BEIJING - China plans to trim its military by 200,000 troops within two years as it struggles to reinvent its armed forces, the world's largest, to better match the mobility and technological sophistication of the U.S. Army.
The reduction, announced yesterday, is the second major cut since the mid-1990s, when China said it planned to demobilize 500,000 troops. It also comes as Beijing continues to increase military spending, with extra money being used to buy new weapons, improve communications and raise the pay of military personnel.
Shaken by the ease with which U.S. troops dismantled Saddam Hussein's army in the 1991 Persian Gulf war and in Iraq this spring, Chinese leaders have argued that they need a smaller, more mobile and better-equipped army controlled by a powerful central command if it is to become a peer of the American military.
China's military chief, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao, the president and Communist Party chief who is likely to inherit control of the military, have been quoted as calling for a "revolution in military affairs." The Pentagon uses that term to describe its own program to streamline the American armed forces and integrate troops with the most up-to-date technology.
The information office of the People's Liberation Army reported yesterday that the cuts would reduce China's total armed forces to 2.3 million from 2.5 million, which would still make it the world's largest standing army.
But the true size of China's military, like its budget, is a perennial mystery, with some Western analysts estimating that the number of troops is smaller than the official figure.
Jiang, the former president who retains the powerful post of chairman of the Central Military Commission despite having retired from his other government and party posts in the past 10 months, announced the cuts yesterday in a speech to top officers.
"The state of war is being transformed from mechanized warfare to information warfare," Jiang was quoted as saying. "Reducing the scale of our military is beneficial to the concentration of our limited strategic resources and will quicken the pace of constructing our military's information technology."
But the scope of the reductions appears to be much less ambitious than was foreseen by some military experts, who had predicted cuts of 500,000.
Chinese and Western military experts also said earlier in the summer that Jiang had planned to eliminate most or all of China's seven military regions, which operate independently from one another and with only broad oversight from Beijing.
Jiang did not mention any such changes in yesterday's address, and some Western experts said they believed the proposal had been shelved because of internal opposition.
In the weeks before the announcement, military newspapers had carried extensive tributes to the leadership of Jiang, which were unusually adulatory even by the standards of China's state news media. The tone suggested that Jiang was seeking either to overcome reluctance within the military or to lay the foundation to stay on as military chief for some time as a way of retaining political power.
"I think Jiang is trying to show that he is the man in charge of the revolution in military affairs," a party official with family ties to the military said. "Otherwise it seems strange for Jiang to come out and make such a big deal about a troop reduction."