Tag Archives: PLAN

China’s Base in Djibouti: Lessons from Germany’s Asian Colonialism

China’s Defense & Foreign Policy Topic Week

By Pawel Behrendt

The opening of the Chinese military base in Djibouti on August 1st is a landmark event; China finally has its first overseas military outpost. The parallel of similar activities undertaken by the Germans in China at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries is noteworthy for offering lessons on the relationship between force structure, maritime strategy, and overseas basing.

Djibouti is strategically located on the African shore of the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb, which separates the Indian Ocean from the Red Sea, making it proximate to one of the most important sea routes linking China with Europe. For years this small country has hosted military bases of foreign powers such as France, the United States, and Japan. Over the past decade, the existing facilities have offered crucial support to forces fighting Somali pirates. China takes part in this mission, too. However, with the development of the Belt and Road Initiative Djibouti has started to play a vital role on the Maritime Silk Road of the 21st century. Since about the year 2000 China has striven to build and secure its own presence in the Indian Ocean basin. After successfully establishing footholds in Pakistan (Gwadar) and Sri Lanka (Hambantota), the next logical step of the Belt and Road Initiative was at the doorstep of the Suez Canal – Djibouti.

Nevertheless, the news of the intention to build a Chinese base came as a surprise in mid-2015. Negotiations proceeded quickly, an agreement was signed in January 2016. The $600 million project was launched the following year. Works on the main body of the facility have already finished, but other parts are still under construction. In reality nobody knows how complex the base is going to be. The first convoy carrying troops to Djibouti departed on July 12 from the port city of Zhanjiang. The base was officially opened on August 1, a very symbolic date – the 90th anniversary of PLA. Beijing is reluctant to use the term ‘military base’ and instead refers to it as a “support facility” that will provide logistical support to forces taking part in UN missions in Africa and the anti-pirate operation. The existing agreement allows the PRC to station 6,000-10,000 troops (sources vary) until 2026. An additional bonus to Djibouti is a $14 billion infrastructure project.

The meaning of the first Chinese overseas base, however, goes far beyond the Silk Road and commerce. China has gained the ability, however limited it may be, to project power in the still unstable Middle East while also strengthening its position against India. Additionally, there are issues of prestige: the PRC has joined the small group of powers that maintain overseas bases. This is very important for a nation that is increasingly self-confident and aims to become a leading power. What most likely accelerated the decision to acquire overseas bases was the Arab Spring of 2011. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) was unable to evacuate Chinese citizens from revolution-torn Yemen and Libya and was forced to ask the U.S. and France for help. Both the Chinese leadership and many ordinary citizens regarded this as humiliation. Thus the buildup of the PLAN initiated in the early 21st century gained wider support and was indicated as one of the key objectives of the modernization and reorganization of the Chinese military. What’s more, a strong navy is seen as a mark of the status of a great power and as a crucial factor in securing crucial sea lines of communication (SLOCs). It must be pointed out that around 80 percent of Chinese oil imports come via the Strait of Malacca. The numbers are even more impressive when it comes to trade: despite extensive land infrastructure programs, around 99 percent of trade exchange with Europe is seaborne.

Historical Parallels with Germany’s Asian Colonialism

It is worth asking whether China really needs an overseas base and what are the chances of sustaining it in the event of a full-scale conflict. Very interesting conclusions come from the history of German colonial presence in Asia. The topic of obtaining an overseas base in Asia was brought up for the first time during the German Revolutions of 1848/49. The colonial idea found many advocates at the National Assembly in Frankfurt. This was connected with the brutal opening of the states of Asia to the world. The Far East was at that time a “Promised Land” where one could sell any amount of cheap European products and in exchange buy valuable tea, silk, and porcelain. However, for exactly half a century since the issue had been raised, Germany had done nothing to get an overseas base, even though the topic kept coming back like a boomerang. The reason was that the “Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck saw core German interests in Europe and was strongly against any “colonial adventures” that could antagonize Great Britain.

The situation changed in the late 19th century. Germany was an emerging power striving for a “place under the sun.” The young emperor Wilhelm II was determined to turn Germany into a global power and initiated the “Weltpolitik” (world politics), challenging Great Britain and France. The Kaiser was also influenced by the theories of Alfred Thayer Mahan. He had several copies of The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783, and the margins of one of them were densely covered with notes and commentaries. Thus Wilhelm II had a scientific leverage for his passions: a strong navy and colonies. He found a big ally in Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz. This politically talented officer was a supporter of the ideas of a naval buildup and obtaining an overseas base in China. What’s more, he was able to convince the Reichstag (parliament) to allocate huge sums of money for this purpose.

The dream of a foothold in the Far East came true in 1898. That is when China and Germany signed a treaty which leased the small fishing village of Qingdao (then Tsingtau or Tsingtao) to the Germans for 99 years. Within 16 years Qingdao evolved into one of the biggest ports of China. There was also a fierce discussion what to do with the overseas base. In official documents the term “Gibraltar of the Far East” began to appear. The German Admiralty wanted to create a mighty fortress and naval base. However, Admiral Tirpitz had different ideas. He was well aware that a globally meaningful Navy had yet to be built, and in the event of war the chances of coming to the rescue of the fortress were negligible. He thought holding Qingdao rested on good relations with Japan. Vice Admiral Friedrich von Ingenhol agreed; he bluntly said that in a full-scale war the base would be useless. Thus Tirpitz decided to create an equivalent of Hong Kong, an important trade port and a center promoting German culture. In this field the Germans managed to achieve quite a lot of success, creating—among other things—one of the first resorts in Asia.

1912 German map of Qingdao.

The admirals’ predictions came true, Japan decided that fighting alongside the Entente was more beneficial than remaining neutral or siding with Germany. So Qingdao played virtually no role in World War I and fell in November 1914 after a two month siege by joint Japanese and British forces. Similarly, the huge fleet of battleships built with a tremendous effort and use of resources, a fleet second only to the Royal Navy, stayed in its bases for most of the war. Tirpitz himself said, after he learned about the outbreak of war, that the Hochseeflotte (High Seas Fleet) would be useless. The main reason was geography. To rule the waves (and support distant basing) any navy needs unobstructed access to the ocean. Meanwhile, the North Sea and thus the main ports of Germany are separated from the Atlantic by the British Isles and Shetland Islands. This allowed the British to establish the effective distant blockade of Germany in 1914 and—save for the battle of Jutland (in German: Skagerrakschlacht)—avoid a major confrontation. The German Navy failed to find a counter for this strategy and as early as 1915 the naval war was ceded to the light forces and submarines. Neither the powerful shipbuilding industry nor the strong merchant fleet, nor the rich maritime traditions of northern Germany, were able to overcome the shortcomings of geography. The same scenario was repeated during World War II even despite the occupation of ports in France and Norway. Germany had remained a land power, and Britain, by virtue of being the dominant sea power, could maintain a network of meaningful military infrastructure across the globe.

