The Rise of Admiral Sun Jianguo and the Future of U.S.-China Naval Relations

Publication: China Brief Volume: 16 Issue: 10

Admiral Sun Jianguo, currently the Deputy Chief of the PLA General Staff, is likely to succeed Admiral Wu Shengli as commander of the PLA Navy. (Photo: Wikicommons).

On December 31, 2015, the PRC announced that after many years of planning and preparation, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would begin its most substantial reorganization since 1949 (PRC Defense Ministry, January 9). According to statements by the PRC defense ministry, these reforms are designed to improve the Chinese military’s ability to fight more jointly, a historically elusive goal given the PLA’s organizational structure and the dominance of the PLA ground forces.

This is a critical moment for the future of the PLA, and not least of all for the PLA Navy. Admiral Wu Shengli (吴胜利), the PLA Navy’s current commander, will in almost certainly step down at the next Party Congress in 2017 if not sooner. Yet Admiral Wu’s retirement will come at a tumultuous time. In 2015, Xi Jinping vowed that the PLA would achieve a breakthrough (tupo; 突破) in military reform by 2020, improving the command system and the military’s ability to operate as a joint force (China News Service, November 27, 2015). The next PLAN Commander will therefore take over in a time of profound change, as the PLA overhauls its command and control structures in an effort to become a force truly capable of joint operations.

This has drawn attention to the question of Wu’s successor. While not yet confirmed, it appears that Admiral Sun Jianguo (孙建国) is likely to succeed Admiral Wu to lead the PLAN during this next period of profound change. In November 2015, Hong Kong media reported that Xi Jinping had already decided upon Admiral Sun as Wu’s successor (SCMP, December 30, 2015).

What do we know about Admiral Sun Jianguo, and what would U.S.-China naval relations and continued PLAN modernization look like with Sun at the helm? Known as “Little Patton” and “the Iron Captain” during his career at sea, Admiral Sun currently serves as one of five deputy chiefs of the PLA general staff, is one of only four Navy officers on the CCP Party Central Committee, and is already a critical member of China’s military intelligence and foreign affairs system. (Southern Metropolitan Daily, July 24, 2015).

While much has been written about the life and career of Admiral Wu Shengli, far less has been written about the life of the PLAN’s second highest ranking operations officer, a key figure in China’s foreign military relations, and the individual likely to become the next head of China’s navy at a critical moment in the service’s history. This article seeks to shed some additional light on Admiral Sun, examining his career, political views, and his potential impact on U.S.-China naval relations and China’s naval modernization.

There are reasons to believe U.S.-China naval relations under Sun might be subject to a downturn—he has a reputation as a hawk, and at times has been an outspoken critic of U.S. Policy in Asia and toward China. An examination of Sun’s background, however, suggests that a turn toward more hawkish policies is not an inevitable outcome of a Sun Jianguo tenure as PLAN commander. Admiral Sun is a statesman with a wealth of engagement experience which should serve him nicely when engaging his U.S. Counterparts. Moreover, the PLA Navy’s approach to its relationship with the U.S. Navy is ultimately a product of CCP policy, and not Admiral Sun’s to construct independently. While Sun’s personality will no doubt leave its mark, the overall trajectory of this relationship will be shaped by national level strategic objectives on both sides.

Sun and Wu: The More Things Change…

Admirals Wu Shengli and Sun Jianguo share a number of similarities in their personal backgrounds. These similar experiences—particularly their formative early years in the PLA during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), might inform their worldviews, and their perspective on important issues such as training. Both men for example come from families with impeccable Party credentials. Wu and Sun are sons of former party officials. Admiral Wu’s father, Wu Xian, was a Red Army political commissar and Zhejiang Vice Governor. Admiral Sun’s father was a county Party Secretary. Both men also count Wuqiao County in Hebei Province as their ancestral home on their father’s side, yet both were raised in Zhejiang Province due to their father’s careers—Admiral Wu to the city of Hangzhou, and Admiral Sun to Ningbo (The Diplomat, June 1).

