President Xi Jinping sends a clear signal to Taiwan about the renewed focus of the People’s Liberation Army on the island nation for the coming five years by changing the top military guard of the eastern theatre.
The new military leadership has a clear Taiwan focus. General He Weidong, a former head of the Eastern Theatre Command, is the new second-ranked vice-chairman of the Chinese Military Commission. Another ageing general and military strategist, General Zhang Youxia returns as first-ranked vice-chairman of the commission. Both have a “wealth of command experience in China’s eastern military districts”, according to media analysts.
General He Weidong spent his formative years in the 31st Group Army based in Fujian before shifting to Jiangsu province as its military commander. It is part of the Nanjing military region that oversees the country’s eastern theatre. He was made a lieutenant general in 2017 and promoted to full general two years later and made commander of the Eastern Theatre Command.
The command “has an area of responsibility that covers Taiwan and the East China Sea”. Before becoming the CMC’s vice-chairman, he had joined the CMC’s Joint Command Centre – the top command and control organ of the Chinese armed forces.
Explaining how the general came to Xi’s attention, the Post says: “He had reportedly planned the military exercises Beijing staged around Taiwan in response to the visit to the island in August by Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the US House of Representatives. Song Zhongping, a military commentator based in Hong Kong, said the promotion of He, with his strong background in Fujian, showed the PLA was ‘strengthening combat preparations for military struggles against Taiwan’.
General Zhang Youxia’s promotion came as a surprise as it “against unwritten party norms that previously required Central Committee members to retire before they turned 68”.
General Zhang is a key member of Xi’s military strategists. He was “instrumental to Xi’s military reforms, launched in 2015 with the aim of improving the PLA’s combat-readiness by reforming its Soviet-inspired command structure, due to his close ties with military leaders and clout”. Between 2012-2017, coinciding with Xi’s first term in power, General Zhang “oversaw the PLA’s armaments and equipment and space exploration programmes”.
There is another significant factor. As the Post reports; “Zhang’s father, Zhang Zongxun, fought against Nationalist forces in the Chinese civil war as a commander of a group army in China’s northwest when Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, was the group army’s political commissar.” This is interpreted as Xi’s need to have someone he can trust to take charge of the PLA and train the next generation of officers.
According to media reports, Admiral Miao Hua, 66, who was political director of the 31st Group Army in 1999, is another member of the CMC with a strong Taiwan-related background. Miao, who heads the CMC’s political work, “served as political commissar of the PLA Navy from December 2014 to September 2017, and was political commissar of the Lanzhou military region in 2014”.
The 2022-2027 period is dedicated to modernisation of the PLA and revamping of China’s military doctrines, upgradation of technology and the use of AI and space technology for civil-military ends.
Taiwan remains the first priority of the army. The installation of the two experienced generals indicates the President’s wish to spell out credible military options for the PLA in a Taiwan contingency.
Echoing the views, the South China Morning Post says: “US Navy Admiral Michcael Gilday said last week that a mainland Chinese invasion of Taiwan could take place as soon as this year.”
Referring to the changes in the eastern theatre, the Post writes: “Liang Guoliang, a Hong Kong-based military commentator, said Zhang Youxia would help General Liu Zhenli, a war hero from a new generation, grow into his new CMC role. ‘Zhang has the experience and Liu has the battle record’.”
Liu and General Li Shangfu joined the CMC, where they will serve alongside Miao and another incumbent, General Zhang Shengmin, the chief of military discipline. Zhang Shengmin is likely to continue overseeing military discipline because he was the only CMC member announced on Saturday as one of the deputy secretaries of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the party’s top anti-corruption watchdog.
The Americans are showing keen interest in the reshuffling of the CMC. The CNN reports: “The new leadership of the military commission – the top authority in charge of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) – includes a number of officers seen as “action men” for their expertise in areas that would be key to any invasion. And that’s fueled concerns that such a move could be imminent.”
According to the western analysts, the reshuffle is in keeping with the growing Chinese rhetoric against Taiwan in the last one year. Beijing has sent dozens of aircraft and ships near Taiwan and even fired a missile over the island.
Taiwan continues to counter rhetoric. President Tsai Ing-Wen says she is willing to cooperate with China for “mutually acceptable ways” to maintain peace across the Taiwan Strait but asserts that there is “no room for compromise over the self-ruled island’s sovereignty”.
The west feels the rhetoric from both sides and Beijing’s recent maneuvers have stoked fears that an attempted Chinese military takeover of Taiwan could be next on the horizon.
However, analysts CNN has contacted think that is not necessarily the case. James Char, associate research fellow in the China Program at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore, tells CNN: “The PLA will continue to try to achieve China’s national objectives by operating at the level below the threshold of war in the near to medium term.”