China’s Present Challenge and Geographical Constraints

Despite being located on the opposite end of Eurasia, China faces the same problem as Germany due to the crucial role of geography separating the mainland from the Pacific Ocean. The first island chain comprises the Kuril Islands, the Japanese Archipelago, the Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan, the Philippines, and the western shore of Borneo. The area thus inscribed includes waters directly adjacent to the Chinese coast. Despite the enormous resources invested in the fleet, the PLAN is only now starting to operate outside this border. More southwards China is separated from the Indian Ocean by the Malay Peninsula and the islands of Indonesia. There are also three “bottlenecks” determining maritime traffic between East Asia and Indian Ocean and Europe: the Straits of Malacca, Sunda, and Lombok.

Most of these strategic points on the map are controlled by the United States or its allies. For this reason, China has decided to create A2/AD (anti access / area deny) zones in the East and South China Sea that are to limit the space for adversary maneuver. Moreover, an intensive naval buildup is supposed to make any confrontation too risky by introducing a capability to project power beyond A2/AD zones adjacent to the mainland. In numbers the PLAN is now second only to the U.S. Navy. This resembles similar actions undertaken by Germany at the beginning of the 20th century. The U.S. response is also considering surprisingly similar to the countermeasures used by the British. Scenarios of military exercises conducted in the western Pacific by the United States and its allies do not imply a strike against the Chinese Navy and coast per se, but rather impose a distant naval blockade based on the first island chain.

There are also differences. Tirpitz was an advocate of the fleet-in-being doctrine, wherein the fleet by its existence alone puts pressure on the enemy. Such a theory resulted in building battleships which were not useless but rather not used. The Chinese leadership, among whom Mahan’s theories are gaining popularity like they once did in the German Empire, have learned this lesson. The buildup of the PLAN, besides including impressive programs like aircraft carriers and SSBNs, concentrates on SSKs, SSNs, and surface combatant escorts. The latter are related to the pursuit of strategic security on the maritime routes leading to and from China. Chinese admirals also do not claim to be interested in the fleet-in-being concept. The naval development plan has been described as being divided into stages corresponding to obtaining the ability to conduct operations beyond the subsequent island chains. Currently the stage of going beyond the “first chain” is underway.

The question is whether in the case of a hypothetical war against the U.S. and its allies the PLAN would be able to go beyond the safe haven of A2/AD zones and break through the blockade. Such an operation is feasible, but it would involve significant losses. In addition, the blockade is rarely carried out by the main force. Thus after the “defenders” break out into the open the fresh main force of “attackers” is already waiting for them.

The base in Djibouti is very unlikely to provide any sufficient relief. This is the case not only in the event of a confrontation with the United States, but also a confrontation with India whose prime location would allow it to freshly contest the PLAN if were to succeed in breaking through Asia’s maritime chokepoints.

Conclusion

China is geographically and historically a land power. As has been the case with Germany and Russia, a blue water navy can be an expensive sign of prestige and great power status rather than a real weapon of war. Power projection for a high seas fleet in a benign, peacetime environment is a different matter entirely. Germany’s historical experience with maintaining distant naval infrastructure reveals that such basing is often irrelevant in full-scale war and virtually impossible to sustain or defend against assault. China’s navy will need to grow significant capacity and capability if China wishes to continue establishing distant military bases for the purpose of projecting power while hoping to retain them in conflict. Alternatively, China could moderate its overseas ambitions by accepting that such bases are indefensible and whose loss should be affordable so long as China’s naval power projection can be checked by potential adversaries in both the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Pawel Behrendt is a Ph.D. candidate at the Faculty of Political Science of the University of Vienna, an expert at the Poland-Asia Research Center, and Deputy Chief Editor of Konflikty.

Featured Image: Chinese troops stage a live-fire drill in Djibouti. (Handout)

The Evolution of the PLA Navy and China’s National Security Interests

China’s Defense & Foreign Policy Topic Week

By Steve Micallef

Since the beginning of the 21st century the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has steadily developed into a blue-water force able to rely on an ever increasing amount of modern equipment and platforms. This has been the result of years of intense effort on the part of naval planners in support of a more-forward oriented Chinese foreign and security policy. Indeed, until the 1990s, the PLAN was mostly a littoral or brown-water force tasked with protecting China’s waterways and never venturing far from coastal waters. Today the PLAN is enjoying an influx of money and new equipment as well as the fruition of development programs started in the 1990s and 2000s. All this has resulted in a professional force which is able to protect Chinese interest abroad, further Chinese foreign policy, and build Chinese prestige worldwide.

Strategic Context

The communist victory in 1949 was achieved through the efforts of the Army. The PLA could not project power far beyond Chinese Communist shores, indeed Taiwan remained under Kuomintang rule whilst the Kuomintang navy sailed with impunity, raiding coastal installations, merchant craft, and fishing vessels. The PLAN’s first task was to secure the Chinese coast and the Yangtze River and prepare for an invasion of Taiwan.1

Despite this there was a great lack of amphibious equipment and training, naval transportation and air cover for a successful invasion of Taiwan. Despite this, the PLA did manage to occupy Hainan although at a very heavy cost. Renewed American interest in the area at the start of the Korean War and the perceived American commitment to defend Taiwan stopped any further expansion.2  

This highlighted the main problem that the PLAN has faced since then, that is, it has limited ability to project power beyond its shores. Although during this period it was mostly due to technological and equipment deficits, geographically China is also disadvantaged. Even if it had managed to acquire blue water capability in the 1950s, China is surrounded by U.S. bases and allies checking its expansion. To an extent this also remains the problem today.

Looking outward from China, one immediately realizes how precarious its geographical position is. Its economy depends on the manufacturing of goods and their export.  China depends on oil imports to maintain its economic growth. All shipping movements have to pass through narrow straits and shipping lanes that can be easily cordoned off in case of war. Indeed, the whole of East Asia can be cordoned off through a series of islands that run from north to south, these include the Kuril Islands, the Japanese Archipelago, the Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan, the Northern Philippines, and Borneo; from the Kamchatka Peninsula to the Malay Peninsula. This is known as the first island chain3 and having control of the features and waterways of the chain effectively means control of access to both the China Seas and the Sea of Japan. Similarly, there is also the Second Island and the third island chains. The second island chain runs from Japan in the North, South towards Indonesia encompassing the North Mariana Islands, Guam, and Palau.4 The third island chain includes the Hawaiian Islands and runs through the mid-Pacific to New Zealand in the South. From Beijing’s perspective these island chains cut off China’s access to the high seas, keeping it isolated.

Understandably, the Chinese are obsessed with these geographical features and their naval strategy is dictated by them. As its economy grew and became more dependent on sea trade, China set out to remedy its weakness at sea. For a traditional continental power like China, what Chinese admirals and generals see looking out from Beijing are concentric rings of American naval power stretching all the way across the Pacific (many would consider the U.S. West Coast as the fourth chain with Naval Base San Diego at its center). All these island chains are either directly occupied by the U.S. or by allies who give the U.S. access to ports and facilities.

