As the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) underwent its once-a-decade leadership transition at the 18th Party Congress this week, it also made a series of major changes to the top echelon of its military leadership. This turnover among the top brass included the elevation of new People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and Second Artillery commanders, heads of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) powerful four general departments (General Staff, General Political, General Logistics and General Armaments) and a corresponding membership turnover in the Central Military Commission (CMC)—the powerful Party body that controls China’s rapidly modernizing armed forces. Among the most important changes was the promotion last week of two senior officers—former Jinan Military Region (MR) Commander General Fan Changlong and former PLAAF Commander General Xu Qiliang—to serve as the new military vice chairmen of the CMC (Xinhua, November 4). As China’s highest-ranking military officers, Generals Fan and Xu will be responsible for key aspects of the direction of PLA modernization, including China’s quest to enhance the military’s “jointness.”
An artilleryman by training, General Fan Changlong, age 65, has served in the PLA since 1969 when he joined at age 22. Fan initially served in the Shenyang MR’s 16th Corps’ artillery regiment for three years as an enlisted soldier and then fourteen years as a staff officer . From 1985 to 1990, he served in the 16th Group Army (GA), consecutively, as the 48th Division chief of staff, 16th GA chief of staff and, finally, as the GA commander (Xinhua, November 4). With four armored divisions and multiple brigades, the 16th GA is one of the Shenyang MR’s largest elements. After leading the 16th GA for five years, Fan was promoted to major general and, five years after that, was promoted to chief of staff for the Shenyang MR, in 2000. In 2002, he was promoted to lieutenant general and then appointed as one of the assistants to the chief of the PLA general staff in 2003. The following year, he became the commander of the Jinan MR—a position he held until his recent elevation to the CMC.
As Jinan MR commander, he successfully oversaw years of major, international exercises: Sino-Russian Peace Mission 2005, Queshan 2007, Iron Fist 2009 and Vanguard 2011 (Ta Kung Pao, November 5). Under Fan’s leadership—and in response to personal tasking from Hu Jintao— the Jinan MR effectively carried out a pilot project for reforming the largest joint logistics system in the PLA. Fan thus developed an unparalleled track record for planning and executing advanced, joint logistics. He proved that ability in 2008 when he led a major contingent of the forces that responded to the massive Sichuan earthquake as part of Jinan MR’s mission of emergency management (South China Morning Post, October 22). Such successes supplemented Fan’s service as the general with the most time leading an MR and help explain his completely unprecedented promotion from MR commander directly to CMC vice chair without having had to serve on the CMC as a regular member first (Ta Kung Pao, November 5).
General Xu Qiliang is the first Air Force general in the history of the People’s Republic of China to be appointed a vice chairman of the CMC, a body traditionally dominated by the ground forces. Xu, who was born in 1950, joined the PLAAF in 1967 and graduated from the 8th Aviation School in 1969 as a fighter pilot. At age 34, he became the youngest corps deputy commander (corps deputy leader grade) of the PLA in 1984 and then, as the commander of the 8th Air Corps in Fuzhou, became the youngest corps commander (corps leader grade) at age 40 in 1990. He served the commander of the Shenyang Military Region Air Force (MRAF) and as a concurrent MR deputy commander (MR deputy leader grade) before becoming one of the deputy chiefs of the general staff (MR leader grade) in 2004 and then commander of the PLAAF (MR leader grade), which he held from 2007 to 2012 . Over the past 40 years, Xu has built for himself an impeccable military record that culminated in receiving his three-star rank in July 2007 and becoming a CMC member (CMC member grade) in October of that year (Xinhua, November 4). Given the expected retirement age of 70, Xu and Fan probably will complete their service as vice chairmen to Xi Jinping at the 19th Party Congress in 2017.
Fan’s promotion was a surprise to some observers as he skipped the CMC member grade, but Xu’s appointment is probably more significant for two reasons. First, General Xu is widely known for his strong advocacy of air and space power, suggesting the promotion could enable Xu to realize his vision of a more modern and capable PLAAF. As PLAAF commander, Xu presided over a period of transition from a traditional focus on air defense to a broader outlook encompassing more integrated offensive and defensive operations and emphasizing the increasing role of space power. Xu has stated the PLAAF must forge “a sharp sword and shield capable of winning peace” to help protect China’s interests (PLA Daily, November 1, 2009). This includes not only more modern combat aircraft like the J-20 stealth aircraft China unveiled in January 2011 and a second stealth fighter that is now undergoing flight testing, but also advanced intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), early warning, air defense and strategic airlift capabilities (Wall Street Journal, November 3) .
If Xu’s controversial comments about the inevitability of greater military competition in space are any indication, China’s sword and shield also encompasses anti-satellite and other space control capabilities as well as the objective of ensuring China’s own ability to use space for military purposes and limit or deny an adversary’s ability to do likewise. As Xu stated in a November 2009 interview:
“The air and space era and information era have arrived at the same time, and the domain of information and domain of space and air have become the new commanding height for international strategic competition. Considering the global trend of a new revolution in military affairs, competition among armed forces is moving toward the air and space domain and is extending from the aviation domain to near space and even deep space. Such a ‘shift’ represents an irresistible trend, such an ‘expansion’ is historically inevitable, and such development is irreversible. In a certain sense, having control of air and space means having control of the ground, oceans, and the electromagnetic space, which also means having the strategic initiative in one’s hands” (PLA Daily, November 1, 2009).
