 31: Three military entities created: a general army command, a missile force and a strategic support unit 
  • Jan. 11: Four powerful military headquarters dismantled and their work spread across 15 new agencies, covering everything from logistics and politics to anti-corruption and international cooperation
  • Feb. 1: Five battle zones created to replace seven regional commands
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