A new leader has just taken the helm of the world’s largest navy. Vice Admiral Shen Jinlong (沈金龙) reportedly replaced Admiral Wu Shengli (吴胜利) as PLAN Commander on January 17, 2017 (Global Times Online, January 20). On the morning of January 20, Shen offered Lunar New Year greetings to sailors on patrol in the Gulf of Aden via video-teleconference (Chinese Navy Online, January 20). Authoritative state media reports have offered few details on Shen, making it important to analyze a broad array of Chinese-language sources to distill what his elevation may mean for China as a maritime power. Given Xi Jinping’s sweeping and ongoing military reforms, the organizational dynamics surrounding Shen’s rise merit particularly close examination. Understanding these dynamics can help outside observers anticipate the identity, experience, promotion of PLAN leaders, as well as the positions that they hold relative to the PLA and its key commands.
Admiral Sun Jianguo, long viewed as Wu’s natural successor as PLAN commander by many, represented China at the 2015 and 2016 Shangri-La Dialogues. Sun is now expected to retire by the end of February 2017. Sun’s impending retirement opened up possibilities for a set of Vice Admirals considered by foreign observers to be potential candidates to succeed Wu, namely Tian Zhong, Liu Yi, Ding Yi, Jiang Weilie, Yuan Yubai, Su Zhiqian—and, most importantly, Shen Jinlong (China Brief, September 20, 2016).
Of note, Shen was the last one of this group to be promoted to Military Region (MR) Deputy Leader, now Theater Command (TC) Deputy Leader, grade (December 2014) and the last one to receive his second star (2016). Normally, when someone lower in protocol order moves to the top of the protocol list or is promoted to the next grade, this indicates that the others will not get a grade promotion and will retire at their mandatory age based on their grade. However, as with many situations under Xi Jinping, certain rules appear to be changing. Specifically, when Shen became the PLAN commander, VADM Yuan Yubai—a year ahead of Shen in grade and time in rank—was simultaneously promoted to the same grade and became the commander of the Southern Theater Command.  As will be discussed in Part 2, it is not yet clear if Shen will become a PLA Central Military Commission (CMC), member when Wu retires at the end of 2017.
Several of Shen’s career highlights point to his status as an emerging leader. In August 2014, shortly after the end of RIMPAC, Shen flew to Hawaii commanded a three-ship task force for a port call to San Diego had just finished participating for the first time in Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC), the world’s largest international maritime exercise (China Military Online, August 6, 2014). In September 2016, Shen headed the PLAN delegation to the twenty-second International Seapower Symposium at the U.S. Naval War College. One pattern common to Chinese bureaucracy is a tendency toward incrementally testing, grooming, and socializing rising leaders over time. In retrospect, Shen was clearly being groomed.
Historically, the PLA’s service commanders are authorized only one trip abroad per year, while only a few lower-level PLA officers are lucky to travel abroad at all and are limited to only one visit.  For example, VADM Zhao Xingfa, who was a PLAN deputy commander in 2008, accompanied then Chief of the General Staff, General Chen Bingde, to Serbia and Norway. Although Zhao retired as a deputy commander, participation in certain senior officer-led visits is an indicator of grooming for the commander’s position (Xinhua, September 10, 2008). For example, as a PLAAF deputy commander, Lieutenant General Liu Shunyao accompanied Defense Minister and CMC Vice Chairman Chi Haotian to the United States in November 1996 and became the commander the next month.  In September 1998, one of the PLAAF’s Deputy Political Commissars, Lieutenant General Qiao Qingchen, accompanied CMC Vice Chairman Zhang Wannian to the United States and became the political commissar three months later.
Although no information was found concerning any direct connection between Shen and Xi Jinping, since Xi assumed power in 2012, Shen has risen rapidly. Table 1 provides information about Shen’s career since he joined the PLAN as an enlisted member in 1974.
