Among recent changes in the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) leadership, the appointment of Vice Admiral Yuan Yubai to Commander of the Southern Theater Command is particularly noteworthy (PLA Daily, January 23). Yuan is the first and only non-Army officer ever to command a Military Region (MR) or Theater Command (TC), one of the five newly formed joint headquarters that replaced the seven Military Regions that had existed since the mid-1980s. Consistent with Chinese practice, Yuan shares responsibility for the Theater with a political commissar, Army General Wei Liang. Nonetheless, Admiral Yuan’s selection as TC commander is a major event in PLA history, and a step toward abandoning “the traditional mentality that land outweighs sea” (China Brief, June 19, 2015). 
Unlike the old Military Regions, which were staffed primarily by Army personnel and in peacetime directly commanded Army units in their areas of operation, the five new Theater Commands are joint headquarters composed of personnel from all services. TCs are responsible for operations (战区主战), that is “responding to security threats in their strategic directions, maintaining peace, deterring wars and winning battles” (PLA Daily, February 1, 2016).
The four service headquarters (Army, Navy, Air Force, and Rocket Force) in Beijing, on the other hand, are responsible for “construction” (军种主建) (PLA Daily, December 1, 2016). “Construction” activities include functions such as organizing, manning, equipping, educating, and training the forces, and possibly may involve some service-specific operations, such as military operations other than war (MOOTW) or potentially single-service combat missions.
Theater Commands perform command and control functions of operational units through their subordinate Theater Service (component) headquarters (TC Army and TC Air Force headquarters and the TC Navy headquarters in the three coastal Theaters).  In addition to reporting to the TC, Theater Service headquarters have a dual chain of command back to their service headquarters in Beijing for day-to-day “construction” activities. (Rocket Force bases report directly Rocket Force headquarters in Beijing.) The Navy’s three fleets (North, East, and South Sea Fleets) concurrently serve as the TC Naval components for their respective Theaters. Fleet commanders are dual-hatted Theater deputy commanders as are the commanders of the Theater Army and Air Force headquarters.
Admiral Yuan’s experience may provide indications of the kind of officers who will be assigned to TC commander positions in the future. While Army officers likely will continue to hold the majority of TC commander (and political commissar) billets, a senior Air Force officer probably will be tapped to command a Theater at some point in the relatively near future.
Admiral Yuan’s Biography
At 60 years of age, Vice Admiral Yuan is the same age as his American contemporary, Admiral Harry Harris, Jr., commander of the U.S. Pacific Command. Yuan joined the PLA Navy in 1976 and trained at the Qingdao Submarine Academy, located in the North Sea Fleet (NSF) area of responsibility. Afterward, he was assigned as a submarine crew member in Qingdao. In 1982, he served as the base torpedo chief and then executive officer on a submarine, most likely a nuclear attack Han-class submarine. In 1990, he became a submarine captain and apparently stayed in that position until 2003 when he was promoted to chief of staff of the 1st Submarine Base at Qingdao. Four years later he became base commander, followed by assignments as NSF chief of staff in 2010 and NSF commander and concurrent Jinan MR deputy commander in 2014. He was promoted to rear admiral in 2008 and vice admiral in 2015 (China News, January 12).
This pattern of alternating assignments among commander, deputy commander, and chief of staff is common in the PLA. According to their biographies, many officers in this command track do not spend much time, if any, as “regular” staff officers in personnel, intelligence, operations, or logistics billets (instead, specialized staff officers perform those duties and move up the ladder in their own functional specialty). Likewise, Yuan was assigned to one major unit, the North Sea Fleet, for his entire career up to his transfer to the Southern TC. This, too, is a common practice, as most officers are assigned to a single region for most of their careers, often in one corps/army leader grade level organization, before being transferred to another large organization. Once they reached corps/army leader grade, senior officers may be transferred from one region to another as Yuan was from the NSF to the Southern TC. Likewise, Yuan’s replacement as commander NSF, Rear Admiral Zhang Wendan, former deputy chief of staff of the Southern TC, also crossed regions to get to his new post. Previously Zhang had spent his entire career in the SSF and also served as commander of a Gulf of Aden task force when he was deputy chief of staff of the SSF (Xinhua, March 18, 2010). Some aspects of previous PLA assignment procedures may change in the future as the force develops a contingent of joint officers capable of serving in any joint headquarters.
