The Marine Corps of China. An internet photo
BEIJING (PTI): China is set to increase the number of its marine corps from 20,000 to one lakh as part of plans to deploy them overseas for the first time, including at the strategic Gwadar port in Pakistan and military logistics base in Djibouti in the Indian Ocean.
The expansion is planned to protect China's maritime lifelines and its growing interests overseas, Hong-Kong based South China Morning Post reported on Monday.
Some members would be stationed at ports China operates in Djibouti and Gwadar in southwest Pakistan, Chinese military insiders and experts were quoted as saying.
Gwadar port is a deep-sea port next to the Strait of Hormuz, the key oil route in and out of the Persian Gulf, built with Chinese funding and operated by mainland firms.
Although the port is not home to any PLA installation, navy ships are expected to dock at the facility in the near future, the report said.
Gwadar also connects the US$ 46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) through PoK with China's Xinjiang.
Reports from Pakistan said the country itself is setting up Special Security Division comprising 15,000 troops, including 9,000 Pakistan Army soldiers and 6,000 para-military forces personnel to protect CPEC and Chinese personnel.
The expanded Chinese marine corps is part of a wider push to refocus the world's largest army away from winning a land war based on sheer numbers and towards meeting a range of security scenarios using highly specialised units, the report said.
Towards that end, Chinese President Xi Jinping is reducing the size of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) by three lakh, with nearly all of the cuts coming from the land forces, it said.
For this, two brigades of special combat soldiers had already been moved to the marines, nearly doubling its size to 20,000, and more brigades would be added, the report said.
"The PLA marines will be increased to 100,000, consisting of six brigades in the coming future to fulfil new missions of our country," it quoted a source as saying.
The size of the navy would also grow 15 per cent from its current estimated size of 2.35 lakh personnel.
China this year plans to increase its defence spending by about seven per cent to US$ 152 billion. Much of it was expected to go to the navy as China plans to spread its influence far from its shores.
Traditionally, marines have mostly operated only in China's coastal areas, as their role was limited by their relatively small numbers and basic equipment, Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said.
But a bigger corps could be deployed much farther afield as the navy takes on more challenges.