All eyes on the new guard
The Central Military Commission of the People's Liberation Army is due for a large-scale restructuring after the Communist Party's 18th National Congress in autumn next year. Apart from its civilian chairman, Hu Jintao, and vice-chairman Xi Jinping, up to seven of the current 12 members of the top military decision-making body will have reached retirement age by then.
Those scheduled to step down are the vice-chairmen General Guo Boxiong, 69, and General Xu Caihou, 68; Defence Minister General Liang Guanglie, 71, chief of the general staff General Chen Bingde, 70, director of the general political department General Li Jinai, 69, director of the general logistics department Liao Xilong, 71, and commander of the Second Artillery Corps General Jing Zhiyuan, 67.
Next year's reshuffle of the commission, the PLA's most senior organ, is regarded as significant. Its new members are likely to be young enough to serve two terms, or 10 years, until 2022.
It will be no surprise, therefore, if director of the general armaments department General Chang Wanquan, 62, and Air Force commander General Xu Qilang, 61, will not only retain their CMC memberships, but be promoted to vice-chairmen.
Chang is considered a protege of Guo, who was said to be the leader of the so-called 'northwestern army'. Like Guo, Chang served for years in the important Lanzhou military region, which includes the restive Xinjiang autonomous region as well as Gansu and Qinghai provinces, before being transferred to be chief of staff of the Beijing military region in late 2003.
With the help of Guo, who is regarded as a close ally of former president Jiang Zemin, Chang beat former deputy chief of general staff General Ge Zhenfeng in late 2007 to take his post at the commission, a move that will almost certainly ensure that he is its next vice-chairman - and, therefore, the PLA's top military officer - following the party's national congress next year.
The commission has a flexible line-up with up to four military vice-chairmen to strike a representative balance among the different branches of the PLA, which include the army, navy, air force and the Second Artillery Corps (strategic missile forces). Next year, Navy commander Admiral Wu Shengli, 66, who is said to be a protege of Hu's, will probably be promoted to third military vice-chairman and, hence, keep his seat in the top military body for one term of five years.
Among the six incumbent deputy chiefs of general staff, Lieutenant General Wei Fenghe, 57, is widely tipped to be the new commander of the Second Artillery Corps; Admiral Sun Jianguo, 59, the new navy commander and General Ma Xiaotian, 62, the Air Force commander.
Xu Guangyu, a retired PLA major general who works for the government-run China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, said: 'It's a trend for the PLA to depend less on the land forces [army] but embrace more senior-ranking military officers with backgrounds in the navy, air force and strategic missile forces in the CMC.
'This is in line with the new approach of co-operation and more comprehensive decision making between the army and other branches with the aim of winning a regional modern conflict in the future.'
With both the navy and air force boasting two members in the CMC, it is also likely that the Second Artillery Corps will have a second seat in the body other than its potential commander, General Wei.
The political commissar of the Second Artillery Corps, General Zhang Haiyang, the 62-year-old son of former CMC vice-chairman Zhang Zhen, is a likely candidate to succeed the outgoing General Li Jinai and head the general political department.
As a result, top brass with backgrounds in the navy, air force or artillery may account for five to six votes in the newly restructured CMC next year. However, it will be no easy task for Zhang to secure a place in the commission.
His strongest challenger to be director of the general political department is the political commissar of the general logistics department, Liu Yuan, 60, who also boasts a strong political background and good connections in the country's top echelons - he is the son of the respected former president, Liu Shaoqi.
'Liu is well-known for his openness which has earned him a lot of support and admiration over the years,' said Antony Wong Dong, president of the International Military Association in Macau. 'On the other hand, Zhang Haiyang's father, the veteran general Zhang Zhen, is still alive and this will definitely be a huge advantage for his further promotion.'
But, Wong said, it was Liu who seemed to have the upper hand over Zhang to supplant Li next year.
One thing holding back Liu's prospects of promotion to be CMC vice-chairman is the fact that he was a civilian official before joining the People's Armed Police in 1992.
'This is Liu's shortcoming and weak point compared with his rivals, who are regarded as military professionals who earned their promotions step by step up the chain of command,' Wong said.
It seems that deputy chief of general staff Zhang Qinsheng, 63, has little chance of succeeding Xu Caihou as a vice-chairman next year, even though he was once widely tipped for the post.