The first to envision a shift in role for the navy was General Liu Huaqing (1916-2011) in the mid-1980s.5 Until this point the PLAN’s role was that of a subordinate to the PLA, it was a brown-water navy operating close to shore. Using its small units, it was expected to operate up and down the coast in guerrilla style attacks under the cover of land-based artillery and aircraft. This has been labelled as the “coastal defense” strategy. General Liu was instrumental in shifting the PLAN’s strategy into one of “Offshore Defense” and transitioning the navy from a brown-water force to a green-water force, and subsequently to a blue-water one. For this, he has been labelled as “the father of the modern Chinese Navy.”6

According to Liu, the PLAN should strive to develop four important capabilities: the ability to seize limited sea control in certain areas for a certain period of time, the ability to effectively defend China’s sea lanes, the ability to fight outside China’s claimed maritime areas, and the ability to implement a credible nuclear deterrent.7 To achieve this Liu suggested expanding the Navy and strongly advocated for the PLAN to acquire aircraft carriers. Huaqing outlined a three-step program for the PLAN. In the first phase, which was to be achieved by the year 2000, the PLA Navy needed to be able to exert control over the maritime territory within the First Island China, namely the Yellow Sea, East China Sea, and South China Sea. In the second phase, which has to be achieved by 2020, the navy’s control was to expand to the second island chain. In the third phase, to be achieved by 2050, the PLA Navy is to evolve into a true global navy.8 This is the broad outline of the PLAN’s strategy and since the 1980s it has been gradually acquiring the capabilities to carry it out.

Today we are seeing the outcomes of this strategy. The PLAN has expanded rapidly, acquiring the capabilities for a true blue-water force able to protect Chinese interests abroad while Chinese foreign policy expanded concurrently.

The Early Years of the PLAN

In the early 1950s most of the PLAN’s equipment was taken from the naval forces of the Republic of China as they retreated from the mainland. Officially the PLAN was established in September 1950, grouping together all the regional forces, some of which had defected, into a centralized command. The state of the PLAN was nothing to boast about. It was increasingly dependent on the Soviet Union to provide it with training and advisors, while home-built systems were basically none existent. As many as 2,500 Soviet naval advisers were deployed to China to boost the training of Chinese sailors while the Soviet Union also provided much of the PLAN’s equipment.

With the help of the Soviet Union the PLAN was reorganized in 1955 into three operation fleets9 and divided into five distinct branches. Today, the PLAN mostly maintains the same composition: its units are divided between the Submarine Force, the Surface Force, the Coastal Defense Force, the Marine Corps, and the Naval Air Force (established in 1952). All these fall under the responsibility of the three main commands: the North Sea Fleet, based in the Yellow Sea; the East Sea Fleet, based in the East China Sea; and the South Sea Fleet, based in the South China Sea 

Throughout the 1950s indigenous shipbuilding programs were instituted, shipyards were constructed, and Soviet-licensed designs were constructed without Soviet assistance. In 1958 when the Soviet Union refused to support the development of Chinese SSNs and SSBNs, the PLAN opened up the first institutes dedicated to the study of shipbuilding, naval weapon systems, underwater weapons, hydro acoustics, and other areas in a bid to remove its dependence on foreign designs.

Expansion continued into the 1960s with the Chinese licensing more complex ship designs and weapons from the Soviet Union. By the mid-70s the PLAN could call upon a series of indigenous designs. In 1971 the Type 051 destroyer was commissioned. This was the first modern surface combatant to be designed and built in China, and the first Chinese ship to be fitted with an integrated combat system. This was followed by the commissioning of the Type 053 frigate and its various subclasses for air-defense, anti-surface, and export purposes. In 1974 the first indigenous designed nuclear submarine started service (the Type 091). Together with this a host of other smaller surface combatants, including gun boats and torpedo boats, also entered service.

However, China had little interest in dominating the seas beyond defense. Its large border with the Soviet Union and the Sino-Soviet Split meant that China preferred to spend its resources guarding the border with the Soviet Union and Vietnam. The risk of a land invasion was perceived as a greater threat and  took precedence over maritime power projection. Preoccupied with matters closer to home, the navy continued its training and expansion, competing for resources from other branches.

In the 1980s naval construction fell below the levels of the 1970s. Up until that point the PLAN was still considered a regional naval power with green-water capabilities. Emphasis was placed on personnel development, reformulation of the traditional coastal defense doctrine, and force structure in favor of more blue-water operations; as well as  training in naval combined-arms operations involving all elements of the PLAN (submarine, surface, naval aviation, and coastal defense forces). The PLAN also started to venture beyond coastal waters and into the Pacific. However the strong Soviet presence at Cam Ranh Bay kept most naval units tied down in defense of the coast. It also prevented more Chinese involvement in the various Sino-Vietnamese skirmishes.

Gen. Liu Huaqing in March 1996, at closing ceremonies for the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in Beijing. Credit Greg Baker/Associated Press

Spurred in part by the growth of the Chinese economy and the concentration of industry to coastal areas the Chinese increasingly looked at the sea as an economic lifeline. This was also the era when Liu came to prominence. His friendship with Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping allowed him to influence the development of the PLAN. His programs included the reorganization of the navy, redeveloping the Marine Corps, upgrading bases and research and development facilities, and reforming the school system.10 These efforts can be considered as the origin of the professional navy that it is today.  

Despite these advances the PLAN was still largely subordinate to the People’s Liberation Army Ground Force until the 1990s. However, during this decade the PLAN continued with its modernization with the acquisition of more modern equipment from Russia and deployments to the Western hemisphere with visits to the U.S., Mexico, Peru, and Chile.

The 21st Century Navy

The PLAN came into its own in the first decade of the 21st century. In terms of equipment the navy is increasingly relying on indigenous constructions. Today, of the entire surface force, only the 4 Russian Sovremenny-class destroyers and a number of Kilo and improved Kilo-class submarines are of foreign origin.11 The PLAN has also managed to acquire an ex-Soviet aircraft carrier from Ukraine which it has commissioned into service as the Liaoning. Whilst its combat capability is limited, it is being used as a testbed and indigenous designs are already under construction.

A number of destroyers and frigates of indigenous design capable of blue-water operations are also in service. The Type 052 destroyers and the Type 054 frigates are all indigenous, proven designs which have been deployed in various operations worldwide. Effort has also gone into the creation of quieter indigenous SSBN.

One may argue that it is not the equipment used but rather the way it is used that is of most interest. While in the early years the PLAN was mostly in charge of coastal defense this has now changed, the main reason being the growing Chinese economy which relies increasingly on the maritime domain for the export and import of goods. The PLAN’s main mission today is to “independently or jointly with the Army and Air Force, to guard against enemy invasion from the sea, defend the state’s sovereignty over its territorial waters, and safeguard the state’s maritime rights and interests.”12

The world got its first demonstration of the PLAN’s new worldwide presence in 2008 when for the first time PLAN vessels were deployed operationally off the Horn of Africa on an anti-piracy mission. PLAN vessels have been escorting merchant shipping in collaboration with other navies ever since.13 The message here is clear, the Chinese leadership is placing the security of its seaborne trade as critical for the overall development of the nation. The sea lines of communication must remain open.14 Overall these missions have been a resounding success for the PLAN and the Chinese have demonstrated remarkable willingness to collaborate on this issue, presenting China as a responsible player on the world stage but also gaining important operational experience in the process. Indeed, short of an all-out war, these operations were the closest that PLAN personnel got to quasi-combat missions.15 The construction of a PLAN base in Djibouti in 201716 is expected to enhance the Chinese presence in the area while also increasing the Navy’s capabilities to project power abroad. This is part of a wider effort to secure vital sea lines of communication through the Indian Ocean.17

The PLAN has been more active worldwide since the first decade of the 21st century. It has been invited and attended RIMPAC in 201418 and 2016,19 and has again been invited in 2018.20 It trained with the Russian Navy during Joint Sea 2016 and 2017 military exercises, the later involving exercises in the Sea of Japan21 and the Baltic Sea.22 The fact that Chinese ships travelled to the Baltic is a testament to how far the PLAN has come. En route the flotilla of Chinese ships made various goodwill visits to Western ports.