Despite an age difference of seven years, Admirals Sun and Wu were also both affected by the tumult of the Cultural Revolution. Born in 1952, Admiral Sun’s career was impacted by this period earlier in his career. Admiral Sun began his military career in 1968, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, just as most of China’s institutions for professional military education (PME) had either been shut down or were just being re-established.

The military Admiral Sun joined prioritized political ideological over professional acumen. Training and technical knowledge were radically deemphasized. [1] By this time, for example, previous requirements for PLA Navy submarines to be manned with a 70:30 ratio of qualified to unqualified crewmen ran counter to Maoist teachings that political will could overcome a lack of expertise, and were revised downward allow for as much as 80 percent of a submarine’s crew to be newly assigned, unqualified personnel. Meanwhile, basic training time was cut in half, while time spent at torpedo target practice was cut by two-thirds. [2]

In what undoubtedly helped to improve upon decencies in prior professional training Sun returned to the academy in 1978 to enroll as a member of the deputy captains’ class, just as Deng Xiaoping was embarking upon the economic reforms that would remake China into the economic powerhouse it is today. [3] Thus, while today’s China may evoke images of a rising power, complete with an increasingly capable blue water navy, it is important to remember that, like Wu, Sun came of age when China was unstable, weak, and vulnerable.

A Career Submariner

As a career submariner, Admiral Sun spent his time at sea commanding both conventional and nuclear submarines. He reportedly participated in submarine operations off the Taiwan straits to monitor Taiwanese military activities. [4] In 1985, at a time when PLAN surface forces were just conducting their first port visit abroad, Admiral Sun achieved notoriety within the PLAN by breaking a world record for the longest continuous submarine tour previously held by the United States (Chengchi University Center for China Studies,[Accessed June 3]). Were Admiral Sun to become PLA Navy commander, he would be just the third submariner to hold the position, following in the footsteps of past PLAN Commanders Admirals Zhang Lianzhang (1988–1996), and Zhang Dingfa (2003–2006). [5]

Some have argued that given this professional experience, the PLAN would likely begin to prioritize its submarine forces under his tenure. However, while Admiral Sun would undoubtedly have a say in these decisions, force acquisition and training in the PLA are political and bureaucratic collective decisions made with input from a number of political actors, including other members of the CMC, the newly established PLA Training and Management Department, and Xi Jinping himself. Thus, it would be dangerous to infer too much about future PLAN priorities simply based on Admiral Sun’s career at sea.

Staff Career

Upon returning to shore duty, Admiral Sun experienced a rapid rise through the ranks. From 2000 to 2004, he served as a PLAN deputy chief of staff, and later PLAN chief of staff. In 2006, he became an assistant to the Chief of the PLA General Staff, General Liang Guanglie. After Liang left the General Staff to head the Ministry of Defense in 2007, Admiral Sun remained as an assistant to his replacement General Chen Bingde. In 2008, he was given the high-profile assignment of coordinating the PLA’s relief efforts following the Sichuan earthquake, a responsibility which likely helped him secure a promotion in 2009 to Deputy Chief of the PLA General Staff, a position held previously held by Admiral Wu from 2004–2006 before he became become PLAN Commander. [6]

A Key Actor in PLA Foreign Engagement

During his experience as a senior naval officer, Admiral Sun has had ample opportunities to travel and engage with foreign naval counterparts. He has traveled throughout Asia, and had led or accompanied numerous international delegations throughout the world, including Botswana, Chile, Colombia, Congo-Brazzaville, Gabon, Iran, Mauritania, Senegal and Senegal to name a few (see also China Vitae). [7]

Moreover, as one of five deputy chiefs of the PLA general staff, and the only naval officer in that position, Admiral Sun is responsible for managing the PLA’s intelligence and foreign affairs portfolios. [8] Like previous deputy chiefs responsible for military intelligence, Admiral Sun also chairs the China Institute for International Strategic Studies, a think tank affiliated with the Second Department of the PLA General Staff Department, the primary organ responsible for human intelligence gathering and analysis. [9]

