China's New Military Leadership and the Challenges It Faces

Interview with Roy D. Kamphausen
January 18, 2013

NBR’s Roy Kamphausen comments on the changes in China’s military leadership following the conclusion of the 18th Party Congress, and examines the issues that this new slate of PLA leaders will encounter.

An Interview with Roy Kamphausen

By Greg Chaffin
January 18, 2013

Following the announcement of a new slate of leaders in China’s Central Military Commission (CMC) in early November, new CMC chairman, Communist Party general secretary, and soon-to-be president Xi Jinping conducted several engagements with China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). These included an extensive inspection of troops and units in the Guangzhou Military Region in southern China. Likewise, the new chief military policy interlocutor with the United States, Lieutenant General Qi Jianguo, completed his inaugural trip to Washington, D.C., for the 13th U.S.-China Defense Consultative Talks in mid-December.

In the wake of these developments, Roy Kamphausen, Senior Advisor for Political and Security Affairs at NBR, comments on the changes in China’s military leadership and examines the issues that this new slate of PLA leaders will encounter.

How has the composition of the new Central Military Commission (CMC) come together?

New Communist Party general secretary Xi Jinping was announced as CMC chairman. Additionally, army general Fan Changlong and air force general Xu Qiliang were promoted to positions as vice chairmen of the CMC—Fan from Jinan Military Region commander and Xu from air force commander. Other members of the new CMC include General Chang Wanquan, who will become the next Minister of National Defense when that position is confirmed in early spring 2013; General Fang Fenghui, chief of the General Staff Department (GSD), who previously had been Beijing Military Region commander since 2007; General Zhang Yang, director of the General Political Department (GPD), who comes to the job from the Guangzhou Military Region political commissar position and is the first new GPD director in at least twenty years who was previously not a GPD deputy director; General Zhao Keshi, director of the General Logistics Department (GLD), formerly commander of the Nanjing Military Region; General Zhang Youxia, who is director of the General Armaments Department (GAD), the former commander of the Shenyang Military Region, and the son of a famous Chinese general who had served with Xi Jinping’s father, making Zhang a “princeling”; Admiral Wu Shengli, commander of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy, who retained the same position on the CMC despite expectations that he might become a CMC vice chairman; General Ma Xiaotian, commander of the PLA Air Force and formerly the deputy chief of general staff in charge of strategic relations; and General Wei Fenghe, commander of the Second Artillery, China’s missile force.

Were there any surprises?

To be sure, some aspects of the leadership change in the PLA caught observers unawares. Perhaps the biggest news was that Hu Jintao did not follow the practice of Jiang Zemin and retain his CMC chairmanship after relinquishing his role as general secretary of the Communist Party and ranking member on the Politburo Standing Committee, the highest collective leadership body in China. Whether this was the result of a back-room deal to limit the influence of retired top political leaders such as Jiang Zemin—either because Hu Jintao saw the wisdom of avoiding the “twin centers” problem in military leadership that he himself had faced or because Xi Jinping built an effective coalition to prevent Hu from remaining on—we don’t know. We do have a sense, however, that consolidating authority under Xi might help avoid some of the civil-military challenges that plagued China in the early years of Hu’s CMC chairmanship.

Xi Jinping as CMC chairman himself represents a somewhat perplexing figure. He spent time as a junior staff officer in the CMC General Office in the mid-1970’s—some claim that he served as a mishu (essentially an aide-de-camp) to then minister of defense Geng Biao—which provides him with perspective on the activities of the CMC at its highest levels. In his various party roles, Xi has supervised PLA units and served on joint party-army committees. However, while he certainly exudes more charisma than the reserved Hu Jintao, the degree to which Xi is able to personally impact PLA priorities and modernization programs will remain difficult to assess, especially in these early days.

Regarding the top military leaders, there were two surprises. First, while General Fan Changlong was widely regarded as a top-notch commander who led important military exercises and achieved key modernization initiatives in the Jinan Military Region, it was nonetheless still a surprise that he was promoted two grades to become a CMC vice chairman. There had been a strong precedent against this type of “helicopter promotion.” Second, it was widely thought by outside observers that the accomplishments of Admiral Wu Shengli and the increased importance of China’s navy would have resulted in his promotion to a CMC vice chairmanship or to the position of minister of national defense, but he was not. That Wu was not selected to one of those positions, however, should hardly be understood as a rebuke of the PLA Navy and likely reflects a range of factors, none of which are observable to outsiders. Wu could still become a CMC vice chairman in a couple of years.

The new slate of CMC members was not announced at the same time, reflecting the peculiarities of the Chinese system. Some of the new members, including the two new military vice chairmen, General Xu Qiliang and General Fan Changlong, were approved by the outgoing 17th Party Congress, which adjourned just a day or two before the 18th Party Congress convened on November 8. Others were approved by the 18th Party Congress itself. General Chang Wanquan will officially assume the minister’s seat on the CMC when he is elevated to minister of national defense by the National People’s Congress, but retains his current position on the CMC until then.

