Chinese Naval Officers Supplanting Army within PLA
With military establishment in turmoil, Xi turns to the navy to assure loyalty
By: Andy Wong Ming Jun
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s elevation of an admiral to the position of defense minister for the first time under Communist Party (CCP) rule, and several major reshuffles that rerouted senior naval flag-rank officers into China’s Rocket Forces, is a significant signal – if any was needed after 70 of the forces were arrested earlier – that all is not well within the Chinese military establishment.
Most significantly, the promotion of two People’s Liberation Army-Navy flag-rank officers to take up significant leadership roles such as Defense Minister and Commander, Rocket Forces, plus an ex-submariner promoted to become the new naval chief, hints at a potential sea change in the balance of interservice power more befitting the country’s newfound self-imagery as a blue-water power, or more tellingly at deeper issues with political loyalty from the land army to Xi.
Admiral Dong Jun’s elevation is widely seen as unprecedented, given the party’s enduring adherence to traditional Soviet/communist dogma of valuing the land army bit of the military as both the most important defenders of national survival and also the strongest bastion of political/ideological reliability. Of China’s 14 defense ministers since 1949, all but three hail from the PLA Ground Force. While the 12th (Wei Fenghe) and 13th (Li Shangfu) were the first to break this tradition by hailing from the rocket force and the Strategic Support Force responsible for the PLA’s non-kinetic/electronic warfare branch, all of them nonetheless still came from the land domain of military service.
The land army had to be of the strongest political loyalty. In the case of both the former Soviet Union and modern-day China under the CCP, both countries’ political leaderships heavily politicized their national militaries with the land army the largest of the services. To this day, political commissars ensure the PLA’s continuing loyalty as the CCP’s armed wing and guarantor of sole political survival as a more ideologically reliable hard power alternative. In Mao’s words, “The Party controls The Gun.”
Also, both the Russian and Chinese communists shared the same ideological distrust of their navies. This is due to two key reasons: a lack of modern naval historical tradition in the case of the Chinese prior to the CCP gaining power in 1949, and a history of starting revolutions in the case of the Russians. Navies have also proved to be the hardest to effectively politicize, due to their self-image of relatively high professionalism enjoying a degree of operational autonomy away from central political command on land that is difficult if not impossible to achieve for army or air force officers.
It is also why despite its title, command and control of the PLA does not reside with whoever is Defense Minister but with whomever is Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC): one of Xi’s three main hats. The defense minister role is largely to give China an equivalent military leadership title to match those of foreign countries such as the US so as to facilitate diplomatic and professional interactions. Of eye-opening intrigue is the fact that President Xi has not also concurrently promoted Admiral Dong to a seat on the CMC, which remains vacant following his predecessor Li Shangfu’s October removal. Combined with Xi’s successful removal of term limits for the Chinese presidency, increasingly strident propagation of his brand of Chinese socialist ideology, and his rolling purges within the PLA and wider Chinese politics under the guise of “anti-corruption,” all signs indicate Dong’s appointment leaves him as the least powerful military figurehead in CCP history.
Dong’s symbolic appointment as defense minister, however, still holds significant signaling value. According to a potted profile written by Dr Andrew S. Erickson and Captain (Ret.) Christopher Sharman at the US Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute, Dong’s career, spanning 44 years as a surface warfare officer culminating as naval chief, combined with his experience in operational assignments to key maritime-oriented theater commands facing Taiwan and the South China Sea make him an ideal candidate to demonstrate Xi’s focus on asserting Chinese maritime territorial claims in the East and South China Seas. Dong’s experience in melding together joint service operations also put him in good stead with Xi, who has sought to modernize the PLA by copying the US military in terms of theater commands combining all military forces. This “flattened” command structure with individual joint-service theater commanders is ultimately controlled directly by Xi through the CMC.
This unprecedented elevation of an admiral to China’s second-highest military office also hints at how, after years of intensifying purges, the prestige, integrity, and political reliability of the PLA’s land army component has fallen significantly enough to allow the navy, historically the most junior and least-prioritized of the services, to gain enough clout to supplant. Nor is this just a one-off. In another eye-catching move, General Wang Houbin, the new rocket force commander appointed last July, is also a former vice-admiral and deputy commander.
Even Wang’s new chief political commissar at the rocket force, General Xu Xisheng, has exposure to maritime operations. He was previously the chief political commissar of the Southern Theater Command Air Force as well as the deputy political commissar of the entire Southern Theater, which focuses on maintaining and advancing Chinese maritime interests in the South China Sea, as well as supporting its neighboring Eastern Theater Command for any major amphibious invasion of Taiwan.
The rising tide for the navy in the pecking order is indicative of the party’s pivot away from defining military priorities as focusing on continental defense towards becoming a true-blue water maritime power. This is further consolidated with the appointment of ex-submariner Hu Zhongming who succeeds General Dong as the new navy chief, which hints at submarines and undersea warfare as the next area of focus after the previous focus on aircraft carriers and surface vessels. There is no doubt this will come as a fresh worry for US navy leaders, who have previously said the only clear area of asymmetrical advantage still held by the US against China is in undersea and submarine warfare.
Perhaps even more tellingly, it reflects the fallen star of the PLA ground force and its land-based Rocket Force, which is increasingly out of favor with a leader demanding personal loyalty. At last count nine senior military officers have been caught up in Xi’s latest wave of anti-corruption purges, which have primarily ensnared individuals hailing from the ground forces-linked rocket force and general weapons procurement, with more speculated to come. Some military observers have expressed cautious hope that this weakening of the rocket force, with its tactical and strategic land and antiship missiles critical to any potential PLA offensive strategy against Taiwan and the US in the Western Pacific, will put pause to any contemplations of war by Xi and the CCP to reclaim Taiwan in the near future.