New military leadership appointments show China is bracing itself for conflict

The People's Liberation Army take part in an assault wave formation training exercise in Zhangzhou on Aug 14, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING – In the clearest sign yet that China is bracing itself for a possible showdown with the United States over Taiwan, an overage People’s Liberation Army (PLA) general with combat experience was re-elected as vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) on Sunday.

President Xi Jinping bent the unwritten “seven up, eight down” rule for General Zhang Youxia, 72, a veteran of the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War and one of a handful of PLA generals with combat experience.

Gen Zhang, previously the CMC’s second-ranked vice-chairman, was elected first vice-chairman of the commission and retained his seat in the 24-member Politburo following a meeting of the Communist Party elite on Sunday.

The party’s unofficial norm dictates that those aged over 68 are not eligible to stay on in or be further promoted to the Politburo at the start of a new term.

His election at the first plenum, a meeting of the party’s Central Committee that kicks off a new five-year term the day after the end of a party congress, confirms previous predictions by The Straits Times.

The CMC is China’s military high command, in charge of over two million active personnel in the PLA. It is chaired by Mr Xi and supported by two vice-chairmen and four members.

Like Mr Xi, Gen Zhang is a native of Shaanxi province and a “princeling” – the offspring of China’s political elite. Their fathers were known to be close friends.

Gen Zhang is the oldest in the new 205-member Central Committee, from which members of the Politburo Standing Committee – the pinnacle of power in China – and the wider Politburo are drawn.

The new second-ranked vice-chair of the CMC is General He Weidong, 65, who was also elected to the Politburo.

He served as commander of the PLA’s Eastern Theatre Command (ETC) from 2019 to January 2022, overseeing forces from the PLA’s various branches in charge of the 180km Taiwan Strait separating Taiwan and the Chinese mainland.

Dr James Char, an associate research fellow at the China Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said Gen He’s promotion will boost the PLA’s “operational readiness for a contingency in the Taiwan Strait”. He pointed out that the PLA’s key strategic focus is Taiwan, which the ETC is largely responsible for.

Another notable addition to the CMC is PLA Army commander, General Liu Zhenli, 58, who – like Gen Zhang – has actual combat experience.

“Like Zhang Youxia, Liu Zhenli stands out for having hard operational experience in the Sino-Vietnam conflict. He also has experience, first as chief of staff and then commander of the PLAA, as well as chief of staff of the People’s Armed Police,” said Dr Char.

The last new addition to the CMC is General Li Shangfu, 64, who served under Gen Zhang during the latter’s previous commands, and was likely handpicked by the CMC vice-chairman.

“As a veteran in the conduct of high-tech military operations and having been deputy commander of the PLA Strategic Support Force, his promotion is in line with the PLA’s stated goal to enhance its informationised warfare capacity, and to help the PLA progress to intelligentised warfare,” said Dr Char.

The two remaining CMC members – Navy Admiral Miao Hua, 67, and General Zhang Shengmin, 64 – were re-elected, but are believed to have not been further promoted as they are political commissars and not operational experts.

Adm Miao is director of the Political Work Department, CMC’s political organ, while Gen Zhang is the military’s top anti-corruption official.

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