Whilst the PLAN has been active in combating piracy abroad, closer to home it has also been employed for less ‘noble’ purposes. The PLAN has been actively supporting the Nine-Dash Line claiming most of the South China Sea. The dependence on seaborne trade, the relative ease by which South China Sea-bound maritime traffic can be blockaded, and the ability of the USN to sail in it without impunity (as during the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1996 when two aircraft carrier groups were deployed near Taiwan) have reinforced Chinese conviction that it needs to strengthen its defenses. Through its claim of the South China Sea, China has been engaged in a significant land reclamation project and turned minuscule features into military bases, from where aircraft, ships, and shore-based weapons could readily target the shipping transiting the critical waterway. As Admiral Harry Harris put it, the Chinese are building a “Great wall of sand.”23

While the Nine-Dash Line is hardly new, never before has China been able to enforce it. Indeed, after the Second World War, none of the features in the Spratly and Paracel islands were occupied, today various claimants maintain a multitude of facilities.24 This could not have been possible without naval support. China has also demonstrated an unwillingness to compromise, as events regarding Scarborough Shoal, Vietnam’s oil drilling, and the ITLOS ruling have demonstrated. The Chinese Navy and coast guard have steadily pushed out Philippine fisherman from traditional fishing grounds, and China has been left in de facto control.25

In this situation might has made right and China is certainly succeeding in getting its way in the South China Sea. Beyond the protection of trade this could also have other implications. Since the end of the Second World War the U.S. has been able to maintain a permanent presence in the region through a network of alliances and military bases. Under its hegemony the region has prospered economically. A powerful navy would allow China to challenge U.S. dominion in the region and usher in an era where China could be the hegemon in Asia, perhaps even envisioning its own version of the Monroe Doctrine.

Conclusion

The modernization of the PLAN and the broadening of Chinese foreign policy are both linked. A larger, more advanced navy has allowed China to be more present on the world stage. Beyond prestige the PLAN has allowed China to be more engaged and aggressive in its foreign policy dealings. The need to maintain sea lines of communication has pushed China to further develop its navy. One can only speculate on what effect this will have in the long run; whilst some welcome a more present PLAN which can help secure the seas for all, there are those that reason that Beijing will increasingly use its newfound naval strength to expand its sphere of influence, creating an international or regional system that more suits its needs at the expense of others. After all, navies are the chief tool of global power projection and why build capability if not to use it?

Steve Micallef graduated from the University of Malta with a B.A. (Hons) in International Relations in 2015. He also holds an MSc in Strategic Studies from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland.

References

[1] Cole, B. D. (2010). The Great Wall at sea: China’s Navy in the twenty-first century. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press. 7.

[2] Ibid. 8-9.

[3] Yoshihara, T., & Holmes, J. R. (2013). Red star over the Pacific: China’s rise and the challenge to U.S. maritime strategy. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press. 20.

[4] Ibid. 21.

[5] http://cimsec.org/father-modern-chinese-navy-liu-huaqing/13291

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Cole, B. D. (2010). The Great Wall at sea: China’s Navy in the twenty-first century. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press. 176.

[9] https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/china/plan.htm

[10] Ibid. 16.

[11] International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). (2017). The Military Balance, 2017. London: Routledge. 281-283

[12] Zhao, Z., & Luo, Y. (2010). China’s national defense. China Intercontinental Press. 66-67.

[13] Zhao, Z., & Luo, Y. (2010). China’s national defense. China Intercontinental Press. 144-147.

[14] Kamphausen, R., Lai, D., Scobell, A., Army War College. Strategic Studies Institute, Bush School of Government & Public Service, National Bureau of Asian Research, . . . Texas A & M University. (2010). The PLA at home and abroad: Assessing the operational capabilities of China’s military. Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College. 296.

[15] Ibid. 301

[16] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-djibouti/china-formally-opens-first-overseas-military-base-in-djibouti-idUSKBN1AH3E3

[17] https://www.csis.org/analysis/issues-insights-vol-14-no-7-revisiting-chinas-string-pearls-strategy

[18] http://www.cpf.navy.mil/rimpac/2014/participants/

[19] http://www.cpf.navy.mil/rimpac/participants/#

[20] https://thediplomat.com/2017/05/rimpac-2018-china-to-participate-in-major-us-naval-exercise/

[21] https://thediplomat.com/2017/09/chinese-russian-navies-hold-exercises-in-sea-of-japan-okhotsk-sea/

[22] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/25/world/europe/china-russia-baltic-navy-exercises.html

[23] http://www.cpf.navy.mil/leaders/harry-harris/speeches/2015/03/ASPI-Australia.pdf

[24] Hayton, B. (2014). The South China Sea: the struggle for power in Asia. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.61.

[25] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-southchinasea-china-philippines-witne/a-journey-to-scarborough-shoal-the-south-china-seas-waterworld-idUSKBN17E09O

Featured Image: Chinese carrier Type 001A is transferred from drydock on April 26, 2017. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

The PLA Navy’s Plan for Dominance: Subs, Shipborne ASBMs, and Carrier Aviation

By Richard D. Fisher, Jr.

Introduction

Potential modernization plans or ambitions of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) were revealed in unprecedented detail by a former PLAN Rear Admiral in a university lecture, perhaps within the last 2-3 years. The Admiral, retired Rear Admiral Zhao Dengping, revealed key programs such as: a new medium-size nuclear attack submarine; a small nuclear auxiliary engine for conventional submarines; ship-based use of anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs); next-generation destroyer capabilities; and goals for PLAN Air Force modernization. Collections of PowerPoint slides from Zhao’s lecture appeared on multiple Chinese military issue webpages on 21 and 22 August 2017,[1] apparently from a Northwestern Polytechnical University lecture. Notably, Zhao is a former Director of the Equipment Department of the PLAN. One online biography notes Zhao is currently a Deputy Minister of the General Armaments Department of the Science and Technology Commission and Chairman of the Navy Informatization Committee, so he likely remains involved in Navy modernization programs.[2]

Retired Rear Admiral Zhao Dengping,
who delivered an unusually detailed speech on China’s naval modernization, slides for which were posted on multiple Chinese military issue web sites.

