EXCLUSIVE: China air, naval boost risks raising tension

BEIJING Wed Sep 30, 2009 6:17am EDT

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BEIJING (Reuters) - China plans to cut back its army and boost the navy and air force, sources with ties to the People's Liberation Army said, extending its military reach and risking greater regional tensions.

China, which celebrates the 60th founding of the People's Republic on Thursday with a massive military parade, aims to cut its army by 700,000 troops over two to three years as part of its drive to modernize the world's biggest military into a leaner high-tech force, the two sources said.

The PLA also plans to boost navy and air force personnel over that period, the sources said. Both requested anonymity to avoid repercussions for speaking to foreign reporters without authorization.

Xu Guangyu, a former PLA officer now at the government-backed China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, said he had not heard of the 700,000 figure but was sure cuts were coming.

"After several years there will have to be more reductions so we can continue improving weapons and creating crack troops," Xu told Reuters. "The land forces will remain dominant, but the navy and air force will rise as a proportion of the PLA."

China watchers are monitoring international deployments for signs of China's rising global status translating into a more assertive foreign policy and presence. Chinese warships steamed to waters off Somalia in December to help in anti-piracy patrols.

Recently, Chinese vessels have become involved in jostling with U.S. surveillance vessels in seas off the Chinese coast that Beijing claims are in its exclusive economic zone.

And China has never renounced the use of force to bring self-ruled and democratic Taiwan, which it considers sovereign territory, under its rule. But ties have improved since the election of Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou last year.

Increased Chinese military activity around a series of disputed atolls and rocks in the South China Sea has worried Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines, which have their own territorial claims. Japan urged China this week to cut its nuclear arsenal, illustrating its wariness of China's might.

"Cutting the army doesn't affect the rest of Asia very much, what people are concerned about is boosting the air force and navy, such as by having aircraft carriers," said Ikuo Kayahara, professor of security studies at Takushoku University and a retired major general in Japan's ground forces.

"If they are increasing them by the same amount as they cut the army, this is a very big problem. But I do wonder if it's actually possible."

Uday Bhaskar, of the National Maritime Foundation in India, which has long-festering border disputes with China, said any large army should concentrate on technology over manpower.

"For India, I think if the Chinese are able to implement this particular policy that they're now articulating, it would heighten the asymmetry between India and China in terms of straight military capacity in China's favor," he said.

NUMBERS SHRINK, WEAPONS IMPROVE

The PLA was born out of the Red Army, a five-million-strong peasant army, and became the national armed force after Communist leader Mao Zedong swept to power 60 years ago.

The cuts to land forces and additions to the other arms of the military would mean that PLA troop numbers shrink from 2.3 million, but the final tally is unclear.

China has cut troop numbers in recent years to free up cash for better training and conditions and more advanced weapons. The navy is considering building an aircraft carrier.

Neither source was sure when the planned reduction would be announced. It needs the approval of the Communist Party's Central Military Commission, which is headed by President Hu Jintao.

One of the sources said China plans to retire and replace aged aircraft over the next three to five years. The streamlining will also involve hiving off military hospital personnel and performing troupes, the sources said.

Xu, the former PLA officer, said that under Beijing's long-term plan for military modernisation, reductions could happen gradually over the coming decade.

"Costs are rising, so we have to keep military spending in line with budgetary capacity," he said.

China's armed forces are far bigger than the world's second-largest military, that of the United States, whose forces number around 1.5 million.

Thursday will be marked by a show of military force along the Avenue of Eternal Peace, which is expected to feature an array of new and improved weaponry, including missiles.

President Hu has made the navy's modernization his personal project, but it has far from erased a technological gap with the United States and other major powers. The PLA Navy has about 290,000 personnel, many on aged vessels.

China has become increasingly vocal about its ambition to become a deep-water power, concluding it must master the logistical and technological demands of a blue water navy.

China boasts the world's third-largest air force, with about 400,000 personnel and 2,000 combat aircraft.

(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard, Chris Buckley and Emma Graham-Harrison in BEIJING and by Isabel Reynolds in TOKYO; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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