Chinese National and Strategic-Level Organizations

Chinese Tactics > PART ONE: People’s Liberation Army Forces > Chapter 2: People’s Liberation Army Force Structure > Chinese National and Strategic-Level Organizations

2-8. The command structure of the PLA is complex and opaque to outsiders. Both its command structure and apparatus are deliberately complex, designed first and foremost to ensure the security of the CPC. In stark contrast to Western military philosophy, Chinese command structures do not generally appoint a single decision maker or imbue a single individual with absolute command authority: decisions are to be made via consensus, rather than by fiat. Of note, however, the current Chinese President, Xi Jinping, appears to wield much greater direct authority over the PLA than his predecessors. There are no fewer than ten different national-level command organizations in China, organized across at least three different levels of a complex hierarchy. This ATP will not discuss in detail the intricate web of organizations and internal politics at the top of China’s command structure, but it will provide a simplified overview to enable better understanding of how these command relationships influence tactical operations.

Figure 2-1. Simplified PLA command structure

2-9. The CMC is the most powerful and significant national-level command body in China. It is also the most relevant to tactical operations. Recent restructuring created no fewer than 15 functional departments, including a national-level army department and a strategic rocket department. In general, national headquarters are responsible for capabilities development, education, and training, while theater commands (discussed in paragraph 2-10) are responsible for operations. The CMC is notionally led by a civilian chairman: the CPC’s head and China’s president. He is typically assisted in decision making by numerous vice chairmen and senior PLA officers. The CMC’s command structure relies on a committee approach and is not formal—it routinely changes based on political dynamics. This committee-based approach differs significantly from the U.S. approach, where a single decision maker—the President—has all command authority and is only advised by his staff and cabinet. The Chinese approach likely arose from the desire to make all military decisions with CPC political objectives in mind, and it helps explain why political officers are present throughout the PLA chain of command.

2-10. CMC command authority is exercised operationally through theater commands (TCs). TCs are joint commands that exercise extensive—though not exclusive—command authority in their given region. TCs are tasked with developing strategy, tactics, and policy specific for their areas of responsibility, and they are directly responsible for responding to threats and crises within their assigned regions. TCs are similar to U.S. combatant commands, except that the parallel chains of command extend to the national command structure. TCs are strictly domestic in scope, and they do not extend past Chinese land borders and nearby maritime regions. TC commands mimic Chinese national command structure in that they are heavily politicized and bureaucratically complex. TC commanders share command responsibility with political commissars of the same rank; TC commanders are responsible for operations, while political commissars are responsible for ideological functions. TC staffs participate in committee-based decision making. Each TC has a single-service subordinate headquarters responsible for that service’s operations in the theater, plus an organic electronic countermeasures brigade, an information operations support brigade, and a reconnaissance and intelligence support brigade. PLAA, PLAAF and PLAN units have dual chains of command during peacetime, reporting both to their national service-level headquarters and to their assigned TC. In wartime they will likely be under complete control of their respective TCs. (See figure 2-2 on page 2-5 for an illustration of the TC’s dual reporting structure and the subordinate chain of command.)

Note. The PLA understands rank in the same way that the U.S. military does, but it takes a fundamentally different view of grade. In the PLA, grade refers to one’s duty position: platoon leader, brigade deputy leader, and so on. Hierarchy of grade is extremely important to the PLA—more so than rank. There are 15 different grades, and they are recognized across all of the PLA’s different services. As such, a PLAA officer’s grade can be directly compared with that of a PLAN officer, and seniority established between the two. In the U.S. military, grade refers to military pay, and duty position is clearly subordinate to rank when it comes to determining seniority.


Figure 2-2. PLAA chain of command, isolated
2-11. TCs were reorganized in 2016, reducing the number of regions from seven to five and changing the title of military region to TC. When in a list, TCs are presented in order of protocol, with the most prestigious—and most militarily relevant—TC listed first. The current TCs, in order of precedence, are—

  • Eastern Theater Command, headquartered in Nanjing, with responsibility for central eastern China and the East China Sea, including the Strait of Taiwan. The Eastern TC likely has operational responsibility for matters involving Taiwan, Japan, and anything related to the East China Sea.
  • Southern Theater Command, headquartered in Guangzhou, has responsibility for south-central China, including the border with Vietnam and the South China Sea. The Southern TC’s primary missions are maintaining security in the South China Sea and supporting the Eastern TC in any major amphibious operation.
  • Western Theater Command, headquartered in Chengdu, has responsibility for virtually the entire western half of China, including borders with India and Russia and the regions of Tibet and Xinjiang. The Western TC’s primary missions are contending with perceived separatist and terrorist threats in Tibet and Xinjiang and addressing border issues with China’s two powerful western neighbors.
  • Northern Theater Command, headquartered in Shenyang, with responsibility for northeastern China along the Mongolian, Russian, and North Korean borders. The Northern TC’s most prominent responsibilities are the various contingencies stemming from China’s shared border with North Korea and maintaining border security with Mongolia and Russia.
  • Central Theater Command, headquartered in Beijing, has responsibility for north-central China and the capital region. The Central TC’s primary mission is the defense of Beijing, and it serves as the national strategic military reserve.

2-12. Military districts (MDs) correspond to Chinese provincial-level governments and are considered the military organs within their respective provincial-level governments. They use the same dual-command structure as TCs, with a commander and political commissar sharing command responsibility. The primary responsibilities of MD headquarters are conscription and demobilization, Military-Civil Fusion, and command of China Militia units. MDs also have jurisdiction over PLA border defense units in Xinjiang, Tibet, and part of Inner Mongolia, while TC headquarters command border and coastal defense units in the rest of the country. MD commanders previously carried the grade equivalent of a corps leader, but this has likely been reduced following recent reforms in keeping with the general theme of professionalization and modernization throughout the PLA.

2-22. Local commands (LCs), such as military subdistricts or garrisons at the prefecture, county, and city level, and PLA departments at the county, city, and municipal level represent the lowest level of the PLA’s command structure. They are described as the military service organs of the people’s government. LCs are primarily charged with meeting conscription quotas, demobilization, national defense education, local Military-Civil Fusion, and command of China Militia units. In Xinjiang, Tibet, and part of Inner Mongolia they also command border defense units.


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