However, Zhao’s precise lecture remarks were not revealed on these webpages. Also unknown is the exact date of Zhao’s lecture, though it likely took place within the last 2-3 years based on the estimated age of some of his illustrations. His slides mentioned known PLAN programs like the Type 055 destroyer (DDG), a Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) amphibious assault ship (for which he provided added confirmation), the Type 056 corvette, and the YJ-12 supersonic anti-ship missile.

Most crucially, it is Zhao’s mention of potential PLAN programs that constitutes an unprecedented revelation from a PLAN source. Rejecting the levels of “transparency” required in democratic societies, China’s PLA rarely allows detailed descriptions of its future modernization programs. While Admiral Zhao occasionally plays the role of sanctioned “expert” in the Chinese military media,[3] it remains to be seen if he or the likely student “leaker” will be punished for having revealed too much or whether other PLA “experts” will be allowed to detail the modernization programs of other services.[4] 

Admiral Zhao’s slides also mentioned many known PLAN programs, and perhaps helped to confirm that it intends to build a Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) large amphibious assault ship. (CJDBY)

While there is also a possibility of this being a deception exercise, this must be balanced by the fact that additional slides were revealed on some of the same Chinese web pages on 23 September. The failure of Chinese web censors to remove both the earlier and later slides may also mean their revelation may be a psychological operation to intimidate future maritime opponents.

A New SSN

Admiral Zhao described a new unidentified 7,000-ton nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN) that will feature a “new type of powerplant…new weapon system [and] electronic information system.” An image shows this SSN featuring a sound isolation raft and propulsor which should reduce its acoustic signature, 12 cruise missile tubes in front of the sail, and a bow and sail similar to the current Type 093 SSN. This design appears to have a single hull, which would be a departure from current PLAN submarine design practice, but the 7,000 ton weigh suggests it may reflect the lower-cost weight and capability balance seen in current U.S. and British SSNs.[5]   

It is not known if this represents the next generation Type 095 SSN expected to enter production in the next decade. However, in 2015 the Asian Military Review journal reported the PLAN would build up to 14 Type 095s.[6]

Of some interest, Admiral Zhao describes a new 7,000 ton nuclear powered attack submarine (SSN), showing acoustic capability enhancements, internal storage for 12 large missiles, but design similarities with the older Type 093 SSN. (CJDBY)

Small Nuclear Powerplant

Zhao also revealed the PLAN may be working on a novel low power/low pressure auxiliary nuclear powerplant for electricity generation for fitting into conventional submarine designs, possibly succeeding the PLAN’s current Stirling engine-based air independent propulsion (AIP) systems. One slide seems to suggest that the PLAN will continue to build smaller submarines around the size of current conventional powered designs, but that they will be modified to carry the new nuclear auxiliary powerplant to give them endurance advantages of nuclear power.  

Admiral Zhao suggests that the PLAN is developing a new nuclear reactor-powered auxiliary power unit to charge the batteries of smaller and less expensive conventional submarines, allowing the PLAN to more rapidly increase its numbers of “nuclear” powered submarines. (CJDBY)

Zhao’s diagram of this powerplant shows similarities to the Soviet/Russian VAU-6 auxiliary nuclear powerplant tested in the late 1980s on a Project 651 Juliet conventional cruise missile submarine (SSG).[7] Reports indicate Russia continued to develop this technology but there are no reports of its sale to China. Russia’s Project 20120 submarine Sarov may have a version of the VAU-6 giving it an underwater endurance of 20 days.[8] While the PLA would likely seek longer endurance, it may be attracted by the potential cost savings of a nuclear auxiliary powered submarine compared to a SSN.[9]

A slide of Admiral Zhao’s showing a diagram of a nuclear reactor powered auxiliary power unit for small submarines, appears to be similar to the Soviet/Russian VAU-6 design. (CJDBY)   

Naval ASBMs and Energy Weapons

Zhao’s slides detailed weapon and technical ambitions for future surface combatant ships. While one slide depicts a ship-launched ASBM flight profile, another slide indicates that future ships could be armed with a “near-space hypersonic anti-ship ballistic missile,” perhaps meaning a maneuverable hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) warhead already tested by the PLA, and a “shipborne high-speed ballistic anti-ship missile,” perhaps similar to the land-based 1,500km range DF-21D or 4,000km range DF-26 ASBMs. At the 2014 Zhuhai Air Show the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) revealed its 280km range WS-64 ASBM, likely based on the HQ-16 anti-aircraft missile.

Another slide details that surface ships could be armed with “long-range guided projectiles,” perhaps precision guided conventional artillery, a “shipborne laser weapon” and “shipborne directed-energy weapon.” Chinese academic sources point to longstanding work on naval laser and naval microwave weapons.

Admiral Zhao’s slides also detailed new naval weapon ambitions, to include taking anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs) to sea. This would greatly increase the PLAN’s ability to overwhelm U.S. ship defenses with multiple missile strikes. (CJDBY)

Future Destroyer

A subsequent slide details that a future DDG may have an “integrated electric power system,” have “full-spectrum stealthiness,” use an “integrated mast and integrated RF technology, plus “new type laser/kinetic energy weapons,” and a “mid-course interception capability.” These requirements, plus a subsequent slide showing a tall stealthy superstructure integrating electronic systems, possibly point to a ship with the air defense and eventual railgun/laser weapons of the U.S. Zumwalt-class DDG.

Modern Naval Aviation Ambitions

Zhao’s lecture also listed requirements for future “PLAN Aviation Follow Developments,” to include: a “new type carrier-borne fighter;” a “carrier-borne EW [electronic warfare] aircraft;” a “carrier borne fixed AEW [airborne early warning];” a “new type ship-borne ASW [anti-submarine warfare] helicopter;” a “medium-size carrier-borne UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle];” a “stratospheric long-endurance UAV;” and a “stratospheric airship.” 

Admiral Zhao illustrated PLAN aviation ambitions with an airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft similar to a Xian Y-7 based test platform, but this may simply represent a generic carrier AWACS. (CJDBY)

These aircraft likely include a 5th generation fighter, an airborne warning and control systems (AWACS), an EW variant of that airframe, and a multi-role medium size turbofan-powered UAV that could form the core of a future PLAN carrier air wing. Ground-based but near-space operating UAVs and airships will likely assist the PLAN’s long-range targeting, surveillance, and communications requirements.

Submarine Dominance

Should the Type 095 SSN emerge as an “efficient” design similar to the U.S. Virginia class, and should the PLA successfully develop a nuclear auxiliary power system for SSK-sized submarines, this points to a possible PLA strategy to transition affordably to an “all-nuclear” powered submarine fleet. While nuclear auxiliary powered submarines may not have the endurance of SSNs, their performance could exceed that of most AIP powered submarines for an acquisition price far lower than that of an SSN.

Assuming the Asian Military Review report proves correct and that the PLAN has success in developing its auxiliary nuclear power plant, then by sometime in the 2030s the PLAN attack submarine fleet could consist of about 20 Type 093 and successor “large” SSNs, plus 20+ new smaller nuclear-auxiliary powered submarines, and 30+ advanced Type 039 and Kilo class conventional submarines.  