These positions and experiences have given Admiral Sun ample opportunity to engage with foreign military personnel, either semi-formally as CIISS chair, or through more formal meetings with foreign military counterparts. In 2015 alone for example, he met in Beijing with military counterpart from Hungary, Cambodia, and Laos, and traveled to Vietnam, Singapore, and Tehran, the latter to meet with Iranian Chief of Staff Hassan Firouzabadi to discuss the possibility of expanding military cooperation between the two countries (PRC Defense Ministry, October 15, 2015). In this capacity, Admiral Sun is empowered to sign agreements on behalf of the PLA. He was, for example, the signatory to the India-China Confidence Building Measure with Indian Defense Secretary Mathur Shri in 2013, helping to further stabilize this important border relationship (Gov. of India Press Information Bureau, October 23, 2013). Admiral Sun also represents the PLA at major multinational security dialogues, including the Shangri-La Dialogue, which he attended in 2015 (Xinhua, May 31, 2015).

Yet despite this vast experience engaging with foreign military counterparts, some have suggested that Admiral Sun may be more comfortable in private one-on-one engagements, and may be still warming up to his role as a public figure. During his public comments in 2015 at the Shangri-La dialogue, he appeared nervous, stuck largely to his script, and relied heavily on cue cards when answering reporters’ questions (AMTI Brief, May 31, 2015). This behavior however, was also likely at least in part influenced by the fact that he was on the defensive, deflecting growing criticism of China’s activities in the South China Sea. Reports on Sun’s performance at Shangri-La 2016 noted that he was more at ease and better prepared, though still declined to respond directly to questions, and did nothing to assuage the concerns of countries in the region regarding China’s behavior in the South and East China Seas (South China Morning Post, June 8).

A Staunch Defender of China’s Policy

Through these foreign military and public engagements Admiral Sun has developed a reputation as a strong and vocal supporter of China’s foreign policy. He has also been a vocal critic of the United States on more than one occasion. Following the U.S. Justice Department’s indictment of five PLA officers on charges of commercial cyber espionage, Admiral Sun was quoted in Xinhua as saying “in terms of both military and political intelligence and trade secrets, the United States is the world’s No. 1 cyber thief and its spying force should be indicted” (Xinhua, May 27, 2015). The fact that this was later published in the English-language China Daily, the Party’s newspaper specifically aimed at foreign audiences, suggests he was delivering a Party-vetted message rather than simply espousing his own personal views (China Daily, May 28, 2015).

Admiral Sun has also been vocal in his own writings regarding the need for China to manage its relationship with the United States through both cooperation and confrontation. Writing in the journal International Strategic Studies, the flagship journal for the PLA-affiliated think tank he chairs, Admiral Sun notes the importance of managing great power relationships as critical to China’s overall strategic stability. However, while Sun sees relations with the United States as China’s most important great power relationship, he also notes that the “China-Russia relationship is one of the most important bilateral relationships in the world and also one of the best great power relations,” suggesting that Admiral Sun views improving China-Russian relations as a potential hedge against a downturn in U.S.-China relations. [10] This sentiment was also apparent during Admiral Sun’s meeting with Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov on the sidelines of the 2016 Shangra-La Dialogue, where he noted that “both sides are faced with a more complicated international security situation and closer mutual security cooperation is in need” (Xinhua, June 3).

Admiral Sun has also not shied away from acknowledging that China may have to confront the United States sometime in the near future in order to defend China’s national interests. Writing in the June 2015 issue of Qiushi, the Party’s theoretical mouthpiece, Admiral Sun notes that U.S.-China relations have evolved through both cooperation and struggle, and that “facts have proven that without struggle (douzheng; 斗争) it is impossible to make the United States respect China’s core interests” (Qiushi, February 28). To be clear, Admiral Sun’s use of the word “struggle” here is not an acknowledgment of the inevitability of armed conflict between the two countries, and he does not elaborate on what specific forms he believes this “struggle” will take. It does however obviously suggest a willingness to push back against the United States in order to defend China’s national interests.

