DOCSUM: China Military Organization and Reform

By Anthony H. Cordesman, Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy

With the assistance of Joseph Kendall

Published: August 1, 2016

Summarized by Guest Analyst: Taylor J. Moore Hutton


Executive Summary: 

Significant modernization and restructuring is needed to make the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) effective in modern warfare. The PLA followed the Soviet military’s model which has become unsuitable for operations in a modern dynamic battlefield. Since 2015, Beijing has implemented reforms, creating a Western-styled military with a clear chain of command and increased military capabilities.


  • The Central Military Commission (CMC) is retaining control over the PLA. Reforms will not alter the top of the CMC’s decision-making structure. However, the former general departments within the CMC are being replaced by 15 departments with specified areas of focus. This will consolidate power within the CMC and create a unified leadership.


  • Military regions are being replaced by five “command theaters”. The command theaters will allow inter-branch cooperation and will increase the control over deployed units. In addition, theater commanders will solely focus on planning operations, while the independent branches will be responsible for force management.


  • All five branches of the PLA are establishing a linear command structure. Five independent headquarters under the command of the CMC will allow joint operations to be carried out in future conflicts. Additional command posts have also been established within each theater. Orders from the CMC will be communicated through each respective branch’s headquarters then to each unit.


  • Increasing use of paramilitary forces to settle disputes. The Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) has become the preferred agency for maritime law enforcement. The CCG’s size and capabilities will increase as maritime disputes with neighboring nations become more frequent. Additionally, civilian fishing boats, backed by the PLA, have been utilized to encroach upon the sovereign waters of neighboring nations without violent repercussions.


  • An anti-corruption campaign is policing senior military officials. Discipline inspectors have already removed 40 senior generals from their positions.  President Xi seeks to improve governance and overall discipline of the PLA. Corruption regulations are also being revised to prevent the formation of individual power networks and other forms of abuse.

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