Such nuclear submarine numbers would not only help the PLAN challenge the current dominance of U.S. Navy SSNs, it could also could help the PLAN begin to transition to an “offensive” strategy against U.S. and Russian nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). But in Asia it would give the PLAN numerical and technical advantages over the non-nuclear submarines of Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, Russia, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, and Thailand. This combined with rapid PLAN development of new anti-submarine capabilities, to include its “Underwater Great Wall” of seabed sensors and underwater unmanned combat vessels,[10] point to an ambition to achieve undersea dominance in Asia.

An auxiliary nuclear- powered version of the Type 032 SSB could help enable multi-axis ASBM strikes. (CJDBY)

Such nuclear auxiliary engine technology also gives the PLAN the option to develop a number of longer-endurance but low-cost ballistic missile submarines, perhaps based on the Type 032 conventional ballistic missile submarine (SSG). Such submarines might deploy nuclear-armed, submarine-launched intercontinental missiles, long-range cruise missiles, or ASBMs. Auxiliary nuclear-powered submarines may be easier to station at the PLA’s developing system of naval bases, like Djibouti, Gwadar, Pakistan, and perhaps Hambantota, Sri Lanka. China can also be expected to export such submarines.

ASBMs at Sea

China’s potential deployment of ASBMs, especially HGV-armed ASBMs to surface ships, poses a real asymmetric challenge for the U.S. Navy which is just beginning to develop new long-range but subsonic speed anti-ship missiles. Eventually the PLAN could strike its enemies with two levels of multi-axis missile attacks: 1) hypersonic ASBMs launched from land bases, ships, submarines, and aircraft; and 2) multi-axis supersonic and subsonic anti-ship missiles also launched from naval platforms and aviation. ASBMs on ships and submarines also give the PLAN added capability for long-range strikes against land targets and overall power projection.

Carrier Power Projection

Admiral Zhao is indicating that the PLAN’s future conventional take-off but arrested recovery (CATOBAR) carrier will be armed with a modern and capable air wing, likely anchored around a 5th generation multi-role fighter. A model concept nuclear-powered aircraft carrier revealed in mid-July at a military museum in Beijing suggests this 5th gen fighter will be based on the heavy, long-range Chengdu J-20, but medium weight 5th gen fighters from Shenyang or Chengdu are also possibilities. This model indicated they could be supported by unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) for strike, surveillance or refueling missions, plus dedicated airborne early warning and electronic warfare aircraft. This plus the PLAN’s development of large landing helicopter dock (LHD) amphibious assault ships, the 10,000 ton Type 055 escort cruiser, and the 50,000 ton Type 901 high speed underway replenishment ship indicate that the PLAN is well on its way to assembling U.S. Navy-style global naval power projection capabilities.

In Mid-July a Beijing military museum featured a model of a Chinese concept nuclear powered aircraft carrier, showing an air wing including J-20 stealth fighters, UCAVs, and AWACS. (FYJS)

But Admiral Zhao’s indication that the PLAN will be developing its own “near space” long-range targeting capabilities, in the form of a “stratospheric long-endurance UAV” and a “stratospheric airship” points to the likelihood that the PLAN is already developing synergies between its future ASBMs and its advanced aircraft carriers. This year has already seen suggestions of PLA interest in a future semi-submersible “arsenal ships” perhaps armed with hundreds of missiles.[11] Were the PLAN to successfully combine shipborne long-range ASBM and carrier strike operations, it would be the first to build this combination to implement new strategies for naval dominance.[12]

Arresting the PLAN’s Quest for Dominance

 Admiral Zhao outlines a modernization plan that could enable the PLAN to achieve Asian regional dominance, and with appropriate investments in power projection platforms, be able to dominate other regions. But it remains imperative for Washington to monitor closely if Zhao’s revelations do reflect real ambitions, as a decline in U.S. power emboldens China’s proxies like North Korea and could tempt China to invade Taiwan.

Far from simply building a larger U.S. Navy, there must be increased investments in new platforms and weapons that will allow the U.S. Navy to exceed Admiral Zhao’s outline for a future Chinese Navy. It is imperative for the U.S. to accelerate investments that will beat China’s deployment of energy and hypersonic weapons at sea and lay the foundation for second generations of these weapons. There should be a crash program to implement the U.S. Navy’s dispersed warfighting concept of “Distributed Lethality,” put ASBM and long-range air/missile defenses on carriers, LHDs and LPDs, perhaps even large replenishment ships,[13] and then design new platforms that better incorporate hypersonic and energy weapons. There should also be crash investments in 5++ or 6th generation air dominance for the U.S. Navy and Air Force.

There is also little alternative for the U.S. but to build up its own undersea forces and work with allies to do the same to thwart China’s drive for undersea dominance. If autonomous/artificial intelligence control systems do not enable fully combat capable UUCVs, then perhaps there should be consideration of intermediate numerical enhancements like small “fighter” submarines carried by larger SSNs or new small/less expensive submarines. A capability should be maintained to exploit or disable any Chinese deployment of “Underwater Great Wall” systems in international waters.

It is just as important for the U.S. to work with its Japanese, South Korea, Australian, and Philippine allies. As it requests Tokyo to increase its submarine and 5th generation fighter numbers, Washington should work with Tokyo to secure the Ryukyu Island Chain from Chinese attack. The U.S. should also work with Manila to enable its forces to destroy China’s newly build island bases in the South China Sea. It is just as imperative for the U.S. to work with Taiwan to accelerate its acquisition of missile, submarine, and air systems required to defeat a Chinese invasion. Taiwan should be part of a new informal intelligence/information sharing network with Japan, South Korea, and India to create full, multi-sensor coverage of Chinese territory to allow detection of the earliest signs of Chinese aggression.

Conclusion

Both U.S. and then Chinese sources have tried to downplay the scope of China’s naval ambitions. About 15 years ago the U.S. Department of Defense assessed that China would not build aircraft carriers.[14] Then earlier this year a Chinese military media commentator denied that China will, “build 12 formations of carriers like the U.S.”[15] However, Zhao’s acceleration of China’s transition to a full nuclear submarine fleet, ambitions for new hypersonic and energy weapons, plus continued investments in carrier, amphibious, larger combat support and logistic support ships, point to the potential goal of first seeking Asian regional dominance, and then perhaps dominance in select extra-regional combat zones.

Former Vice Admiral Zhao’s lecture is a very rare revelation, in perhaps unprecedented detail, of a portion of the PLA’s future modernization ambitions. It confirms that many future PLAN modernization ambitions follow those of the U.S. Navy, possibly indicating that China intends to develop a navy with both the global reach and the high-tech weapons and electronics system necessary to compete for dominance with the U.S. Navy.  

Richard D. Fisher, Jr. is a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center.  

References

[1] Poster “052D Hefei ship,” CJDBY Web Page, August 21, 2017, https://lt.cjdby.net/thread-2408457-1-1.html; Poster “Kyushu universal,” FYJS Web Page, August 21, 2017, http://www.fyjs.cn/thread-1879203-1-1.html; and for some slide translations see poster “Cirr,” Pakistan Defense Web Page, August 21, 2017, https://defence.pk/pdf/threads/2014-the-beginning-of-a-new-era-for-plan-build-up.294228/page-114; ; slides briefly analyzed in Richard D. Fisher, “PLAN plans: former admiral details potential modernization efforts of the Chinese Navy,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, September 6, 2017, p.30.