What is the background of the new vice chairmen of the CMC?

Of note, both of the new CMC vice chairmen have experience in the Shenyang Military Region. General Xu commanded the military region’s air force and General Fan spent 30 years there, rising to the position of regional chief of staff before taking command of the Jinan Military Region in 2004. Outsiders might be quick to conclude that the PLA wanted its top leadership to have operational experience in the military region adjacent to North Korea, in case of a sudden collapse or another North Korean crisis, and Xu and Fan certainly have that experience. But this analytical approach might overlook other factors in the selection process, including a desire to balance the geographic origins of the top military leadership. Previously, top leaders from the Lanzhou Military Region, which covers China’s restive western provinces, had been prominent, for instance.

Of perhaps greater consequence, neither of the two vice chairmen comes from a political commissar background, making this the first time the CMC has not had a “political” vice chairman in at least twenty years. Again, an outsider’s view might be that operational commanders were ascendant and politics were in decline. But this would overlook the fact that the two military vice chairmen are members of the Politburo and that all members of the CMC are full members of the CCP’s Central Committee. Moreover, all senior leaders have been leaders or deputy leaders of the party committees at their previous levels of command throughout their careers. Indeed, it is worth remembering that the PLA is a party, not state, military and as such is an intrinsically political institution.

What factors may have played a role in the selection process?

In addition to professional competence and the guanxi (relationships) that new leaders have with older generation military and political leaders, several other factors may have been part of the decision-making process for selecting the new CMC membership. First, the CMC has tightly adhered to its norms for grade-based mandatory retirement ages. No officers are retained on active duty past a mandatory retirement age.

Second, the CMC is more “joint” than ever before. General Xu Qiliang is the first air force general to be a vice chairman, and the inclusion of General Ma Xiaotian, his successor as air force chief, increases the number of non-army officers from two to three. Until it became clear that Admiral Wu Shengli would remain as navy commander, it appeared that two of the top three positions in the PLA would be held by non-army leaders. Ultimately, however, the PLA remains an army-dominated force, especially at the top leadership levels. Seven of the ten CMC leaders are army generals, all general department directors are army generals, and all seven military-region commanders are army generals as well. The army’s dominance might have been one of several opaque factors that helped shape the top leadership of the CMC.

Third, the much-discussed princeling phenomenon appears to have had a mixed effect on promotions. Princelings, the children or in-laws of current or former political or military leaders, were “born red” after the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and are often well connected with political cadres of similar lineage. Of the new slate of CMC leaders, CMC vice chairman Xu Qiliang is the son of the late air force lieutenant general Xu Lefu; PLA air force chief Ma Xiaotian is the son of Ma Zaiyao, former dean of the Political Institute of the PLA; and the new GLD director, Zhang Youxia, is the son of General Zhang Zongwun, a revolutionary general. However, not all princelings were promoted, suggesting that the princeling factor may been overrated. For instance, neither General Liu Yuan, GLD political commissar and the son of former state president Liu Shaoqi, nor Zhang Haiyang, political commissar of the Chengdu Military Region and the son of legendary general Zhang Zhen, was selected to become GPD director, despite both being highly rated candidates. While some candidates might suppose that their princeling connections with deposed Chongqing leader Bo Xilai doomed their prospects for promotion, other factors may have played a role as well. In General Liu’s case, for instance, the energy with which he pursued a high-profile anti-corruption campaign, which resulted in the sacking of Lieutenant General Gu Junshan, deputy director of the GLD, may have alarmed some leaders enough to prevent his promotion. The reality is that not everyone can be promoted to a limited number of positions, and a candidate’s princeling connections appear to be only one of several determining factors in how new leaders were selected.

Finally, the degree to which new leaders had mishu experience may have played a role. Many rising PLA leaders served as military aides, thereby gaining the patronage of powerful figures within the Chinese military establishment. For instance, the newly promoted deputy chief of general staff, Lieutenant General Wang Guanzhong, served as a mishu to Yang Shangkun, former president of the PRC and former executive vice chairman of the CMC.

What are the key civil-military issues that the new CMC will need to address?

In my view, this CMC will face the increasing dilemma of the PLA playing an outsized role in national security policymaking and having near-autonomy in the execution of that policy while at the same time attempting to downplay regional concerns about growing Chinese military power. This is the dilemma of a more powerful and capable PLA creating impressions that Beijing, at a national-policy level, desperately wants to avoid. This dilemma is playing out now in China’s confrontations with other regional states over disputed maritime claims in the East and South China seas, for instance.