Table 1: Shen Jinlong’s Career Path
|1974||Soldier & Squad Leader||None||None|
|1978||Commander, Platoon||Platoon Leader||None|
|*||Navigation Director, U/I vessel||[Company Deputy Leader]||None|
|1982||CO, Tug Boat||[Company Leader]||None|
|1990||Coxswain, Submarine Hunter Boat||[Battalion Deputy Leader]||[LT/LCDR] †|
|1992||CO, Frigate||Battalion Leader||[LCDR/CDR]|
|||Chief of Staff, Frigate Dadui||Regiment Deputy Leader||[CDR/LCDR]|
|1995||Commander, Frigate Dadui||Regiment Leader||[CPT/CDR]|
|||Chief of Staff, Zhidui||Division Deputy Leader||[CPT/SCPT]|
|||Deputy Commander, NSF Vessels Training Center||Division Deputy Leader||[CPT/SCPT]|
|2002||Commander, NSF Vessels Training Center||Division Leader||SCPT|
|Nov. 2004||Commander, 10th Destroyer Zhidui (Dalian)||Division Leader||SCPT|
|2009||Commander, Lushun Support Base||Corps Deputy Leader||SCPT|
|Apr. 2010||Commandant, Dalian Naval Ship Academy||Corps Deputy Leader||SCPT & RADM|
|Aug. 2011||Commandant, Naval Command College (Nanjing)||Corps Leader Grade||RADM|
|Sep. 2014||Deputy Commander, South Sea Fleet||Corps Leader Grade||RADM|
|Dec. 2014||Deputy Commander, Guangzhou MR and Commander, South Sea Fleet||Military Region Deputy Leader||RADM|
|Mar. 2016||Deputy Commander, Southern Theater Command and Commander, South Sea Fleet||Theater Command Deputy Leader||RADM & VADM|
|Jan. 2017||Commander, PLA Navy||Theater Command Leader||VADM|
|* The information in brackets are logical assumptions based on the time frame as well as the grade and rank structure.|
†The PLA’s rank system that was abolished in 1965 was not re-implemented until 1988.
Comparison with Former PLAN Commanders
The PLAN has had eight commanders since its creation in 1949. None of them, including Shen, have shared similar career paths.  The first two commanders, Xiao Jinguang and Ye Fei, moved from the Army to the Navy and served primarily in political commissar roles. Liu Huaqing served in Army, Navy, and weapons development billets, finishing his career as a Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission and as the last PLA member to sit on the Politburo Standing Committee. Zhang Lianzhong and Zhang Dingfa served primarily as submarine officers, while Shi Yunsheng was a naval aviator. Wu Shengli and Shen Jinlong are career surface officers. As shown in Table 2, the only common progression for Shen and his two predecessors is that they all served as fleet deputy commanders and commanders.
Table 2: PLA Navy Commander Career Paths
|Shen Jinlong||Wu Shengli||Zhang Dingfa||Shi Yunsheng||Zhang Lianzhong||Liu Huaqing|
|Dep Chief of the GS||X||X|
|Command College CDT||X|
While Shen is not yet well known outside Chinese military circles, the sixty-year-old brings wide-ranging professional military education (PME), operational, and international experience to his new position. Shen was born in October 1956 in Shanghai’s Nanhui District (上海南汇区), now part of Pudong New District. Since joining the PLAN at 18 in 1974, he has served as commanding officer of a frigate and chief of staff and commander of a frigate squadron (大队; dadui). He also commanded the North Sea Fleet’s 10th Destroyer Flotilla (支队; zhidui); and then served as commanding officer of the North Sea Fleet’s Lüshun Support Base (旅顺保障基地) (Mingpao News Net, January 12). Like Wu before him, Shen was Commandant of the Dalian Naval Vessel Academy (大连舰艇学院; April 2010–August 2011). Shen was sufficiently well-regarded within the PLAN to have been sent to advanced studies at Russia’s Kuznetsov Naval Academy in Russia in 2001, as well as at the PLA National Defense University in 2008 and 2012. Available information concerning his background suggests that he appears to have always been an avid reader and to have conducted considerable self-study on military topics.
On July 20, 2010, Shen was promoted to Rear Admiral, while serving as the Commandant of the Dalian Naval Ship Academy, a corps deputy leader-grade billet (People’s Navy, July 21, 2010). In August 2011, he received a grade promotion to corps leader grade and was appointed Commandant of the Nanjing Naval Command College (南京海军指挥学院). In this capacity, Shen participated in what was arguably a watershed intellectual event for the PLAN: On February 23, 2012, Shen’s college convened the first International Escort Forum (国际护航研讨会). The two-day event gathered a large number of PLAN officers and 84 foreign participants, including from the United States, to discuss anti-piracy experiences in the Gulf of Aden and prospects for further cooperation in that area.
