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Why China is cutting 300,000 military personnel

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Why China is cutting 300,000 military personnel

Posted 17/09/2015 by Stephen Fallon

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


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.