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Star roles for “action men” in China’s new military leadership may hint at an increased threat of war with Taiwan, though analysts suggest Xi Jinping’s stated preference for a peaceful takeover of the island should be taken at face value – at least for now.
China announced the lineup of its Central Military Commission (CMC) last weekend, just days after Xi opened the Chinese Communist Party’s National Congress with a speech vowing to bring Taiwan under Beijing’s control. To thunderous applause, the Chinese leader said this could be done peacefully but – reiterating Beijing’s longstanding stance – he refused to rule out the use of force.
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.
The past year has seen China significantly ramp up its intimidation of Taiwan, a democratically governed island of 24 million that the Chinese Communist Party claims as its sovereign territory despite never having controlled it.
Beijing has sent dozens of aircraft and ships near Taiwan and even fired a missile over the island.
Earlier this month, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen said though she was willing to work with China to find “mutually acceptable ways” to maintain peace across the Taiwan Strait, there was “no room for compromise” over the self-ruled island’s sovereignty.
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.
But many experts say that won’t necessarily be the case.
The six-member military commission Xi leads does not look like a “war council,” analysts said, but rather a body set up to continue the methodical modernization of the world’s largest military, which the Chinese leader set as a goal in 2015.
“A hot war in Asia remains unlikely in the foreseeable future,” said James Char, associate research fellow in the China Program at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore.
“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,” Char said.
One of those chief objectives has been to make the PLA a world-class fighting force – essentially the equal of the US military – by 2049. Xi has established waypoints toward that 2049 goal, including by putting an emphasis on joint operations, the ability of all the PLA’s branches to function as one in times of conflict – which would be essential to any invasion of Taiwan.
The ‘action men’
The appointment of Gen. He Weidong, former commander of the PLA’s Eastern Theater Command, as one of two CMC vice chairmen below only Xi in the military leadership shows that commitment to joint operations, analysts said.
Upon taking over the Eastern Theater Command in 2019, He oversaw the integration of PLA operations across the Taiwan Strait.
Earlier this year, the results of those efforts were evident when, shortly after US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, the PLA put on a show of force in a joint operation that included sea, air and missile units while simulating a blockade of the island and sending ballistic missiles over it.
That experience was a new one for the Chinese military’s central decision-making body.
Rod Lee, director of research at the US Air Force Air University’s China Aerospace Studies Institute, said He was the first PLA officer on the Central Military Commission to run a joint command and his experience would be invaluable in any operation involving Taiwan.
Besides bringing together the army, navy, air and rocket forces, He will have learned how to implement a national mobilization plan and integrate auxiliary units like the People’s Armed Police, Lee said.
“All these reforms that Xi Jinping has imposed on the PLA, He Weidong is the first one who has actually had to deal with this at some level in an operational sense,” Lee added.
Besides that joint command experience, He possesses another key attribute sought in top PLA leadership – field experience in hostile situations. He led the PLA’s Western Theater Command army forces during the Doklam border standoff with India in 2017.
Carl Schuster, a former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center, said He was one of Xi’s “action men” on the military commission. Another “action man” was his fellow vice chairman Gen. Zhang Youxia.
Zhang, whose father served alongside Xi’s father in the Chinese civil war, is seen by many as a loyal ally of the Chinese leader. Zhang served on the previous military commission and has been retained and promoted despite being past the unofficial retirement age of 68.
Zhang reflects “two important aspects that Xi seems to value: loyalty and war-fighting experience, being a veteran of the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War,” said Meia Nouwens, senior fellow for China at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Joel Wuthnow, a senior research fellow in the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the US National Defense University, said Zhang brings other key experience: he’s a former director of the commission’s equipment department, overseeing the PLA’s acquisition of advanced technology and hardware.
“This is a clear priority for Xi. The (Party Congress) work report focuses on the need to increase the proportion of ‘intelligentized’ equipment – a category that includes things like unmanned systems, artificial intelligence, and hypersonic missiles,” Wuthnow said. Zhang’s fellow commission member, Gen. Li Shangfu, has also played the acquisition role, Wuthnow noted.
But even with those “action men” and advanced arms acquisition specialists sitting right behind Xi on the commission, analysts do not expect combat across the Taiwan Strait any time soon.
There’s just too much work to be done with Xi’s military modernization to achieve good odds of success, they said.
“The PLA is well aware of its operational shortcomings and knows it does not yet possess the capability to launch an armed invasion of Taiwan in the near to medium term,” said Char, the Singapore researcher, pointing partly to the lack of equipment and personnel trained in amphibious landings.
Lee, the US Air University research director, said the political imperative to invade is not present either.
“There is probably still enough space in the (commission’s) mind – breathing space – where they can work it out towards a peaceful reunification option,” Lee said.
“I don’t think what we currently see is a war council.”