By September 29, 2014, Shen was appointed Deputy Commander of the South Sea Fleet with the same grade of corps leader (China News Online, September 30, 2014). On December 30, 2014—less than four months after being appointed Deputy Commander, he received a grade promotion to Military Region Deputy Leader grade and was appointed as both Commander of the South Sea Fleet (like Wu before him) and deputy commander of what was then known as the Guangzhou Military Region (Zhejiang News Online, December 31, 2014). In both this leadership capacity and as the head of two PLAN PME institutions, he gained considerable experience in receiving foreign delegations. On July 29, 2016, Shen was promoted in rank to Vice Admiral but retained the same grade (People’s Navy, July 30, 2016).
From June through August 2014, the guided-missile destroyer Haikou (海口舰; (DDG-171), the guided-missile frigate Yueyang (岳阳舰; FF-575), and the replenishment ship Qiandaohu (千岛湖舰; AO-886) formed Task Group 171 to participate in RIMPAC 2014 (June 26–August 1) and a follow-on visit to San Diego (Xinhua, August 2, 2014; PRC Embassy, USA, August 16, 2014).
Senior Capt. Zhao Xiaogang, who was the commanding officer of an unidentified East Sea fleet destroyer flotilla (zhidui), reportedly served as the commanding officer during the RIMPAC exercise. Shen then flew to Hawaii, boarded the Haikou, and served as the commanding officer for the trip to San Diego, where PLAN deputy commander, VADM Tian Zhong, arrived and apparently served as the lead officer.
While en route to San Diego, the vessels conducted exercises related to the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (海上意外相遇规则) with the USN’s USS Lake Champlain (CG-57) and USS Independence (LCS-2) (PLA Daily, August 11, 2014). This was followed by a five-day port call in San Diego, at which time, Tian Zhong apparently served as the delegation leader. While in San Diego, the Chinese Ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, and Consul General of Los Angeles, Liu Jian, participated in the port call, which involved the Commander of the U.S. Third Fleet (PLA Daily, August 14, 2014).
This deployment meant the PLAN would be closely observed by most of the world’s other major navies. Given that all three phases were executed well, Shen’s participation most likely helped further his selection as the next commander.
The aforementioned experiences constitute valuable preparation to serve as PLAN commander and likely played a role in Shen’s selection. Beyond his documented qualifications, however, it remains unclear if Shen’s appointment to PLAN commander was influenced decisively by inter-service rivalry, personal choice by Xi Jinping, the promotion system or some combination of factors. Examining and contextualizing Shen’s position of leadership offers potential insights into the PLAN’s evolving organization and ongoing development as well as its relation to the PLA and its civilian masters. Part 2 of this series will further explore these important factors.
Dr. Andrew S. Erickson is Professor of Strategy in, and a core founding member of, the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute. He serves on the Naval War College Review’s Editorial Board. Since 2008 he has been an Associate in Research at Harvard University’s John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. Erickson received his Ph.D. and M.A. from Princeton University and studied Mandarin at Beijing Normal University’s College of Chinese Language and Culture. He can be reached through www.andrewerickson.com.
Kenneth W. Allen is a Senior China Analyst at Defense Group Inc. (DGI) and a concurrent Senior China Analyst with the Long Term Strategy Group. He is a retired U.S. Air Force officer, whose extensive service abroad includes a tour in China as the Assistant Air Attaché. He has written numerous articles on Chinese military affairs. A Chinese linguist, he holds an M.A. in international relations from Boston University.
- This may be part of a broader trend toward having officers at the division and above level gain a broader experience first within different branches and then within different MRs/TCs, Fleets, or MRAF/TC Air Forces. The next step is to be involved in joint commands, which would include being a fleet commander and concurrent MR/TC commander or as a deputy chief of the general staff/Joint Staff with a foreign relations/intel portfolio.
- Kenneth Allen, “Trends in PLA International Initiatives under Hu Jintao,” in Roy Kamphausen, David Lai, and Travis Tanner, eds., Assessing the People’s Liberation Army in the Hu Jintao Era, Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 2014
- Kenneth W. Allen and John F. Corbett, “Predicting PLA Leader Promotions,” in Andrew Scobell and Larry Wortzel, eds., Civil-Military Change in China: Elites, Institutes, and Ideas After the 16th Party Congress, (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, September 2004).
- China’s Navy 2007, Office of Naval Intelligence, https://fas.org/irp/agency/oni/chinanavy2007.pdf.