China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) held a promotion ceremony for senior officers promoted to the rank of rear admiral at its Beijing headquarters on January 20, 2017. The ceremony was presided over by Vice Admiral Shen Jinlong, who was newly appointed as commander of the PLAN. This confirmed the much-speculated rumor about a major personnel reshuffle in the PLAN: former PLAN Commander Admiral Wu Shengli was replaced by former South Sea Fleet Commander Shen.
That Wu was to step down was not unexpected. Wu, born in 1945, had participated in the Johnson South Reef Skirmish, or Naval Battle of Chigua Reef, that broke out between China and Vietnam in the South China Sea on March 14, 1988. He was thus one of the few PLAN admirals who had actual combat experience at sea. Wu became commander of the PLAN and a member of the Central Military Commission (CMC) of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in 2007. Rumors about Wu’s would-be replacement by a successor to be selected from a short list of candidates began to emerge in 2012. Admirals like Sun Jianguo, Jiang Weilie, and Tian Zhong were reported to be contenders. Shen, who did not seem to be on the list, turned out to be the winner, which was really a big surprise to the outside world.
What was more surprising was that Shen’s appointment as PLAN commander broke with the traditional promotion rules in the Chinese military. In general, the PLAN commander position is taken by a three-star flag officer; the promotion is generally considered to be a leapfrog for Shen. Shen assumed his position as commander of the South Sea Fleet in 2014 and was promoted to the rank of vice admiral in July 2016. After becoming the PLAN commander, Shen is very likely to be promoted to the rank of admiral in August 2017. But grades are more important than titles in the Chinese military. Shen’s previous position as the South Sea Fleet commander was a deputy military region position. He thus jumped two grades to become commander of the PLAN.
In theory, the PLAN commander is, as is always the case, a member of the CMC. Although Wu is still a member of the CMC and retains the corresponding grade for the position, the former commander is certainly to be replaced at the 19th National Congress of the CPC, to be held later this year.
Shen, born in 1956, studied in Russia. He first served on submarines before beginning his tour of duty on surface ships. He went on to serve first as president of Dalian Naval Academy and then as president of Naval Command Academy, where he wrote quite a number of articles on his specialized fields. He is the type of inter-disciplinary talent that the PLA has been cultivating in recent years. Although not personally involved in the PLAN’s escort missions in the Gulf of Aden, Shen had a lot of contact with foreign militaries during his term as president of the Naval Command Academy. He led a fleet to participate in the U.S.-hosted Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC) in 2014, marking China’s first-ever participation in the biennial multinational exercise. Shen’s role at RIMPAC added a lot to his track record.
Shen’s rise to the top position in the navy means that flag officers senior to him will not have any chance to get to a higher position. It also indicates that the PLAN’s three fleets will have new commanders. Interestingly, China’s Southern Theater Command is to have Vice Admiral Yuan Yubai of the navy as its new commander.
The news of Yuan’s promotion was subtle. At a military-political meeting in Guangdong Province on January 25, 2017, Yuan was formally addressed as Southern Theater Command commander on the list of attendees. That was how the news broke that Army General Wang Jiaocheng, the original Southern Theater Command commander, had already stepped down and been replaced by Vice Admiral Yuan of the navy. Importantly, this broke with China’s tradition of having army generals as the commanders of the five theater commands. Besides Yuan, the Southern Theater Command deputy commanders, Xu Anxiang and Chang Dingqiu, are both of the air force.
Yuan, born in 1956, graduated from the PLA Submarine Academy in Qingdao. He once served with the North Sea Fleet. Besides his long-term acquaintance with submarine forces, Yuan was the commander of the PLAN’s 14th escort task force to the Gulf of Aden, which was key to his subsequent promotions. During the escort missions in the Gulf of Aden, the Chinese navy not only interacted with other navies but also participated in the “Peace-13” multinational naval exercise. The frequent exchanges with foreign navies helped Yuan climb to higher positions in the PLAN.
Under the military structure in place prior to the reforms launched by Chinese President Xi Jinping, the seven military regions were all commanded by army generals. The current five theater commands, which have replaced the seven military regions, also have army generals as their first commanders. But the Eastern and Southern Theater Commands are likely to face their biggest threats from the air and the sea. Under the principle of “theater commands take responsibility for operations,” the commander of a theater command has to respond to a crisis situation within the shortest time possible. If theater commands are put under the command of army generals for an extended length of time, miscalculations might become inevitable.
Although chances for a large-scale war to break out in the world are pretty low for the moment, the intelligence-gathering activities that many countries conduct in the airspace and sea areas surrounding China will only increase in the future. If a theater command commander does not have sufficient knowledge of international law and relevant maritime and aviation regulations, it might result in an accident. As an example, China seized an underwater drone of the U.S. Navy in December 2016. China later returned the drone, at the cost of having its image as a big power tarnished as a result.
Yuan’s rise from his original position as Northern Theater Command deputy commander and commander of the Northern Theater Command’s naval units to Southern Theater Command commander signifies that the PLA will handle personnel appointment in a matter-of-fact manner in the future. The Southern Theater Command is currently one of the top development priorities for the PLA, home to the newest equipment of both the air force and navy. It has hosted several high-profile exercises, such as the 2016 joint naval exercise between China and Russia.
Following the reshuffle of top military officers, there has been media speculation about a list of high-ranking PLA officers to be dismissed, including 47 generals and flag officers. Such so-called inside information has yet to be verified by the PLA’s official news organs and is best viewed with some skepticism. For example, it was reported that Yang Wei, designer of China’s next-generation J-20 jet fighter, had been removed from his post because of certain problems with the J-20 design. As it turned out, Yang got a promotion instead to become the vice president of the Chinese Aeronautical Establishment.
The many news reports and speculation about possible personnel reshuffles in the military, some true and some false, does indicate one thing: the PLA’s recent breaking with traditional promotion routines has made service members themselves unsure of their future positions. This is why it is so difficult for people outside of the PLA to write analysis reports on personnel issues. Some generals or admirals who were initially projected to get promoted were sidelined instead.
This might be related to the on-going anti-corruption campaign launched by Xi Jinping. This is especially true with regards to the navy. In addition to smuggling in the past, the PLAN has been deeply involved in land filling projects at Chinese-held reefs in the South China Sea in recent years. The projects involve the purchase of building materials, maritime transport, and pay and subsidies to workers. All these require huge appropriations of funds. Officers handling the appropriations naturally have a chance to pocket some money. It could help explain why some flag officers who were expected to become the rising stars of tomorrow instead receded into the background.
The power reshuffle in the military might also be aimed at paving the way for the 19th National Congress of the CPC to be held later this year and disrupting corruption rings that have been deeply rooted in the military. The anti-corruption campaign that Xi has launched since taking office would not be enough to uproot the huge corruption rings within a short period of time. The current military leaders might be related to their disgraced former predecessors, Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong, one way or another.
The unprecedented promotion of Shen Jinlong to commander of the PLAN has broken the old rule governing the selection of top military leaders. Whether this means that Xi’s military reforms are going to move to the next phase or whether the personnel adjustments are meant to disrupt the corruption rings existing in the military remains to be seen. Regardless, the fact that Xi has been able to break old rules again and again means that he has a better control of the military than his predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.
Ying Yu Lin is an adjunct assistant professor at Ming Chuan University, Taipei, Taiwan.