Academic journal article Naval War College Review

WHO'S AT THE HELM?: The Past, Present, and Future Leaders of China's Navy

Academic journal article Naval War College Review

WHO'S AT THE HELM?: The Past, Present, and Future Leaders of China's Navy

Article excerpt

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China's navy is undergoing a leadership transition not seen in a generation. Between late 2014 and the time of this writing (spring 2015), the upper echelons of leadership within the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy, or PLAN) began experiencing substantial change in personnel, with eleven of the fourteen positions on the navy's Party Committee Standing Committee (referred to below as the PLAN Standing Committee)-the navy's highest decisionmaking body-turning over (see table 1).1

Many of these new leaders have been promoted from one of China's three fleets: the North Sea Fleet (NSF), East Sea Fleet (ESF), or South Sea Fleet (SSF). In 2014, for example, Vice Admirals Tian Zhong and Jiang Weilie, former NSF and SSF commanders, respectively, both became PLAN deputy commanders, a position that carries with it a seat on the PLAN Standing Committee.

Tian and Jiang typify the PLAN's Rising Cohort. Born in the mid-1950s, these two officers came of age in a navy that was just beginning to reform. Since then, they have gained direct experience with the navy's new missions, including far-seas operations. They are increasingly at ease conducting international naval diplomacy. Vice Admirals Tian and Zhong have led PLA delegations abroad, Vice Admiral Tian to Russia, North Korea, and South Korea and Vice Admiral Jiang to the United States.2 In 2014, Vice Admiral Jiang served as the PLA's highest-ranking officer in attendance during China's first-ever participation in the U.S.-led Rim of the Pacific naval exercise (RIMPAC 2014).3 Other officers newly promoted to the PLAN Standing Committee have similar experiences and qualities. Vice Admiral Qiu Yanpeng, a former ESF deputy commander, is a model officer for China's far-seas expeditionary navy, having led one of the PLAN's Gulf of Aden escort missions, training missions near the disputed Senkaku (Diaoyu) islands, and multiple exercises with foreign navies.4

More changes are on the horizon. Before the Third Plenum of the Eighteenth Party Congress in October 2012, rumors circulated of PLAN commander Admiral Wu Shengli's retirement.5 Although this did not come to pass, he is already the oldest member of the Central Military Commission (CMC), the highest decision-making body within China's military.6 As a CMC member, Admiral Wu has no known formal retirement date. However, past practice suggests he will step down no later than the Nineteenth Party Congress, scheduled for 2017, when he would be seventy-two.

These changes raise a number of questions for those interested in China's naval modernization. How do China's new navy leaders compare with their fellow senior officers, and how will they affect the PLAN's ongoing modernization efforts? The PLA Navy's transition from a coastal-defense force to a blue-water navy has garnered significant attention in both policy and academic circles.7 However, an examination of the individuals overseeing the PLAN's transition largely has been missing from this discussion. This article seeks to fill that void through an examination of the PLAN's current leadership transition.


To do so, the article examines three groups of officers. The first is the PLA Navy's Old Guard: leaders who joined the PLA in the late 1960s and came of age largely during the Cultural Revolution, one of the most tumultuous and chaotic periods in modern Chinese history. These officers, however, are rapidly retiring, and are being replaced by the second group examined here, the PLAN's Rising Cohort. This cohort consists of officers who joined the PLA largely in the mid-1970s to early 1980s and came of age when the PLA was just beginning to transition from a coastal-defense force to a blue-water navy. Naval officers who have recently transitioned into leadership positions, including those described above, are members of this group. Members of the third group constitute the PLAN's Future Leadership. …

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