[2] One biography for Zhao was posted on the CJDBY web page, August 21, 2017, https://lt.cjdby.net/thread-2408457-2-1.html

[3] “Deputy Chief Minister of Navy Equipment on the Contrast of Chinese and Russian Ships [我海军装备原部副部长谈中俄舰艇真实对比], Naval and Merchant Ships, September 2013, http://mil.news.sina.com.cn/2013-08-10/1023734607.html

[4] In 20+ years of following People’s Liberation Army modernization, this analyst has not encountered a more detailed revelation of PLA modernization intentions than Admiral Zhao’s lecture slides as revealed on Chinese web pages.

[5] For both points the author thanks Christopher Carlson, retired U.S. Navy analyst, email communication cited with permission, August 24, 2017.

[6] “AMR Naval Directory,” May 1, 2015, http://www.asianmilitaryreview.com/ships-dont-lie/

[7] Carlson, op-cit.

[8] “Sarov,” Military-Today.com, http://www.military-today.com/navy/sarov.htm

[9] For a price comparison between nuclear and AIP propelled submarines, see, “Picard578,” “AIP vs nuclear submarine,” Defense Issues Web Page, March 3, 2013, https://defenseissues.net/2013/03/03/aip-vs-nuclear-submarines/

[10] For more on Underwater Great Wall, see Richard D. Fisher, Jr., “China proposes ‘Underwater Great Wall’ that could erode US, Russian submarine advantages,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, May 17, 2016, http://www.janes.com/article/60388/china-proposes-underwater-great-wall-that-could-erode-us-russian-submarine-advantages

[11] A series of indicators on Chinese web pages was usefully analyzed by Henri Kenhmann, “Has China Revived the Arsenal Ship, but as a semi-submersible?,” EastPendulum Web Page, May 29, 2017, https://www.eastpendulum.com/la-chine-fait-renaitre-arsenal-ship-semi-submersible

[12] While the arsenal ship concept has long been considered on the U.S. side, and was most recently revived by the Huntington Ingles Corporation in the form of a missile armed LPD, the U.S. has yet to decide to develop such a ship. For an early review of the Huntington Ingles concept see, Christopher P. Cavas, “HII Shows Off New BMD Ship Concept At Air-Sea-Space,” Defense News.com, April 8, 2013, http://intercepts.defensenews.com/2013/04/hii-shows-off-new-bmd-ship-concept-at-sea-air-space/

[13] Dave Majumdar, “The U.S. Navy Just Gave Us the Inside Scoop on the “Distributed Lethality” Concept,” The National Interest Web Page, October 16, 2016, http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/the-us-navy-just-gave-us-the-inside-scoop-the-distributed-18185

[14] “While continuing to research and discuss possibilities, China appears to have set aside indefinitely plans to acquire an aircraft carrier.” See, Report to Congress Pursuant to the FY2000 National Defense Authorization Act, ANNUAL REPORT ON THE MILITARY POWER OF THE PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF CHINA. July 28, 2003, p. 25, http://www.defenselink.mil/pubs/20030730chinaex.pdf

[15] Wang Lei, “China will never build 12 aircraft carriers like the US, says expert,” China Global Television Network (CGTN) Web Page, March 3, 2017, https://news.cgtn.com/news/3d557a4e30676a4d/share_p.html

Featured Image: On 23 April in Shanghai, Chinese sailors hail the departure of one of three navy ships that are now in the Philippines, as part of a public relations tour to over 20 countries. (AP)

China’s Synchronization of Party and Military

By Dr. Ching Chang

The Coming Synchronization

As many political observers have already noted, the Nineteenth National Congress of the Communist Party of China is expected to be held in Beijing soon, most likely in the late fall of this year. Generally speaking, this event may lead to a major power reshuffle within the top leadership of the Communist Party of China (CCP). According to the general precedent in Chinese Mainland politics so far, the majority of the members in the Politburo Standing Committee will retire right after this meeting.

Members of the delegations from various provinces, municipalities, and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) commands will elect members and alternate members of the Central Committee as well as members of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. The new members of these two Central Committees form the power basis for the CCP leadership in the future. The First Plenary Session of the Nineteenth National Congress of the Communist Party of China will be held immediately after the CCP Nineteenth National Congress to elect General Secretary, members of Politburo, Politburo Standing Committee, endorse the members of the party Secretariat, and finally decide the members of the Military Commission of the Central Committee.

Per the political and strategic culture known as the principle of “the party commands the gun” established through the Sanwan Reorganization in 1927 and the Gutian Congress in 1929, the Communist Party of China is tightly linked with the military organizations of the People’s Liberation Army. As noted in the General Program of the Party Constitution of the Communist Party of China: “The Communist Party of China persists in its leadership over the People’s Liberation Army and other armed forces of the people, builds up the strength of the People’s Liberation Army, ensures that it accomplishes its historic missions at this new stage in the new century, and gives full play to its role in consolidating national defense, defending the motherland and participating in the socialist modernization drive”, the leadership over the People’s Liberation Army is absolutely non-negotiable to the Communist Party of China.

However, the party and military are interdependent in several aspects, including personnel career management and organizational alignment. Given the recent political reforms and consequences of the administrative power reorganizations in the mainland China, there are three issues concerning the synchronization of party and military that need to be well-managed in the coming CCP Nineteenth National Congress itself or the subsequent First Plenary Session of the Nineteenth National Congress.

Party Post and Military Billet

The party post is a required element for professional career development within the People’s Liberation Army and a prerequisite for further promotion. Any PLA members assigned to key leadership billets should have matching party posts compatible with their decision-making and policy formulation authorities. Those senior leaders with high military ranks who lose their party posts in the next five-year term National Congress of the Communist Party of China are likely to enter retirement in the near future.

On the other hand, under the leadership of Xi Jinping, the prerequisite of appropriate party posts, such as members and alternate members of the Central Committee as well as members of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection for those who want to be promoted to the rank of three-star general or admiral, may be a thing of the past. Since his inauguration as the Chairman of the Central Military Commission, Xi has personally handpicked five senior military members, two on July 31, 2015 and another three on July 28, 2017, to be promoted to the rank of the three-star general officers with no proper party post in the top tier of the Communist Party of China. Among these five senior newly promoted high rank general officers, none of them owns the party post such as members or alternate members of the Central Committee or even members of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. Apparently, there is a certain gap between party post and military billet developing in the top layer of the PLA leadership.