Moreover, Xu’s advocacy for the PLAAF’s role in space operations probably reflects internal competition over which part of the PLA will have primary responsibility for an increasingly critical mission—one that Chinese strategists see as potentially decisive in future wars. Second, Xu is the first Air Force general to be appointed a vice chairman of the CMC, a body traditionally dominant by the PLA’s ground force officers. Xu’s promotion could thus reflect a growing desire in the military to pursue western-style joint operations and perhaps greater strategic relevance and influence for the PLAAF, PLA Navy (PLAN) and Second Artillery.
General Xu’s appointment as a CMC vice chair in particular reflects a broader trend toward greater representation for non-ground force services at the top. Since 2004, more PLAAF, PLAN and Second Artillery officers have served in important military leadership posts than ever before. These have included the Academy of Military Science (AMS) and National Defense University (NDU) commandants and the NDU political commissar. This is the result of China’s longstanding efforts to promote the PLA’s joint operations capabilities—a challenging endeavor in what has historically been a highly ground force–centric military establishment. Indeed, as of this party congress, there are no PLAAF deputies in any of the General Departments, highlighting that this is a work in progress. Nonetheless, given Xu’s background, many predict that PLAAF interests will be better represented than in the past, especially because Xu is not the only air force officer on the CMC. As the new PLAAF commander, General Ma Xiaotian also will be on the CMC to promote the vision and interests of the air force. The fact that two air force officers have secured a place on China’s highest military body along with the rising fortunes of the PLAN and Second Artillery probably foreshadows the loosening of the ground force’s sixty-year-long grip on the levers of military power.
Nonetheless, a true equalization of power and influence among the ground forces, PLAN, PLAAF and Second Artillery necessary to conduct Western-style joint operations is still a distant possibility. First, as a CMC vice chairman, Xu is not in a position to advocate for the PLAAF in the same way he did when he served as PLAAF commander. At the top of the system, service parochialism is supposed to be mitigated by party identity and the need to represent the interests of all parts of the armed forces. Presumably, in his new role, General Xu would not want to be perceived as favoring his service at the expense of the rest of the PLA.
Second, and perhaps most importantly, the ground forces still dominate the system in some important respects. The ground forces’ dominance is shown not only by their leadership of the four general departments—which is a function of the fact that the four general departments serve as the ground forces’ headquarters more than as a joint headquarters—but also by the structure of the PLA itself. Only ground force officers have commanded the PLA’s powerful, geographically-based MRs, even in the Nanjing and Guangzhou MRs that focus on conflict scenarios involving possible sea and air fights over Taiwan and in the East and South China Seas. Accordingly, major organizational changes would likely be required if the PLA were making a stronger push toward complete jointness, consistent with what an important article marking the PLA’s 85th anniversary described as the objective of promoting the transition from “coordinated joint operations with one service as the main force to integrated joint operations of multiple services and arms” (PLA Daily, July 30).
Three indicators in the form of organizational changes would signal a changing tide toward greater jointness. First, China would move to restructure or replace the MRs with theater commands (warzones) to simplify command structures for daily peacetime training as well as wartime operations. For example, a cross-strait conflict with Taiwan primarily would involve the Nanjing and Guangzhou MRs, which means the ground force, PLAN, PLAAF and Second Artillery would not only need to integrate command vertically but also coordinate horizontally across the MRs, potentially reducing real-time combat readiness. Second, China could start rotating officers from PLAAF, PLAN, Second Artillery as well as the ground forces through the top positions of the four general departments. Lastly, to ensure the ground forces are on equal standing with the PLAN, PLAAF and Second Artillery, the Chinese could create a PLA ground forces headquarters on par with PLAAF, PLAN and Second Artillery Headquarters and even upgrade the Second Artillery to a service instead of its current status as an independent branch.
The restructuring or replacement of the MR system has been rumored off and on in recent years, but thus far has failed to materialize. The creation of a separate army headquarters and elevation of non-ground force officers to head the four general departments would be major developments as well. Should this come to pass, it would not only symbolize that the ground force is the peer of the other services but also would indicate that the four general departments no longer play the role of ground force headquarters, but rather would function as a real joint staff organization. Bureaucratic interests and organizational culture, however, are likely to remain formidable obstacles to such major organizational changes, suggesting the PLA will continue to face challenges to its ability to effectively conduct joint operations despite important changes at the top of the command system.
- Online Chinese wikis provide some of the sourcing for tracking Fan and Xu’s careers, including <https://baike.baidu.com> and <https://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki>.
- You Ji, “Meeting the Challenge of the Upcoming PLAAF Leadership Reshuffle,” in Richard P. Hallion, Roger Cliff, and Philip C. Saunders, eds., The Chinese Air Force: Evolving Concepts, Roles, and Capabilities, Washington, DC: National Defense University, 2012, pp. 216–218.
- For a comprehensive analysis, see, Hallion et al, eds., The Chinese Air Force: Evolving Concepts, Roles, and Capabilities, available online at <https://www.ndu.edu/press/lib/pdf/books/chinese–air–force.pdf>.