When an admiral gets to helm China’s PLA - Hindustan Times
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When an admiral gets to helm China’s PLA

Feb 05, 2024 10:10 PM IST

The choice of a defence minister from the Chinese navy is also an attempt to avoid further embarrassment for China, domestically as well as externally.

As 2023 wound to a close, China announced a new defence minister in place of General Li Shangfu, who had been removed from the post several months earlier. On December 29, Admiral Dong Jun, who had just stepped down as the head of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) was announced as Li’s replacement.

China's new defence minister Dong Jun (Chinese media) PREMIUM
China's new defence minister Dong Jun (Chinese media)

Contrary to general perception, the appointment of a former navy chief to the post of defence minister in China is not primarily about higher priority being accorded to the PLAN in Beijing’s scheme for the military. This view misunderstands both the timeline of China’s naval expansion and the role of the Chinese defence minister.

China’s turn toward naval expansion and assertiveness is not new. Its most prominent features are already familiar — China’s illegal occupation and reclamation of features in the South China Sea, its opening of a military base in Djibouti, its rapid launch of several aircraft carriers, and PLAN activities around Taiwan. From an Indian perspective, there are also the PLAN’s anti-piracy operations in the western Indian Ocean and submarine visits to Karachi and Colombo in the past few years. Today, the Chinese navy is the largest in the world, larger in number of ships than even the world’s most powerful one, the United States (US) navy.

China’s intent has been available in the open domain for decades — in various reports and statements by Chinese leaders and white papers on defence. One could argue that the definitive signal — if China’s actions until then were not enough — came in its 2015 defence white paper, which specifically talked about “maritime military struggle and maritime preparation for military struggle”.

Meanwhile, the defence minister in China is not even the country’s top defence official but a position designed to deal with the outside world. This contrasts with India where the raksha mantri is a senior politician and part of the Cabinet Committee on Security. Or the US, where the disappearance of the current secretary of defence, General Lloyd Austin, from public view for medical reasons without keeping the White House informed led to calls for his dismissal.

The PLA is the military arm of the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC) and its first job is to defend the regime, not the Chinese State or people. In the Central Military Commission, the defence minister is usually ranked fourth behind CPC general secretary Xi Jinping, who serves as its chairman and two other military generals who serve as the Commission’s vice-chairmen.

That said, there are aspects of Dong’s appointment that are significant.

One, by virtue of a career in the navy, Dong is already well-attuned to diplomacy, far more so than his colleagues in the PLA army, the dominant arm of the PLA. And it is a time when China could use better external communications. Following Xi’s meeting with President Joe Biden in San Francisco last November, military dialogue and exchanges can be expected to scale up. The primary intent of these dialogues is to prevent incidents at sea and elsewhere from escalating into a crisis. But for the Chinese, there is also the added objective of being seen and accepted as a peer to the US.

Two, these ambitions also require the defence minister to hold his own against the Americans. Dong’s career path is important here. He has held appointments as deputy commander of the East Sea fleet and deputy commander of the Southern Theater Command, where he would have been involved in planning actions involving Taiwan and the South China Sea that have led to the current tensions with the US.

Further, Dong has been involved for over a decade in Sino-Russian naval exercises and other high-level exchanges, helping support a particularly important prong of Chinese foreign policy. The relationship with Russia is one the Chinese see as crucial to counter American global influence and power.

Elsewhere, Dong has also led the Sino-Pakistan joint naval exercise, Sea Guardians 2020, which forms another part of Chinese efforts against American dominance in its neighbourhood and also targets India, a perceived US ally. Given all of this, and especially his experience in joint operations, Dong’s rise reflects Xi’s preference for promoting quickly those who meet his criteria of keeping the PLA combat-ready. However, given the scale of China’s military — including naval — expansion since the beginning of this century, there are several officers in the senior leadership with such experience.

Three, Dong’s appointment must also be understood from the perspective of Chinese domestic politics. Dong had served as PLAN commander for two years out of what is normally a five-year tenure. This is the first unusual feature of his latest appointment. The other is that he resigned from the post and attended the swearing-in of his successor, Hu Zhongming, in December suggesting that he was clear of controversies or charges of corruption that surrounded the previous defence minister, General Li.

Xi’s choice of someone from the PLAN probably has much to do with the fact that after a decade of the anti-corruption campaign, it remains difficult for him to find someone completely above board in the branches of the PLA such as the army or the Rocket Force. The head of the PLA Rocket Force, dismissed last year with several other officers, was also replaced by an admiral from the PLAN.

The choice of a defence minister from the Chinese navy is, therefore, also an attempt to avoid further embarrassment for China, domestically as well as externally.

Jabin T Jacob is director and Devendra Kumar is associate fellow at the Centre of Excellence for Himalayan Studies, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Shiv Nadar Institution of Eminence, Delhi-NCR. The views expressed are personal

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