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Commentary: What’s going on with China’s surprise military shake-up?

The disappearance of the ex-commander of China’s Rocket Force and his replacement with a non-artillery officer have not affected the combat readiness of the country’s strategic missile forces, says Dr James Char, a Chinese military expert at NTU’s RSIS.

Commentary: What’s going on with China’s surprise military shake-up?

Chinese President Xi Jinping (centre) poses for photos with the commander of the Rocket Force Wang Houbin (top left) and its political commissar Xu Xisheng (top right) after promoting them to the rank of general on Jul 31, 2023. (Photo: Li Gang/Xinhua via AP)

SINGAPORE: There has been much speculation over the reshuffle of the People's Liberation Army's (PLA) Rocket Force service, which controls China's arsenal of nuclear and conventional missiles.

The announcement at the 96th founding anniversary of the PLA that its strategic missile forces are now helmed by officers outside this highly specialised service confirmed suspicions that the armed wing of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is undergoing another major purge since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012.

Earlier in June, some China watchers had speculated that the previous PLA Rocket Force chief, General Li Yuchao, was already under probe alongside his political commissar, Xu Zhongbo, and the deputy commander, Liu Guangbin.

With official confirmation that Wang Houbin, previously the PLA Navy deputy commander, and Xu Xisheng, a political officer with a background in the PLA Air Force and the Southern Theater Command, now head the Rocket Force, some questions have arisen over the combat readiness of China’s strategic missile forces and nuclear deterrent.

Meanwhile, those who are positing a new anti-corruption campaign within the Rocket Force have also criticised Mr Xi for failing to root out military malfeasance after more than a decade in office - and even made wild conjectures about how the missing generals had dared disobey their commander-in-chief’s wishes to “fight a war.”

While the exact circumstances behind these PLA elites may not be known until official information becomes available, there are a few plausible explanations behind their disappearance. Moreover, current evidence also suggests that the combat effectiveness of China’s rocket force has never been greater.

China's DF-41 nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles are seen during a military parade at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on Oct 1, 2019, to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China. (Photo: AFP/Greg Baker)


Pointing to a recent publication on the PLA Rocket Force order of battle by a research arm of the US Air Force in October 2022, some pundits claim that a family member of general Li allegedly leaked military secrets. In the absence of any detail about the said family member and in view of how Chinese military elites are known for being guarded, such an assertion remains highly improbable.

Verily, the absence from public view of general Li and others coincides with the disappearance of two former deputy Rocket Force commanders. Whereas Zhang Zhenzhong is believed to be under probe, another ex-member, the retired lieutenant general, Wu Guohua, died recently under mysterious circumstances.

As well as announcing Wu’s demise almost a month after his passing, the official narrative that he succumbed to illness was challenged by one authoritative source claiming that he had actually committed suicide.

In an earlier role during the 2000s, Wu Guohua headed the secretive Third Department (3PLA) of the former General Staff Department overseeing the PLA’s technical reconnaissance.

To be sure, Rocket Force generals are not the only ones to have gone AWOL in recent months, and some Chinese media have trained their attention on another former 3PLA leader, the current commander of the PLA Strategic Support Force, General Ju Qiansheng.

As part of Mr Xi’s ambitious military reforms in late-2015 in his capacity as chairman of the Central Military Commission, the 3PLA’s functions were subsumed under the newly established PLA Strategic Support Force, whose remit now includes the integration of the PLA’s cyber, electronic, and psychological warfare capabilities and space operations.

In light of Gen Ju ’s absence from the official reception last month to mark the PLA’s founding, there remains a remote possibility he has been inculpated for the suspected Chinese reconnaissance balloon that flew over the United States earlier this year and momentarily threatened to derail Sino-US relations for good.

One last explanation concerns corruption. When asked on Aug 31 about the leadership shake-up in the Rocket Force, China’s Defence Ministry was cited as saying: "We will investigate every case and crack down on every corrupt official."

As the solicitation for the public’s support by the PLA department responsible for procuring weapons on Jul 26 to uncover violations on corrupt practices dating back to October 2017 has shown, the task of eliminating military malfeasance from the two-million strong PLA is a formidable one - even for someone as powerful as Mr Xi.

Given the networks of graft that had congealed across the echelons under Mr Xi’s predecessors, and despite how more than 50 generals at the deputy corps-level and above have already been removed in the earlier purges, their coterie of followers may well still remain in service.


Given that Mr Xi had presided over the formation of the PLA Rocket Force and Strategic Support Force, the wisdom of his earlier personnel appointments has inevitably come under the spotlight.

The latest decision to parachute in General Wang, a naval officer, to take charge of the country’s strategic missile forces is unprecedented in the Rocket Force’s recent history and has likewise met with derision. Indeed, previous commanders were promoted from within the service.

As it is, the redeployment of officers across the different service branches has been a recurring theme in the PLA.

Famously, the father of the modern Chinese navy, Admiral Liu Huaqing, had in fact been an army officer for much of his career. More recently, the retired commander of the People’s Armed Police, Wang Ning, neither had any prior experience in the paramilitary outfit before his appointment.

To be sure, had generals from the ground forces instead been appointed to lead the Rocket Force, some critics would have seized on that as a sign of the PLA remaining stuck with its traditional “Big Army’ mentality.

It is likely that Wang Houbin and Xu Xisheng do in fact have some familiarity with Rocket Force operations. Since Mr Xi’s major shake-up of the military, Rocket Force assets have become more integrated under the revamped joint Theatre Command system to enable joint operations with their army, navy, and air force counterparts in each respective Theatre Command.

As the biggest winner among the conventional services amid the reforms - both in terms of retaining its control over its operations bases and missile brigades and seeing their numbers expand - the determination shown by Beijing to boost the effectiveness and lethality of the Rocket Force is obvious.

As the trump card in the PLA’s arsenal, the ongoing purges in the Rocket Force are more a symptom of the party army’s internal clean-up, rather than a sign of China’s incumbent leader losing his grip on the military.  

James Char is a Research Fellow with the China Programme at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.

Source: CNA/aj


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