Instead, Zhang is a front runner to be the next defence minister after Liang, widely regarded as Hu's man and the head of the emerging so-called 'southeastern army', the Nanjing military region, which is involved in preparations for any conflict with Taiwan.
Zhang is one of only a few military commanders broadly familiar with PLA operations and qualified to be the next defence minister. He has worked as deputy to two chiefs of general staff, Liang and Chen, another top leader for many years in Nanjing.
Under Hu's patronage, Zhang commanded the Guangzhou military region in 2007 before returning two years later to his present role in Beijing.
This has given Zhang a comprehensive resume and paved the way for further promotions to either vice-chairman of the commission or as defence minister.
Meanwhile, the two main contenders for the position of chief of general staff are Beijing military region commander General Fang Fenghui, 60, and the commander of the Shenyang military region General Zhang Youxia, 61.
Having served in the Lanzhou military region for more than three decades before his appointment as chief of staff in the Guangzhou military region in late 2003, Fang was seen as another key member of the 'northwestern army' under General Guo.
Fang's achievements in Beijing include commanding the military parade to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic in 2009.
The 'northwestern army' of the PLA will continue to dominate the CMC for at least another decade, provided that Fang lands the position of chief of general staff next year.
Unlike Fang, who was promoted to full general last year, Zhang received the honour only on July 23.
However, Zhang holds several trump cards in his attempt to claim the position. Apart from battlefield experience gained in the Sino-Vietnamese war in the late 1970s, Zhang, as the son of general Zhang Zongxun, is also one of the PLA's military princelings.
Even if Zhang fails to succeed Chen Bingde, he may get to fill the vacancy as director of the general armaments department.
Besides Zhang, commander of the Guangzhou military region Xu Fenlin, 58, and the department's newly appointed deputy director Lieutenant General Zhang Yulin, 53, are also strong contenders to head the general armaments department next year.
Deputy chief of general staff Hou Shusen, 61, who was promoted to the rank of full general on July 23, is familiar with PLA logistics and widely tipped as the strongest contender to succeed Liao and become the army's top logistics officer. Hou was the secretary of former head of the general logistics department Wang Ke.
One likely feature of the new CMC is expected to be the emergence of more 'princelings' - sons of senior officers or officials from the past. Indeed, the next chairman of the CMC is expected to be Xi Jinping, son of former vice-premier Xi Zhongxun.
Other princelings likely to emerge include General Ma Xiaotian, the son of Ma Zaiyao, former provost of the Political Institute of the PLA, and General Zhang Qinsheng, the son of Zhang Zhi, a former prefecture-level official in Shanxi province.
But Antony Wong said it did not matter whether a top military officer was a princeling or not. 'They should be given a level ground for promotion as long as they are qualified in terms of objective technological assessment,' he said.
Below the CMC, the expected rotation of posts among commanders of the seven military regions will be another focal point next year.
Candidates looking to take command posts will have to meet a number of criteria.
Contenders to take control of regional ground forces should be younger than 60 when they take office, and must have leadership experience, up to the level of deputy commander of a military region, for at least a couple of years. They should also have served as chief of staff of a military region and as the top military officer in an army group.
All seven current commanders have been the chief of at least one army group, and six of them have been chief of staff of at least one military region. The connections and ties they have built up during their military service are also crucial in deciding whether officers will be promoted to regional commanders.
Considering all those factors, three chiefs of staff, Major General Wang Ning, 56, Lieutenant General Liu Yuejun, 57, and Lieutenant General Zhao Zongqi, 56, are the front runners for commanders of the military regions they serve: Beijing, Lanzhou and Jinan.
The chief of staff in the Guangzhou military region, Lieutenant General Jia Xiaowei, 58, and the chief of staff in the Shenyang military region, Major General Hou Jizhen, 56, are likely to be promoted to commanders of the Shenyang and Chengdu military regions, respectively. And a deputy commander of the Nanjing military region, Major General Qin Weijiang, the 56-year-old son of former defence minister Qin Jiwei, and assistant chief of general staff Lieutenant General Qi Jianguo, 59, will head Nanjing and Guangzhou Military Regions, respectively.
However, the deputy commander of the Chengdu military region, Lieutenant General Li Zuocheng, 58, and Lieutenant General Wang Jiaocheng, 59, a deputy commander of the Nanjing military region, are also competent challengers for the seven regional jobs.