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China Is Shrinking Its Army in the Name of Peace — and Practicality

The People's Liberation Army will reduce its manpower by 300,000 troops, another expected step in a military modernization program that has spanned three decades.
Photo by Wu Hong/EPA

China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) will reduce its manpower by some 300,000 troops, President Xi Jinping announced last week, though with more than 2 million service members, the country will still field the world's largest military.

Xi announced the cuts at last week's parade commemorating the end of World War II, presenting the change as evidence of China's commitment to world peace. A closer look, however, suggests the move is another expected step in a military modernization program that has spanned three decades.

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Chinese state media outlet Xinhua covered the announcement in a way only it could, painting the international community as rapturous over the troop reductions, and citing praise and applause from experts around the world. But back at the Ministry of National Defense, Senior Colonel Yang Yujun moved past the rhetoric and got down to brass tacks, explaining the military rationale behind the cuts and the reasons for maintaining such a large force in the first place.

"As a big developing country, China is confronted with multiple complex security threats… the PLA also carries out military operations other than war including domestic emergency rescue and disaster relief, international peacekeeping and international rescue… China also has to cope with threats of regional terrorism, separatism and extremism activities," he said. "So, China needs to maintain a certain scale of troops, which is completely for a purpose of defense."

Related: China Wants Everyone to Watch While It Flexes Its Big Peace Muscle

The troop reduction will mostly affect China's ground forces as the PLA moves toward a power-projection model with increasing focus on air and naval assets. Giant manpower numbers are also expensive to maintain, and while Yang delved into some of the economic considerations of the decision to cut forces, last week's announcement will likely be followed by further organizational reforms.

"There is nothing out of the ordinary in any of this," Eric Heginbotham, senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, told VICE News. "China has made several rounds of large cuts to its military manpower as part of its modernization efforts over the last 30 years. One way of viewing this is that China is increasing the ratio of capital to labor in a military as a nation's economy develops, a natural development for any country experiencing rapid economic growth."

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China's massive growth has expanded its strategic interests. According to the US government's latest annual report on China's military capabilities, which backs up the PLA's assertions, "as China's global footprint and international interests grow, its military modernization program has become progressively more focused on investments for a range of missions beyond China's periphery, including power projection, sea lane security, counter-piracy, peacekeeping, and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief."

Watch VICE News' Talking Heads: China Strikes Back:

If troop reductions and an evolution toward power projection are expected by all, what comes next? Might a shift toward naval and air assets put overseas bases in the PLA's sights? And could this lead to conflict with other global powers?

Not exactly, said Anthony Cordesman, holder of the Arleigh Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Port rights are not the same as having a major naval base, staging air power is different than having an air base," he said. "China will seek to expand its influence. And while we can't predict at this point whether China's competition will ever lead to conflict, we can predict that no country with China's economic power has ever backed away from corresponding political and military power."

Related: China's New Video About Kicking America's Ass Is More Than Meets the Eye

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An incident of note last week that acts as a real-world example of China's expanding reach was the appearance of five PLA Navy ships in the Bering Sea during US President Barack Obama's visit to Alaska. The Chinese ships' presence close to US shores, though completely lawful, caused consternation in some corners, but the Pentagon and experts downplayed the incident.

"No one should say the Chinese don't have a sense of humor. They've done unto us as we've done unto them," Cordesman said, referring to similar near-shore surveillance operations conducted by the US military.

As Sun Tzu said, "The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting," and observers of China's land reclamation efforts in the South China Sea may see some applicability of this wisdom from The Art of War author. But the fact remains that China hasn't been party to a war since 1979 (with Vietnam), and while over-the-top declarations of peace may raise eyebrows, this is notable among global powers. Nonetheless, worries persist, and China's neighbors question its intentions and watch its military development closely — particularly when China marches its latest hardware down the streets of Beijing.

"The concern, both in Washington and the region, is that China will become still more assertive as its capabilities improve and that stability might be further undermined," Heginbotham said. "Hopefully, China will come to understand that coercive activities feed the insecurities of its neighbors and are not in its own strategic interests."

Follow Shannon Hayden on Twitter: @ShannonKHayden