Recent Operational and International Experience
While working as NSF chief of staff, Yuan was given the temporary responsibility of commanding the Navy’s 14th iteration of its anti-piracy escort mission in the Gulf of Aden. Even though he had been a submarine officer, Yuan was in charge of the destroyer Harbin, the frigate Mianyang, supply ship Weishanhu, multiple helicopters, and a special operations unit, which deployed from mid-February to late-September 2013. En route to the Gulf, the task force participated in the “Peace-13” multinational maritime joint military exercise in Pakistan. While on station, Yuan visited the Portuguese guided-missile frigate Alvares Cabral, flagship of the EU Combined Task Force 465 (People’s Daily, July 16, 2013). Later the Harbin and Weishanhu participated in anti-piracy drills at sea with the USS Mason (USNI News, August 26, 2013). The task force made port calls in Saipan, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Djibouti and stopped in Singapore and Thailand on it way home to Qingdao (Xinhua, September 5, 2013; China Radio International September 13, 2013). Yuan’s performance on this prominent mission probably was evaluated positively by the PLAN’s senior leadership in Beijing as indicative of his potential for higher levels of responsibility.
Due to his past assignments, Vice Admiral Yuan is fairly well known to foreigners, and to senior U.S. Navy leaders in particular. While commander of the NSF, Yuan had additional opportunities to interact with foreigners, including U.S. Chiefs of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson and Admiral Jonathan Greenert; commander of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, Vice Admiral Thomas; the Iranian Navy commander; the Turkish Navy Commander; and Australian Defense Minister. He also attended several international conferences, including one in London in 2015 at which he is reported to have said: “The South China Sea, as the name indicates, is a sea area that belongs to China.” In August 2016, the U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Scott Swift visited Qingdao and emphasized “the importance of transparency, parity, and reciprocity,” noting “it is incumbent upon fleet commanders like himself and Yuan to ensure that actions at the tactical level do not have unintended strategic implications.” (USNI, August 9, 2016).
In 2011, while NSF chief of staff, Yuan acted as Red Force commander for a joint defense exercise in the Jinan MR involving NSF assets supported by Army and Air Force reconnaissance and radar units (Xinhua, November 19, 2011). This event was one of the earliest examples in which the Navy took the lead in a joint exercise. In 2012, Yuan commanded a seven-ship formation during a two-week, multi-task training mission in the western Pacific (PLA Navy, November 2, 2012). As NSF commander, he oversaw another joint exercise in 2015 involving nearly 100 ships and scores of aircraft from the NSF and ESF supported by multiple battalions from the Second Artillery and electronic countermeasures units from the Shenyang and Jinan Military Regions (PLA Daily, July 3, 2015).
As a result of Yuan’s experience in the NSF, he should be intimately familiar with the status of the PLA Navy’s carrier program. The Liaoning is stationed south of Qingdao and its aircraft train onshore in the NSF area of operation near Huludao. The PLA’s second carrier is under construction nearby at Dalian (ChinaMil, February 21). When the second carrier enters active service, it could be home ported, or make regular visits, to the Sanya Naval Base on Hainan in the Southern TC. Yuan’s experience as a submariner and with surface and air operations provide the sort of background necessary for potential naval operations in the South China Sea.
Of the three fleets, the NSF has the smallest contingent of roughly a dozen amphibious vessels; the NSF has not (yet) been assigned a Type-071 LPD (amphibious transport dock).  Though the PLA Navy marine force is expected to be expanded during the current batch of reforms, no PLA Navy marines were stationed in the region when Yuan was NSF commander.  Nonetheless, the NSF’s amphibious assets have trained with Army units, though their operations tempo likely is lower than the larger amphibious forces found in the other two larger fleets. As Southern TC commander, Yuan will have available to him two marine brigades (as of now, with perhaps more in the future) and a Navy amphibious force of over 20 ships and vessels, which includes three Type-071 LPDs.