Prospects for U.S.-China Naval Relations Under Sun

The examples above do not necessarily mean a downturn in U.S.-China military relations, and U.S-China naval relations in particular, are inevitable should Admiral Sun become the next PLAN Commander. First, while Admiral Sun’s personality and personal style will undoubtedly influence naval relations at the senior level, it is important to remember that Admiral Sun does not make China’s policy toward the U.S., but rather implements it. Admiral Sun’s articles in Qiushi, and his quotes in the press, were likely a reflection of Party-vetted policy statements rather than his own personal view. Thus, while Admiral Sun will surely have his own views, and the capacity to affect the implementation of the PLA Navy’s engagement with the United States, the overall trajectory of this relationship will be directed by a number of factors, including CCP strategic objectives, China’s activities in the region, and the national interests of the United States.

Second, though Admiral Sun has in the past been a harsh critic of the United States, as the new PLA Navy commander, the tone and tenor of his engagement with the U.S. Navy may take on a very different character. Moreover, with his growing wealth of international engagement experience, Admiral Sun had developed the skill to tailor his engagement style and rhetoric in such a way to continue to develop the professional working relationship between the U.S. and Chinese navies that appears to be the goal of both countries.

Looking Ahead

Perhaps of equal importance to the question of U.S.-China naval relations under Admiral Sun Jianguo is how long he might serve in this capacity and what he would hope to accomplish in what is likely to be a relatively short tenure. We do not know for certain whether members of China’s Central Military Commission have formal retirement ages similar to those established in PLA regulations for lower ranking officers. However, past precedent suggests that Admiral Sun, who is already 64, might serve through only one five-year Party Congress, much shorter than that of Admiral Wu. Admiral Sun could therefore end up being more of a transitional figure as PLAN Commander, with attention quickly turning to his successor.

Regardless, should Admiral Sun Jianguo become the next PLAN Commander, his tenure will come at a critical time, as the PLA undergoes organizational reforms designed to make it truly capable of conducting joint operations across the services. The new head of the PLAN will have to manage this organizational transition, while continuing to bring modern ships and weapons platforms into the fold, upgrading the PLAN’s personnel and defending China’s maritime rights and interests. These challenges will be difficult, and they will ensure that whoever the next PLAN Commander is, that individual will have a profound and lasting impact on the Chinese navy’s continued modernization.

Jeffrey Becker is a research scientist in the CNA Corporation’s China Studies Division. The opinions expressed in this article are his own and do not reflect the opinions of CNA.

Notes

1. Jeffrey Becker et al., Behind the Periscope: Leadership in China’s Navy (Alexandria, VA: The CNA Corporation, 2013), p. 173.

2. Bruce Swanson, Eight Voyage of the Dragon: A History of China’s Quest for Seapower, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1982), p. 242.

3. Becker et al., Behind the Periscope: Leadership in China’s Navy, p. 173.

4. Shih Min, :Hu Jintao Actively Props up ‘Princeling Army,” Chien Shao, April 1, 2006, no. 182.

5. China’s Navy 2007 (Washington, DC: Office of Naval Intelligence, March 2007), p. 12, https://fas.org/irp/agency/oni/chinanavy2007.pdf.

6. Becker et al., Behind the Periscope: Leadership in China’s Navy, pp. 173–174.

7. Becker et al., Behind the Periscope: Leadership in China’s Navy, pp. 173–174, 233–236.

8. While both positions have traditionally been held by one individual, around 2013, the PLA appeared to separate the two portfolios, placing Admiral Sun in charge of intelligence, and Lieutenant General Wang Guangzhong in charge of foreign affairs. However, the two portfolios appear to have been quickly recombined in 2014. Given the recent and complete overhaul of the General Staff Department however, Admiral Sun’s roles, responsibilities, and position within the new PLA organizational hierarchy are unclear.

9. Mulvenon, et al, The People’s Liberation Army as Organization 1.0, RAND, 2002. <http://www.rand.org/pubs/conf_proceedings/CF182.html>.

10. Sun Jianguo, “To Create a Favorable International Environment for Realization of China Dream,” International Strategic Studies, Issue 1 (2014), p. 4.