China’s military gets new rules to improve safety after series of fatal accidents

Kristin Huang

China’s military has introduced two new regulations to improve safety that will take effect from January 1, following a series of fatal accidents as it tries to modernise.

Details of the safety management and military documents regulations – signed off by President Xi Jinping – were not released.

But official news agency Xinhua said the safety management rules focused on risk assessments, safety checks and supervision of training activities, as well as how to handle and investigate accidents.

It said the military documents regulations clarified responsibilities for archival work at all levels in the People’s Liberation Army and sought to standardise that work during wartime.

China’s military has been spending big on defence, with its budget rising to 1.18 trillion yuan (US$168.59 billion) in 2019 – up 7.5 per cent from last year. But critics say its safety record also needs attention.

The PLA has seen a number of fatal accidents amid a push to boost combat readiness driven by Xi, who wants the country’s military to become a world-class modern fighting force by 2035.

Days after China marked the 70th anniversary of communist rule with a huge military parade in Beijing on October 1, three airmen were killed when a transport helicopter crashed in central Henan province. One of them, a pilot, had taken part in the National Day parade.

Just eight days later there was another air force crash, this time on the Tibetan Plateau, where a J-10 fighter jet on a low-altitude flying drill crashed into a mountain, a source told the South China Morning Post earlier. The pilot was said to have survived.

In March, a navy plane crashed in southern Hainan province, killing two crew members.

And at least 12 crew members were said to have died when what was believed to be a new type of refuelling plane modified from the Y-8 transport aircraft crashed in Guizhou province in January 2018 – the worst accident in recent years.

Zhou Chenming, a military expert based in Beijing, said the new regulations were needed to standardise practices across the PLA and reduce the number of accidents. He said accidents happened regularly during day-to-day operations across the military.

The new rules indicated a shift away from a heavy focus on hardware development towards personnel training, according to Timothy Heath, a senior international defence research analyst with the Rand Corporation, a US think tank.

“The strengthening of rules and regulations can help the PLA improve its level of competence and professionalism,” Heath said.

Training has been stepped up across the PLA since Xi became general secretary of the ruling Communist Party, and chairman of its Central Military Commission, in late 2012 – in line with his ambitions to build the PLA into a modern fighting force.

As part of the overhaul, the country’s military academies and schools were restructured to streamline the armed forces and make it easier to coordinate policy. Beijing has also poured more research and development funding into the defence industries.

A PLA soldier jumps through a ring of fire during a military exercise in Shihezi in the Xinjiang region early this month. Photo: Reuters

Malcolm Davis, an expert on the Chinese military with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said the new regulations could help the PLA to more effectively carry out its duties.

“We focus on the equipment side of PLA modernisation, which understandably is the most easily discernible indicator for capability development,” Davis said. “But the training of skilled personnel and building professionalism is critical if the PLA is to avoid hollow forces.”

Charlie Lyons Jones, a researcher specialising in China’s military modernisation also from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, agreed that the new rules would help improve performance.

“Given the PLA’s lack of combat experience, these internal management systems are supposed to provide troops with clear guidance on how to maximise performance while ensuring safety during training and large-scale exercises,” he said.

“Keeping good, honest records on the results of training and exercises is another important way for the PLA to learn from its successes and mistakes,” he said.

However, he noted that whether the new regulations would translate into a combat-ready force that could perform its missions safely and effectively remained to be seen.

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