Three-Star PLA General Officers Promoted by Xi With No Proper Party Post

Name Billet as Promotion Promotion Date
宋普選Song, Puxuan Commander, Northern Theater Command July 31, 2015
李作成Li, Zuocheng Commander, Chengdu Military Region

(Now, Chief of Staff, the Joint Staff Department of the Central Military Commission)

July 31, 2015
韓衛國Han, Weiguo Commander, Central Theater Command

(Now, Commander, PLA Ground Force)

July 28, 2017
劉雷Liu, Lei Political Commissar, PLA Ground Force July 28, 2017
于忠福Yu, Zhongfu Political Commissar, PLA Air Force July 28, 2017

There are various interpretations to explain why the mismatch of the party post and military billet may occur in such a high tier of the PLA leadership. Natural attrition together with unexpected disciplinary actions disrupted original leadership echelon arrangements is perhaps the most acceptable explanation to PLA observers. After all, a total of 24 incumbent, former, or alternate members of the Central Committee and members of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection have been disciplined, including one former Politburo Standing Committee member and four present or former Politburo members under Xi’s leadership.

Other interpretations may include that Xi is basically following the tradition to promote those senior officers with party posts unless their specialties are in areas where appropriate military billets cannot be assigned. As no suitable candidate with proper party post may be available, the selection list may naturally extend to those without a party post in the high tier of the Communist Party of China.

General Li Zuocheng, who was newly promoted to Chief of the People Liberation Army’s Joint Staff Department. (Ren Dong/Color China Photo via AP Images)

In any case, the personnel reshuffle is unavoidable in the coming Nineteenth National Congress of the Communist Party of China in order to let the military billets match with party post. Further, certain military elites with strong professional career potential also appeared in the list of members and alternate members of the Central Committee as well as members of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. Most importantly, members given positions on the new list will likely have a better potential for further promotion since they are chosen by Xi and he may stay in power for at least another five years.

Reinstitutionalization of the CMC after Military Reform

The second issue concerning the synchronization of party and military is the possibility of re-institutionalizing of the Central Military Commission after the PLA military reform. Members of the Central Military Commission were not matched with military posts until the Fourth Plenary Session of the Sixteenth National Congress of the Communist Party of China on September 16, 2004, when Jiang Zemin resigned the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission.

As Hu Jintao succeed Jiang to be the new CMC Chairman, several senior members were selected into the Central Military Commission as new members according to their military billets. Members of the Central Military are institutionalized since then by the following order:  Defense Minister, Chief of the General Staff Department, Chief of the General Political Department, Chief of the General Logistics Department, Chief of the General Equipment Department, Commander, Commander of the PLA Navy, Commander of the PLA Air Force, and Commander of the Second Artillery Corps. Apart from the Chairman of the CMC, two senior military professionals will be appointed as the deputy Chairman of the CMC. An extra First Deputy Chairman of the CMC is likely to be appointed for the next generation of leadership. This similar practice was adopted for the cases both for Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping.

President Xi Jinping greets personnel at the Central Military Commission’s Joint Command Headquarters, where he called on the Chinese military to continue improving its capabilities for joint command. (Photo by Zhou Chaorong/China Daily)

So far, this institutionalized Central Military Commission structure was followed in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Military Commission of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. Following selection of the Central of Military Commission membership, the National People’s Congress will elect another set of the members, drawing on the same pool of candidates, to the National Central Military Commission in late March after the National Congress of the Communist Party of China in the previous year. Obviously, there is a gap between the establishment dates of these two Central Military Commissions of the party and the nation separately. Nonetheless, the existing National Military Commission will somehow automatically cease to function in order to assure the synchronization of party and military.

The Central Military Commission is the highest mechanism for determining the military and defense policy proposals prior to submittal to the Politburo for further discussion and review. As we already know, there have been many organizational revisions in the People Liberation Army’s administrative chain of command and operational command and control structure. It is necessary to reorganize the members of the Central Military Commission to reflect the present PLA administrative and command structure. For instance, a new service equivalent organization known as the PLA Strategic Support Force was established in January 2016. The Joint Logistics Support Force directly subordinated to the Central Military Commission is another significant reorganizational arrangement. Four General Departments are reorganized into fifteen functional departments or agencies. Most importantly, there is no representative for the newly formed PLA Ground Force, the army equivalent, as the member of the Central Military Commission so far.

Due to the recent reforms noted above, the current PLA organization structure and the organization of the Central Military Commission are obviously not aligned. These reorganizations likely need to be matched with newly institutionalized Central Military Commission representation structure in order to assure their smooth operation. It is a reasonable prediction that this reorganization of the Central Military Commission will be a priority in the coming First Plenary Session of the Nineteenth National Congress of the Communist Party of China right after the CCP National Congress itself.

Revision of Associated Party Constitution

Last but not the least, the PRC’s National Defense and Military Reform is a part of overall social reform policies as noted by a policy document known as “The Decision on Major Issues Concerning Comprehensively Deepening Reforms” (中共中央關於全面深化改革若干重大問題的決定) that was approved by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party at the Third Plenary Session of the Eighteenth Chinese Communist Party Central Committee on November 12, 2013. It is naturally no surprise that numerous institutions need to be amended and experience organizational reforms in various aspects of Chinese political, legal, and social systems. This is also the case for the PLA organizational reform.

For instance, the previous General Political Department of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army was consolidated into a newly established organization known as the Political Work Department of the Central Military Commission on January 11, 2016. It remains the chief political organ under the Central Military Commission and still leads all political activities in the People’s Liberation Army.

Nonetheless, after this reorganization process, the authorities of this new Department are inconsistent with the Article 23 of the Constitution of the Communist Party of China:

“Party organizations in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army carry on their work in accordance with the instructions of the Central Committee. The political work organ of the Military Commission of the Central Committee is the General Political Department of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army; the General Political Department directs Party and political work in the army. The organizational system and organs of the Party in the armed forces are prescribed by the Military Commission of the Central Committee.”

Although clearly the Political Work Department of the Central Military Commission is intended to succeed the previous General Political Department of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army with all its powers, it is still necessary to revise the bureaucratic language in the Constitution of the Chinese Communist Party to fit with the new military establishment.

Since, per the point four of the Article 19 of the same constitution: “The functions and powers of the National Congress of the Party are as follows: ………4) To revise the Constitution of the Party;” we should expect certain work for revising the Constitution of the Communist Party of China will be taking place in the coming Nineteenth National Congress of the Communist Party of China.

During his inspection of the PLA Hong Kong Garrison Force in this June, Xi Jinping himself called for efforts to build a highly centralized and unified military force, and run the military in accordance with law to forge a strong force with ironclad belief, faith, discipline, and responsibility. We should expect the synchronization of party post and military billet, institutionalization of the CMC after reform, and revision of the Chinese Communist Party Constitution to align with new military structures that will be a part of Xi’s legacies in the coming Nineteenth National Congress of the Communist Party of China and its subsequent First Plenary Session of the Nineteenth National Congress in October 2017.

Dr. Ching Chang was a line officer in the Republic of China Navy for more than thirty years. As a very productive commentator on the Chinese military affairs, he is recognized as a leading expert on the People’s Liberation Army with unique insights on its military thinkings.

Correction: The month which the Nineteenth National Congress will occur is in October, not November.

Featured Image: President Xi Jinping, also general secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and chairman of the Central Military Commission, and other senior leaders Li Keqiang, Zhang Dejiang, Yu Zhengsheng, Liu Yunshan, Wang Qishan and Zhang Gaoli attend a grand gathering in celebration of the 90th founding anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, capital of China, Aug 1, 2017. (Xinhua)