Through his performance as a submarine captain and commander of surface formations, Admiral Yuan has demonstrated his tactical and operational proficiency in multiple Navy functional areas. Though he has no combat experience, he has deployed successfully on a seven-month, high-profile mission to the Gulf of Aden. Significantly, Yuan also has acted as senior leader in joint training in which the Navy was in command (compared with most joint training where the other services support the Army). Through his assignments as chief of staff and commander of multiple units, he has proven his reliability in the eyes of his superiors in the Navy and on the Central Military Commission (CMC). Moreover, he has had high-level contacts with foreign counterparts and senior military leaders from all over the world. For the PLA, Admiral Yuan is well-prepared to be the first non-Army Theater commander.
Into the Future
Vice Admiral Yuan’s selection to become commander of the Southern Theater Command is truly a historic development for the PLA. During this round of reform, as the Army is reduced in size and the other services increased to better balance the distribution of forces, Yuan’s assignment as TC commander is another major step in breaking the “big Army’s” influence (ChinaMil, February 3, 2016). It is likely only a matter of time before an Air Force general or another Navy admiral is assigned to command another coastal Theater or perhaps even the Central Theater Command. 
To date, former Navy commander Wu Shengli remains on the CMC. Neither current Navy commander Vice Admiral Shen Jinlong or Vice Admiral Yuan Yubai have been assigned to that senior-most leadership and policy-making organization. The future composition of the CMC is expected to be made public around the time of the 19th Party Congress later in 2017. Currently, outsiders have no solid indicators of who will be on the new CMC, if it will keep its current number of senior officers or if there will be additions or deletions. For example, will service commanders, like Shen, have a place on the new CMC as they have for the past decade? Will TC commanders as warfighters, like Yuan, be added to the CMC in contrast to past practice when MR commanders were not included? Will service commanders and TC commanders be assigned the same grades and ranks (even if the PLA grade and rank structure are adjusted as reforms proceed)? Will TC commanders rotate among services over time or will commanders reflect the geography and potential combat domains applicable to their Theater? Will TC commanders bring to the headquarters additional officers from their own services with parochial biases?
Operationally, will the expanded CMC structure (an example of enhanced centralized control in an increasingly decentralized environment) become involved with Theater operations to “assist” TC commanders in their missions? Will services be authorized to conduct single-service missions, such as the Gulf of Aden task force, under the supervision of the service headquarters without the intervention of the joint TC headquarters?
Despite the initial answers, more changes likely will be made as the PLA attempts to implement this tranche of reforms. In the absence of actual combat, PLA officers will prove their tactical competencies in training situations both inside and outside of China and by performing MOOTW tasks, such as the Gulf of Aden escort mission, disaster relief efforts, or UN Peacekeeping Operations. Political reliability, as always, will be a necessity for promotion and retention.
Whatever his future path, Vice Admiral Yuan Yubai has already entered the PLA history books. His performance in the next few years will determine whether he is given a full chapter or simply noted with an asterisk.
Dennis J. Blasko, Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army (Retired), is a former U.S. army attaché to Beijing and Hong Kong and author of The Chinese Army Today (Routledge, 2006).
- To be fair, Air Force General Zhu Fuxi was assigned as the first political commissar of the Western TC, the only non-Army general to be named as a TC leader at the time of creation. However, Zhu had been an Army political officer until 2009 when he was transferred to the Air Force. Earlier this year he was reported to have been removed from that position. See “Young star tipped to become political commissar for PLA’s western command,” South China Morning Post, January 24, 2017, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/2065018/young-star-tipped-become-political-commissar-plas. That same report alleges that Air Force Lieutenant General Fan Xiaojun has been assigned as political commissar of the Northern TC.
- TC commanders and political commissars have the grade of Theater leader, equivalent to the former Military Region leader grade; TC Service headquarters commanders and political commissars are assigned TC deputy leader grades. The PLA’s grade and rank system may change in the near future.
- The PLA Navy: New Capabilities and Missions for the 21st Century, Office of Naval Intelligence, 2015, https://fas.org/irp/agency/oni/pla-navy-2015.pdf
- One unconfirmed report indicates the 26th Group Army has transferred the 77th Motorized Infantry Brigade stationed near Yantai, Shandong in the Northern TC to the PLA Navy marines. See https://china-defense.blogspot.com/2017/02/long-expected-third-plan-marine-brigade.html. This report has not yet been confirmed by official sources.
- The landlocked nature of the Western TC and potential ground-based terrorist threats suggest that an Army officer will likely be most suitable for that command.