Sources close to the PLA, the world’s largest army, have told the South China Morning Post that President Xi Jinping will make his first known visit to the Zhurihe Combined Tactics Training Base, 400km northwest of Beijing in Inner Mongolia, to observe war games involving cyberwarfare, special troops, army aviation and electronic countermeasures.
There had been speculation the anniversary would be marked by a parade in Beijing, but Xi, who as chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) has been pushing the PLA to modernise, will instead be guest of honour at Zhurihe to see how that effort is progressing.
There will not be a military parade on Tiananmen Square in Beijing on August 1 this year as rumoured, but a full-scale, head-to-head military manoeuvre in Zhurihe to celebrate the army’s birthday,” a military insider told the Post, adding that Xi would observe the war games from the base’s command centre. He might also inspect the team that won the exercise.
“The full-scale military manoeuvre will test the PLA’s capability to integrate and coordinate land forces, army aviation, the newly established rocket force, strategic support units and logistics between different troops, with more hi-tech weapons being displayed.”
He said a squadron of China’s first stealth fighter, the J-20, which went into service with the PLA Air Force in March, was very likely to feature. “All participant units will grab this opportunity to show off state-of-the-art development,” he said.
Another source close to the army said Xi would wear a camouflage uniform at the war games, as he did in April last year when he assumed the title of commander-in-chief of the PLA’s new Joint Battle Command, a strategic command unit directly under the CMC’s Joint Staff Department, during a visit to its command centre in Beijing.
The PLA has undergone a comprehensive overhaul since Xi took the helm in late 2012, with the aim of transforming it into a nimble and modern fighting force.
The reforms saw the army’s four former general headquarters dissolved and replaced by 15 new entities, including the Joint Staff Department, while the seven military commands were reshaped into five theatre commands. In September 2015, Xi announced 300,000 personnel would be shed by the PLA, cutting its size to 2 million troops.
“The war games this year were supposed to be the biggest ever to mark the 90th anniversary of the founding of the PLA, but developments on China’s borders, such as the current military stand-off between Chinese and Indian troops in the Himalayas and Pyongyang’s missile tests, may affect its scale,” the first source said.
Indian troops forced the halting of a Chinese road-building project in a disputed border area close to Bhutan in late June, with both sides sending about 3,000 soldiers to the area.
North Korea’s missile tests have seen the United States, Japan and South Korea push China to increase pressure on Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear programme.
“Security uncertainties have caused the PLA to raise its vigilance for war preparedness, so the army may not be able to deploy too many personnel and put too many resources into war games,” the source said.
Elite troops from different military commands have held large-scale war games at the 1,066 sq km Zhurihe base, almost the same as the land area of Hong Kong, every summer since 2012. The annual Stride manoeuvres see tens of thousands of troops fight each other as blue and red armies.
The blue force – the 195th Mechanised Infantry Brigade – is a dummy Western force established in 2012 that was given the prairie wolf logo. State-controlled China Central Television says it has defeated just about every elite “red force” sent by different military commands to oppose it over the past five years.
In order to better imitate the US Army, the blue force was given upgraded weapons and artillery last year, including the advanced ZTZ-96A battle tank, the Type-07 self-propelled artillery and an early warning system, CCTV reported.
A CCTV video clip of the 2015 exercises showed 5,000 PLA soldiers storming a dummy city centre featuring with reproductions of many Taipei landmarks. The buildings targeted included a structure similar to Taiwan’s five-storey Presidential Office Building, two nearby car parks, a replica of Taipei’s central Ketagalan Boulevard, a building similar to the self-ruled island’s foreign ministry office and five blocks near the government headquarters.
imilar drills took place last year, with military analysts saying the PLA was refining its urban combat skills with the aim of being able to paralyse Taipei’s traffic.
Taipei’s defence ministry lodged a protest with Beijing in 2015, saying such exercises “hurt the feelings of people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait”, but its mainland counterpart denied the drill was aimed at Taiwan.
The biggest military parade in China’s modern history was held in Beijing on September 3, 2015, to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the second world war. More than 10,000 servicemen and servicewomen marched down Changan Avenue past Tiananmen Square, along with about 500 military vehicles, as nearly 200 PLA aircraft flew overhead.
Overseas media had speculated Beijing would host a similar parade for the PLA’s 90th birthday, but the Ministry of Defence refused to confirm it.
“There is no sign any military parade will take place in Beijing because so far we haven’t seen any marching training inside or outside the capital,” Beijing-based military expert Li Jie told the Post, adding that such training always started several months before a parade.
Another source said it was “too cramped to hold another military parade equivalent to 2015’s in the capital this year” because the authorities had received many complaints after the 2015 parade.
The first source said the extensive traffic controls in the capital for that parade had “caused so many people to be stuck on their way home”.
Retired PLA major general Xu Guangyu said live war games could be part of the PLA’s birthday celebration.
“Strictly speaking, the manoeuvres in Zhurihe can’t be described as a military parade,” he said. “Traditionally, military parades will only be held on National Day in the capital.”
Xu said the unscripted manoeuvres at Zhurihe would add authenticity to the army’s training because the encounters would be closer to actual battles.
“In order to get good results, the red forces were planned to be the winners in previous military drills under mendacious scenarios, but that has changed since the establishment of counter battles with the blue army,” he said.
“President Xi always demands the PLA be combat-ready and capable of winning battles, so the Zhurihe war games will be a good chance for the new units to show their fruit of their endeavours over the past years after the massive military reforms.”
Macau-based military commentator Antony Wong Dong said that based on video footage and reports provided by state media, the scale of war games in Zhurihe had been closer to real battles in recent years, indicating the PLA ground force’s determination to abandon its previous single force operation and move to joint operation involving different units.
“Zhurihe is also a military exchange platform between the PLA and its Western counterparts since it opened the base to foreign troops [in 2004], turning it into an incubator to help the PLA explore more skills in joint-operation strategies,” Wong said.