To be sure, the PLA has largely not cared what others have thought about its approaches. The CMC sees itself as accountable only to the top party leadership—some claim only to the party general secretary, who is also CMC chairman—and gives little regard to what others think. Typical of this approach would be the response of then CMC vice chairman and army general Guo Boxiong to criticisms about the PLA’s anti-satellite launch in January 2007. He downplayed the event’s significance and waved off any risk of space debris, in essence saying that reactions to the launch were overwrought in the West. In the process, General Guo displayed a surprising lack of regard for the second-order consequences of seemingly autonomous PLA decisions, such as the thousands of pieces of space debris created as a result of the operation, as well as an apparent lack of appreciation for these decisions’ impact on other states.

While I see no reason yet to conclude that the new leadership will take on this issue, one can be assured that as the PLA becomes more capable and as national security interests take the PLA farther from China in larger numbers than ever before, concerns about an autonomous PLA acting on its own will continue to grow.

A second issue concerning civil-military relations is the question of creeping guojiahua, or the PLA becoming more of a “national army” compared with its long-standing status as the party’s army. This is an issue of ongoing concern for political leaders. The not-infrequent Liberation Army Daily editorials enjoining the PLA to never consider the issue of party oversight only underscore the intensity of this anxiety. My own discussions with PLA officers in Beijing in recent years suggest a desire for the greater regularization that formal accountability to the National People’s Congress might bring.

What important operational and structural changes will the PLA likely face?

First, one can expect the debate to intensify over when or how the PLA might reform the current military-region structure, and the outcome of this debate will have important ramifications for the degree to which the PLA land forces become more expeditionary. The current structure of the military regions evokes the pre-modernization period in which PLA ground forces were essentially static garrison forces whose chief role was to defend Chinese territory. An updated capabilities-based structure would appear to be better suited to carry out former general secretary Hu’s “new historic missions” and could more easily accomplish a variety of tasks, including the positioning of forces capable of responding to border contingencies and projecting land power around China’s periphery. A capabilities-based structure also presents opportunities to reduce redundant or superfluous forces and organizational structures, allowing for resource reallocation or savings. Recent ground-force exercise patterns provide support for these possibilities.

However, the military-region structure does more than simply help prepare for operational contingencies. Indeed, the provincial military districts and their subordinate military districts and subdistricts perform critical civil-military roles related to mobilization and demobilization and represent entrenched bureaucracies that might prove difficult to dislodge. Thus, any significant changes to the military-region structure are likely to be contentious events observable by outsiders.

Reform of the existing structure thus would become a complex process, which would likely include an evaluation of strategic and regional security as well as the domestic security situation, assessments of the capabilities of existing units and structures, and alignment of units with the roles and missions that a modified structure might permit. In any case, the pressure to reform will likely intensify during this CMC’s tenure. Although three new CMC members come directly from military-region commander postings, it might be hasty to conclude that they are either stolid supporters of the status quo or ardent reformers. In any case, their recent experience as military-region commanders will certainly inform their thinking.

Second, related to but distinct from military-region restructuring, we may also see an intensified set of intra-PLA struggles between the land forces, surging navy, Second Artillery, and air force over resources and priorities. The land forces still constitute the bulk of the PLA, serve as the Communist Party’s link to its revolutionary past, and are charged with the fundamental national security missions of defending China’s sovereignty and the rule of the Communist Party. Yet, as we have seen, the number of ground forces in place to carry out these missions is outsized for the task, suggesting that a further realignment of forces is possible. This realignment, or “rebalancing” between the army, navy, air force, and Second Artillery, becomes more necessary as the PLA looks to secure China’s national security interests on a global scale.

In many respects, the struggles for resources between the services will provide insight into how expeditionary China’s CMC hopes the PLA will become. One can conjure up a variety of scenarios and approaches through which a future PLA might seek to project power—for instance, from a modest regional power-projection posture in which land forces still play a significant role, all the way to a full-scale global capability in which a blue water navy and robust air force and Second Artillery (the latter of which might be promoted to a full service) are more prominent. Will we see a more joint orientation? Will the regional air forces and fleets come out from subordination to the military regions, perhaps adopting an “expeditionary force” model of organizing air force units into air strike groups with a mix of fighters, bombers, and early-warning aircraft? Moreover, might the PLA Air Force contest for a role in managing China’s space mission, currently controlled by the GAD and GSD, as the country seeks to pursue its aerospace strategy of “integrated air and space operations, being prepared for simultaneous offensive and defensive operations”? There is reason to believe these issues are being debated internally. Regardless of the scenario, service interaction and competition for resources, roles, and missions—as well as China’s ability to demonstrate enhanced service interoperability and jointness—will be important indicators for external observers seeking to determine the future trajectory of the PLA and, with it, China’s strategic focus.

Greg Chaffin is a Project Associate at The National Bureau of Asian Research.